Crewe Alexandra ended a 12-year wait for a victory on Boxing Day thanks to a brace from Nicky Ajose.
The on-loan Leeds man thumped home a penalty just minutes after George Ray had seen red for the second time this season for a professional foul on Jonathan Forte.
Oldham hit back through their captain George Elokobi as he showed a real determination to reach a corner first but the clinical Ajose had a moment of magic up his sleeve to win the game with five minutes of normal time remaining. Ajose raced onto a long ball from Baillie to collect possession, look up and brilliantly chip Paul Rachubka from 30 yards. It was a wonderful, wonderful finish to win the game.
With Alan Tate’s loan deal from Swansea City expiring on Christmas Eve and Adam Dugdale still struggling with his knee injury there was a gap in defence for the Boxing Day trip to Oldham. Jon Guthrie was given the nod to regain his place in the back three alongside Captain Harry Davis and George Ray.
Club captain Matt Tootle was named on the substitutes’ bench for the first time since October. A combination of illness and injury had kept out the versatile defender. Youngster James Baillie kept his place at right wing-back.
There was also a first appearance on the substitutes’ bench for the on loan defender Anthony Stewart. Forward Callum Saunders missed out on a place in the travelling squad after suffering a facial injury against Barnsley Under-21s on Monday.
The home side conjured up the first attempt at goal after barely 60 seconds. With Crewe only clearing to the edge of the box, the ball fell invitingly to midfielder Mike Jones and his instant shot was deflected behind by the diving Anthony Grant. Ben Garratt grasped the dipping corner from underneath his own crossbar. It would set the tone for the opening 20 minutes.
Oldham certainly made the brighter start to the proceedings, forcing a succession of corners that George Ray and Harry Davis continued to get clear with their heads.
Crewe continued to struggle to make inroads into the Oldham half of the pitch. Carl Winchester robbed possession from Oliver Turton after five minutes but shot straight at Garratt from 20 yards out.
Moments later, Jabo Ibehre tried his luck from distance that had Garratt scrambling across his goal but it just about cleared his upright as it dipped. The pressure on the Alex goal continued with Jonathan Forte having a close range effort deflected for another corner by Harry Davis.
On 12 minutes, Ibehre managed to get the wrong side of Davis from a longer throw-in down the line, but his powerful drive across goal was well held by Garratt.
The Alex weathered an early storm from Lee Johnson’s side but were still struggling to establish any sort of foothold in the game as an attacking force. The Railwaymen were finding it really difficult to hit the front runners Uche Ikpeazu and Nicky Ajose. Crewe were simply not keeping the ball well enough.
The home side continued to hit the ball longer, in behind our two wing-backs but mostly one of the centre-halves would move across to help out and clear the danger. Mike Jones did register another effort on target from distance but the busy Garratt was equal to it.
On 26 minutes, a wicked bounce so nearly deceived the Crewe Alexandra goalkeeper as it bounced awkwardly inside his six yard box but with Ray covering behind him, Jabo Ibehre could only touch it over the crossbar. The Crewe goal was leading a charmed life.
Crewe’s first genuine attack of the game nearly resulted in the opening goal. Uche Ikpeazu did well into the initial build up to hold up play before it was worked out to Jamie Ness in the left channel. The Scotsman hit an inch perfect cross-field delivery to find the clever run of Nicky Ajose. His attempted deft lob looked to have beaten Paul Rachubka but the Oldham goalkeeper did exceedingly well to adjust his feet and tip the effort over his crossbar.
From the resultant corner taken by Ness and aimed for Leigh, the second ball going into a crowded Oldham penalty area found Davis in space to the edge of the six yard box. The centre-half kept his composure to lift his shot beyond an onrushing Rachubka, but the covering Joseph Mills did brilliantly to slide and deny it crossing the line. Any slip and Ray would have had a tap in.
