Crewe Alexandra collected their seventh point of the festive period after picking up a hard fought point against promotion candidates Preston North End on the final outing of 2014.
After a rather tight first half, the contest burst into life with the introduction of second half substitutes. Firstly, George Cooper fired Crewe into the lead with just nine minutes remaining after he had played a neat one-two with Nicky Ajose before driving a shot beyond Preston goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann for this third goal of the season.
It took Simon Grayson’s side just two minutes to hit back and from a Crewe point of view it was a poor goal to concede, with Kevin Davies flicking a long clearance into another of the introduced substitutes Jermaine Beckford and after taking a tough to take him past Harry Davis, he drilled his shot past a helpless Ben Garratt.
Overall a draw was probably fair with genuine chances few and far between. The on-loan Beckford had two really good chances to put the visitors ahead but saw one saved by Garratt and he somehow screwed another wide from close range.
The game burst into life in the closing stages and Crewe worked really to make sure we acquired something against one of League One’s in-form sides.
With George Ray serving a two-match suspension following his red card on Boxing Day at Oldham Athletic, Steve Davis named the on-loan Anthony Stewart for his full debut. The on-loan Wycombe Wanderers defender made his debut at Boundary Park following the dismissal of Ray with Davis forced into a defensive reshuffle and with Adam Dugdale still ruled out with a knee injury, the boss had to rely on the 22-year-old.
There was also a recall for Canadian striker Marcus Haber in place of Uche Ikpeazu. The on-loan Watford striker was named on the substitutes’ bench as the Alex boss looked to freshen up his attack.
The Railwaymen certainly made a brighter start to that at Oldham but early chances were extremely limited. That was generally the case for both sides and that became the story of a tight and tactical first half.
Crewe had their fair share of their possession but were just lacking that quality final ball or cross into the front two. Haber’s hold up play was decent enough and Ajose had to drop deeper to get on the ball more.
An early pass from Jamie Ness just failed to find a run of Ajose’s and following a burst from the on-loan midfielder from Stoke City, the ball just ran through to the Preston goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann.
Paul Gallagher had to be the right place to clear a dangerous looking cross from Ajose away from danger before he was up the other end thumping a shot against Stewart. The full debutant defender Stewart was confidently passing the ball out and was aggressive up against the experienced Kevin Davies. He was caught out once close to the touchline by the powerful Davies but James Baillie covered him superbly to shepherd the ball behind for a goal kick as Andy Little tried to take advantage of Davies’ pass.
Full-back Scott Laird shot tamely at Garratt from distance before Preston created the best opportunity of the first period after 35 minutes. Davies produced a deft flick to find Little and he instantly found Paul Gallagher in space towards the edge of the penalty area. Gallagher didn’t connect with his curling shot as well as he would have like and it was far too close to Garratt, who collected it with relative ease. You would have fancied Gallagher to at least make the Crewe goalkeeper work hard from that position.
Kevin Davies headed wide of the mark after stealing half a yard on Davis before the Crewe captain made a decisive block on a shot from Browne.
A late surge from Turton saw him latch onto a pass from Guthrie and he found Ajose on the turn but the striker on this occasion couldn’t keep his shot down to test Stuckmann.
The second half continued in the same fashion. It was defences on top and it developed into a real midfield battle. Preston’s Tom Clarke was impressive up against Haber and Crewe began to find it difficult to make inroads into the Preston half of the pitch.
Three individual mistakes presented Preston with a succession of chances. On 57 minutes, a poor clearance from Grant on the edge of the box only found John Welsh and his well struck shot was fortunately straight at Garratt. Grant knew and held his hand up.
Two minutes later, the Alex goalkeeper was quickly off his line to deny Little after he had stole in behind Guthrie. It would prove to be Little’s last contribution as he was replaced by Chris Humphrey.
Turton then surrendered possession 25 yard from the Crewe goal but Laird could only shoot a yard wide of the target.
That was enough for Steve Davis, who quickly replaced Haber for Ikpeazu on 61 minutes. Almost immediately, Stewart tried to make the most of a dangerous looking free kick delivery from Ness before at the other end, a combination of Leigh and Grant cleared the danger as Gallagher placed a free-kick in our six yard box.
Beckford came on for Gallagher and that change only demonstrated the strength of Preston’s squad. Turton also made way for young Cooper as Crewe tried to get on the front foot more.
On 70 minutes, Beckford latched onto a flick on from Davies but fired straight at Garratt. It would be a carbon copy of the Preston goal and the warning sign was there. Just two minutes later, Beckford should have given Preston the lead from close range but he side-footed his shot a yard wide after his movement got him ahead of the Crewe back line. It was a let off and the miss sparked the game into life.
A flowing move from Crewe involving Baillie and Ajose found Ikpeazu but on this occasion his final touch into the box was a little heavy to take him through and under control of the football. Moments later, Davis clipped a ball out of defence into Ikpeazu and after he had held up play intelligently, his excellent through pass nearly found the run of Ajose. To his great credit Stuckmann had read the situation well to rush out and smother the chance.
The break through finally came on 81 minutes and it was a well worked goal to open up a stringent Preston defence, who don’t concede many. Baillie found Cooper in space and he fed Ajose in the right channel. He waited patiently for the opening before returning the pass to the youngster, who took a touch before firing past Stuckmann from the edge of the box. It was a similar finish to the goal he scored away at Crawley.
Crewe had the initiative and something to really hold on to but unfortunately the lead lasted only two minutes. It was too straight forward with Davies winning a flick on from a clearance and Beckford stealing in behind Davis to score. He got a touch on the ball to take him past Davis and this time he couldn’t miss, giving Garratt absolutely no chance.
It was shame that Crewe couldn’t hold onto the lead for longer and then it was back against the walls stuff for the Alex. Preston loaded our penalty area with Stewart and Davis called upon on numerous occasions to clear high balls and apply blocks.
A late run from Cooper and then Ajose promised much on the counter-attack but they were both crowded out as they approached the Preston box.
In the final minute Stewart made a superb recovery tackle to prevent the pacy Beckford from racing clean through and Davis made a late block on Beckford to stop him from snatching a late winner, as Crewe held out for a very valuable point.