Defensive lapses again cost Crewe Alexandra dearly in South Yorkshire and Sheffield United’s new manager Nigel Clough wouldn’t have quite believed his luck when the Crewe defence allowed his towering centre-half Harry Maguire two free headers to put the Blades two ahead before the half-an-hour mark.
It once again gave Crewe an enormous mountain to climb at Bramall Lane and when winger Ryan Flynn made it 3-0 with a driven shot early into the second half, it was virtually over as a contest.
With the pressure off, Crewe did rally though and after substitute Chuks Aneke had struck the woodwork from a corner, another Alex substitute Max Clayton did give us a slight lifeline with 13 minutes remaining with a tidy finish.
Despite enjoying good possession in the final quarter of the game, Crewe just couldn’t find that second goal that would have increased the anxiety around Bramall Lane.
Steve Davis reshuffled his pack for the trip to Bramall Lane by making four changes to his side that lost 3-0 to Stevenage on Tuesday night. The Alex boss was able to welcome back Brad Inman and Oliver Turton from illness and recalled centre-half George Ray and Vadaine Oliver to his starting line-up. Out went Mark Ellis and Chuks Aneke, Lee Molyneux and youngster Liam Nolan.
In the home dugout was the recently appointed Nigel Clough taking charge of his first Sheffield United match following his surprise sacking from Derby County earlier in the campaign. Clough selected the former Crewe Alexandra Academy graduate Shaun Miller on the substitutes’ bench.
Crewe Alexandra made a promising start to the proceeding at an atmospheric Bramall Lane with Anthony Grant placing an early header wide of George Long’s post.
The Railwaymen could have taken an early lead on 11 minutes. Some fine persistence from Inman when chasing a long ball into the corner won a free-kick in a good position via the overzealous Tony McMahon. Byron Moore produced a superb delivery to find his captain Abdul Osman virtually unmarked inside the penalty area, but his firm header was acrobatically pushed over by Long.
Almost from an identical position at the other end of the field, the home side were gifted the lead on 18 minutes. Kelvin Mellor clattered into the Blades’ winger Stephen McGinn to concede the free-kick close to the by-line. McGinn’s resultant cross found an unmarked Harry Maguire and he had time to adjust his body accordingly to stoop slightly and head past a helpless Phillips. The marking was poor.
The Alex goalkeeper was then called into action to palm away a powerful shot from the lively Lyle Taylor after winger Ryan Flynn had done exceptionally well to cut the ball back to him from the by-line.
On 29 minutes, the Blades scored a far too straightforward second goal. Disappointingly, it was almost carbon copy of the first, with Crewe again not tight enough from a set-play. This time it stemmed from a McGinn corner and the towering Maguire powered in to head home at the far post. It was far too easy.
After shipping two simple goals, the Alex had again given themselves an almighty mountain to overcome. Oliver tried to win his flick-ons and George Ray did so from a Mellor throw-in but he couldn’t direct his near post header on target. Tootle always tried his luck from distance but it wasn’t troubling Long. After that early chance for Osman, our genuine opportunities on goal were limited in the first period.
Early in the second half, Adam Dugdale had to emerge from the back four to make a necessary block on a shot from Neill Collins after the Sheffield United had swarmed our midfield and stolen possession.
Crewe carved opened their best chance of the match just six minutes into the second half. A patient build-up involving Tootle and Turton allowed Oliver to make progress in the left channel. The forward did well to retain possession and then clip a pass into Inman and his instant cross was perfect for the incoming Moore but he placed his shot over the crossbar. It was the chance we needed to give ourselves a lifeline back into the contest.
Two minutes later and it was game over. Flynn raced in behind Mellor and after calmly cutting back he drilled a low past Phillips at his near post. Flynn showed great pace and awareness but it was another avoidable goal from a Crewe perspective.
Following the goal, midfielder Oliver Turton was unable to continue after aggravating his thigh and he was replaced by Aneke. Crewe got a little lucky when a long throw found Taylor with just Dugdale to get past but the Crewe centre-half did well and put him off his stride and his shot was wayward.
In response, a good passing move from the Railwaymen saw us keep the ball patiently and wait for a suitable opening. Aneke flicked the ball over to Tootle and his lifted lob back across goal found Aneke again but his shot was blocked. At the other end, Phillips had to act quickly to get across and stop a far post shot from Marlon King.
With just over 20 minutes remaining, Miller made his appearance against his former club. The Alsager-born striker replaced King.
Collins had a stab towards the Crewe goal following a free-kick but it was an easy pick up for Phillips before Inman was cautioned for sliding towards the Sheffield United defender. Inman didn’t make contact with the player and it was a little harsh.
Miller tried to register a goal against his former club but he didn’t quite get enough behind it to test Phillips before Max Clayton was introduced for the booked Inman.
From a Moore corner, Aneke went close with a superb volley that thumped the woodwork before going over. The on-loan Arsenal youngster certainly introduced some quality in the final third of the pitch.
With 13 minutes remaining, Aneke showed his class again to release Clayton through the middle and the teenager calmly slotted home his second goal of the season. Hopefully, if there is a positive to come from the game, is that Clayton was back amongst the goals again.
The goal certainly extended some anxiety onto the Bramall Lane terraces and when a free-kick wouldn’t quite fall for Dugdale and then Aneke, you could sense the edginess creeping back in. Crewe were pressing with Clough’s United comfortable to play on the counterattack. The Alex needed another goal but the Blades were defending their box well.
Grant tried his luck with a 25 yard effort that swerved a little before being collected by Long. The hard working Taylor was replaced by the on-loan Liverpool youngster Conor Coady, as the home side went to shut up shop.
Crewe had a late free-kick on the edge of the Sheffield penalty area following a trip on Grant but Aneke drilled his shot into the wall and any hopes of a real grandstand finish were ended.