From another Oldham corner from the Alex left hand side, the powerful defender George Elokobi headed straight at the well positioned Garratt, but Crewe were certainly having a better share of the possession than in the first part of the first half. Saying that though, the home side looked the more likely side to open the scoring before the interval and an alert Davis had to get across to make a challenge on Ibehre as he threatened to prosper on a short back pass from Ray.
The first half ended with Nicky Ajose curling a free-kick harmlessly over the crossbar from a decent position and Ben Garratt had to produce his finest save of the opening 45 minutes to get his fingertips to another effort from Ibehre. The Alex goalkeeper got it round his post at full stretch as the firm shot was destined to the bottom right hand corner.
Crewe switched to a back four for the second half with George Cooper replacing defender Jon Guthrie. Crewe operated with Cooper and Ajose behind target man Ikpeazu in a 4-3-2-1 formation.
Garratt was quickly called into action to dive on an early low cross across his six-yard box and moments later Mills dragged a shot from 25 yards well wide of the target.
A promising move from the Railwaymen saw Grant intercept a cross from Mills on the edge of our box and play the ball out to Ness. The on-loan Stoke midfielder hit a longer ball looking for Ajose but Elokobi’s cleared header fellto Grant, who raced onto it but fired wide from 25 yards out.
It was more encouraging for Crewe but two minutes later the Railwaymen would lose Ray. On 57 minutes, the Alex defender got in a tangle with Jonathan Forte as the Oldham forward looked get in behind him and referee Simpson did not hesitate to show Alex defender a straight red card for a professional foul. It was Ray’s second red card of the season following his dismissal against Sheffield United.
From the resulting free-kick on the edge of the Crewe penalty area, Jones went awfully close with his well struck effort. Crewe had to regroup and Turton was sacrificed for debutant Anthony Stewart as Steve Davis had to fill the void at the back.
Stewart had hardly had time to find his feet for his new club before Oldham’s impressive full-back Mills went awfully close to giving the Latics the lead with a splendid effort from 20 yards that struck the corner of Ben Garratt’s crossbar. Jones also curled an effort straight into the gloves of Garratt as he ran on to a flick from Ibehre.
Harry Davis led by example to win a corner on 69 minutes and that desire would certainly pay off with referee Simpson pointing to the penalty spot after Elokobi was adjudged to have held back Stewart at Ness’ corner.
Ikpeazu wanted to take it, wasn’t allowed to by the manager and his strike partner Nicky Ajose thumped the spot kick past Rachubka for his second goal for the club.
Lee Johnson decided to make a double substitution with the former Alex Academy youngster Amari Morgan-Smith and Daniel Johnson replacing Forte and Philliskirk. Perhaps the change just before a corner was taken distracted the Railwaymen as their captain George Elokobi threw himself at the cross to make it 1-1 after 74 minutes.
Crewe now had to see out the remaining minutes with ten men after a side desperately trying to get over a recent 7-0 drubbing at the hands of MK Dons.
Amari Morgan-Smith was inches away from giving the Latics the lead after he reached Daniel Johnson’s accurate cross into a crowded box. His header just cleared Ben Garratt’s right hand post. Oldham’s final change saw James Dayton replace Winchester.
It looked to be a back against the wall job for the Railwaymen but after Stewart had cleared another dangerous looking cross, Baillie hit a longer ball up field that the alert Ajose sprung onto. There didn’t seem much support with Elokobi closing him down, but a glance at the position of Rachubka saw him take on an ambitious chip from close to 30 yards out. As soon as he went for it, you sensed it had a chance and it dropped perfectly over the head of the Oldham goalkeeper to give Crewe an unlikely lead with four minutes on the clock. It was an unbelievable finish.
Crewe had to hold on and Stewart and Davis stood firm to restrict their efforts in the closing minutes. Garratt had to produce another top save to deny Ibehre and he pounced on a late effort from Morgan-Smith as the home side threatened to salvage a point their overall performance had deserved.
Davis saved a late challenge to deny Ibehre an equaliser after he looked to slide onto a cross from Dayton.