Crewe Alexandra suffered only their second defeat in 12 games in all competitions as Northampton Town clinically took their chances at their Sixfields home to inflict a 4-1 defeat.
Crewe certainly didn’t produce their best performance defensively, but in truth the scoreline flattered Keith Curle’s side somewhat. Crewe had a number of good chances to have gone ahead in the opening period before Scott Wharton’s close range opener following an untidy scramble inside our box.
Wharton then made it 2-0 on 18 minutes after racing in at the far post from a free-kick, but Crewe were angered by the referee for not permitting Nicky Hunt to regain his place in the defensive line.
Hunt then conceded a soft penalty for the third before Chris Porter netted from close range on 38 minutes to give us a lifeline going into the half-time break. It could well have been even better for the Alex as well after Charlie Kirk had struck a post on the brink of the interval.
The next goal was always going to be vital and Northampton duly scored it on 56 minutes when Andy Williams lobbed Will Jaaskelainen with a finely executed finish after racing onto a flick from Vadaine Oliver.
Crewe kept going though and Porter, Lowery and substitute Chuma Anene all had chances to get us back into the game only to be denied by David Cornell and Anene headed agonizingly wide from a corner. It was one of those afternoon’s for the Alex where goals and missed opportunities really did change the complexion of the game.
Manager David Artell named an unchanged side for the trip to Northampton Town but the squad was boosted with the return of forward Daniel Powell and defender Eddie Nolan.
Recent signing Christian Mbulu retained his place again after playing the last two games against Everton Under-21s and Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup.
The former Crewe forward Vadaine Oliver led the line for Northampton with our former Academy graduate Billy Waters starting on the bench for Keith Curle’s men.
Crewe’s first real venture forward saw Owen Dale and Tom Lowery combine down the right hand and the midfielder’s clipped cross just wasn’t quite high enough to miss out the first defender to find the head of Chris Porter.
From the left hand side, Charlie Kirk and Paul Green then linked up to give Green the opportunity to register the first shot on target from the edge of the Northampton box. The home goalkeeper, David Cornell, was forced to push his well struck effort away from danger.
It was a really fast and promising start from the Railwaymen and from a Lowery free-kick close to the by-line his accurate delivery found Hunt well positioned at the far post. His controlled side foot back across the six-yard box was dangerous but Cornell reacted well to pounce on it close to his line.
Crewe dominated much of the ball in the opening 10 minutes but remarkably found ourselves behind after Northampton’s first real set-piece. They loaded the penalty area and after the high ball went in and a scramble ensued, Jaaskelainen made a good save to deny the first effort but the rebound fell invitingly to defender Scott Wharton and he tucked home into an unguarded net. Northampton forced the ball home to take the early lead.
Five minutes later, the Railwaymen nearly conjured up the perfect response and should have equalised. Lowery did brilliantly to reach the by-line and cut it back for the well placed Kirk, but the in-form forward uncharacteristically side footed wide of the left hand post.
Crewe were pressing, almost at will, to try and equalise as quickly as possible. A burst of pace from Dale left the Northampton defence trailing again and his cut back found Porter. The experienced forward took a touch before laying off to Lowery in a good shooting position but he couldn’t keep his shot down.
To their credit, Northampton were clinical with the chances they had and they doubled their advantage on 18 minutes following a free-kick routine. Nicky Adams swung the ball over from the left and Wharton raced in unopposed to volley into the opposite corner for his second goal of the afternoon.
The referee, who appeared to have spoken to the Crewe defender allowed the kick to be taken before the defender could re-place himself. The Alex players were clearly incensed because Hunt had clearly not been able to retake his position in the defensive line.
It was clearly turning into one of those afternoons for the Alex and on 22 minutes an untidy trip by Hunt on Paul Anderson gave Northampton a penalty.
Jaaskelainen got a piece of his glove on it but Hoskins’ drive had too much power and made the corner for 3-0. Crewe, who have impressively rescued 17 points from losing positions this season, faced one almighty mountain to conquer this afternoon.
A shell-shocked Crewe tried to respond and Porter went close from another Crewe corner coming in from the right hand side. Dale then had a shot from a tight angle deflected behind for a corner. There were still chances there for the Alex but we had to miss out Northampton’s centre-halves in the air if we were going to get any joy with crosses.
Kirk tried to make amends for his earlier miss by unleashing a shot had to be pushed away by Cornell. From the Lowery corner, Crewe finally got the goal they had threatened for much of the afternoon. The Alex kept the pressure on after the initial delivery was cleared to the edge of the box and following a close range stop from the Northampton goalkeeper, Chris Porter was there to net from close range and register his 10th goal of the season. With 38 minutes gone, Crewe had a lifeline back into the contest.
Northampton looked a threat from crosses though and moments after our goal, Jaaskelainen produced a fantastic save to keep out a header from Nicky Adams. Oliver also flashed a shot wide of the mark from a grounded position. It was an inventive effort from the former Crewe man.
Crewe pressed looking to get that second goal before the half time interval and Dale placed a header from a Kirk cross a yard wide of the far post. Another late chance almost produced it too with Porter winning his aerial dual and find Kirk, who took a deft touch before cracking the post with a half volley.
The next goal was always going to be crucial in what was a fairly open affair.
Dale won another corner within seconds of the restart but after Green had flown in to flick on, it was whacked clear by Turnbull. When the ball was returned there was an almighty aerial duel that saw three players grounded including Mbulu for us. They were all fit enough to continue following a pause for treatment.
The game continued to be littered with petty and soft fouls and that prevented either team from building any real momentum in the early passages of the second half. It certainly suited Northampton more to break the play up.
Northampton scored the all-important next goal on 56 minutes and it was so straight forward. Mbula tussled with Vadaine Oliver in the air and as Jaaskelainen threatened to leave his line but chose not to fully commit, Andy Williams lifted his shot quite superbly over the advanced Crewe goalkeeper for 4-1. It was the killer moment.
On the hour mark, Powell made his return to first-team action in place of Dale. Powell returned against his former club with Crewe desperately needing a spark to get back into the game. A second change saw Kirk replaced by Ainley.
On 67 minutes, Cornell produced a stunning save to push away a header from Porter after Pickering had picked him out. It was a fine save to keep the Alex at bay. Lowery also shot straight at the Northampton goalkeeper. Mbulu did likewise after a corner dropped to his feet on the edge of the box.
Artell’s final change saw Chuma Anene introduced for Green as we really went for it in the final 15 minutes. It was go for broke. Ainley felt he should have a penalty after he had been caught by Cornell but the referee waved away our appeals.
Mbulu was booked for a block on Anderson close to the halfway line but he instantly made a telling interception inside the six-yard box to prevent an easy tap in.
From another corner, won by Powell, Anene must have thought he had scored when he got his head onto Pickering’s delivery but somehow it flashed wide. Captain Perry Ng, twisted and turned late one before driving just wide.
Anene had to make his way off in stoppage time after a nasty clash of heads.
Still those petty free-kicks and re-takes continued from a really fussy referee and with the minutes ticking away, the Railwaymen just wanted to put this one down to a bad day at the office and move on quickly.