Two goals from Sheffield United’s Ryan Flynn ended Crewe Alexandra’s involvement in the FA Cup for another season, but it could have been a little different if the Railwaymen had enjoyed some of the rub of the green in South Yorkshire.
Crewe had two massive chances in the first half. At 0-0, George Cooper forced the Sheffield United goalkeeper Mark Howard into a smart save and he was up in time to save the rebound from full debutant Callum Saunders. The teenager must have thought he had that first professional goal on the ground where his father Dean had been so prolific for the Blades in the late 1990s.
After Flynn had got the first of his two goals on the night, Brad Inman was rather unfortunate to see his low shot beat Howard but not the post.
Flynn killed the cup-tie with 13 minutes remaining, racing clear to leave Jon Guthrie trailing before slipping it past a helpless Garratt.
With a trio of strikers missing for the FA Cup replay, Steve Davis was forced to shuffle his pack for the trip to Bramall Lane. The Alex boss reverted back to a 4-3-3 formation with first-year professional Callum Saunders making his first start for the club as the central striker. The Welsh Youth International had the recalled George Cooper and Bradden Inman supporting him from wider areas.
There was also recalls in midfield for the on-loan Jamie Ness and Chris Atkinson, who had started the original fixture at Gresty Road. There were also changes at the back with Ollie Turton moving back to right-back ahead of youngster James Baillie and Jon Guthrie replacing Greg Leigh on the left hand side.
George Ray returned from his three-game suspension to take place his place on the substitutes' bench and James Jones returned to the squad after appearing for Scotland Under-19s against Holland last Friday afternoon.
In the early exchanges, Crewe Alexandra worked hard to contain a Sheffield United side brimming with confidence and to their credit they limited the Blades to one fairly early half chance that Jamie Murphy side footed straight at Ben Garratt.
Sheffield United continued to look for their wide men; especially the talented Murphy in behind Turton but Crewe coped reasonably well with their probing in and around our box.
Anthony Grant rode a couple of challenges in the centre of the park to free Brad Inman on the left hand side and after cutting inside his drive was blocked by Craig Alcock.
On 17 minutes, Crewe were presented with an excellent chance to take the lead. Guthrie’s low cross evaded everyone to fall invitingly at the feet of Cooper. The youngster even had enough time to get the ball out of his feet after he had slightly mis-controlled the low delivery. His firm shot was only parried out by Mark Howard and there was Saunders no more than seven yards out. The youngster must have been thinking about his first goal on his full debut - but Howard reacted well to get back up and make a second stop. With his prolific record at youth level you would have backed the 19-year-old to convert the chance.
Three minutes after Howard’s save from Saunders, the home side took the lead. Disappointingly, Crewe had switched off from a quickly taken corner, thus leaving Jamal Campbell-Ryce to drive into the box and shoot virtually unopposed. Garratt couldn’t gather the shot cleanly enough and Ryan Flynn was on hand to stab it over the line from close range. The Alex management were clearly disappointed that the opening goal had come via a short-corner.
Murphy continued with where he left off at Gresty Road in the first game by forcing Garratt into two smart saves. The first he had to climb to push away for a corner and the second he got a strong hand to inside a crowded penalty area.
Crewe had brief moments on the counter-attack but the final ball looking for the runs of Saunders were just over-hit. He kept going though. Inman skipped past one challenge to break onto the back four but he just over ran it. Ness provided a superb ball to free Saunders inside the Sheffield United box but his cross on the turn was cut out by the covering Chris Basham.
On 38 minutes that much improved Crewe confidence in the final third so nearly paid off. Grant once again broke from midfield with real purpose and he fed an accurate pass through to Inman. He did everything right, cutting back across Basham and Jay McEveley and his shot across goal looked to have beaten Howard - but the Sheffield United goalkeeper was rescued by the foot of his post. Saunders then appeared to be bundled over in the corner of the box by Bob Harris as he chased down the rebound but the appeals were muted.
Almost immediately, a tidy twist and turn from Sheffield United’s youngster Louis Reed saw him scoop a shot over the crossbar and then Stefan Scougall screwed a shot just wide of Ben Garratt’s left hand post.
The second period started with Saunders in a foot race with McEveley and the youngster did well to hold up play and find Inman. The ball was worked across the box to Atkinson and then out to Turton on the opposite flank, but the advanced full-back over-hit his cross.
Five minutes into the second half and Sheffield United thought they had doubled their advantage after they had worked another short corner. This time it was Murphy who drilled a really dangerous cross across the six-yard box and Basham flicked the ball home from close range only to see the assistant’s flag go up.
Moments later, the Crewe captain Adam Dugdale did brilliantly to halt Scougall on a mazy run inside the penalty area. Basham also tried his luck with a curling shot that Garratt had covered.
The Sheffield United defender was then given too much licence to carry the ball forward and test Garratt again with a shot from 25 yards out. The Alex goalkeeper had to gather at the second attempt but he did brilliantly again moments later to keep out a header from Scougall. The alert Garratt showed his agility to tip it around for a corner at his near post.
With 25 minutes remaining young Cooper made way for Billy Waters. Sheffield United also made their first change with Jose Baxter replacing Campbell-Ryce.
Five minutes later James Jones replaced Atkinson for the Railwaymen. With 16 minutes on the clock, a patient build-up from the Alex allowed Inman to spin Saunders in behind the United back line but he fired his shot straight at Howard.
With 13 minutes remaining, Murphy’s clever through ball released Flynn on the Crewe goal. Guthrie did his best to track him but Flynn kept his composure to slide it past Garratt for his second goal of the evening.
Scougall was denied a third goal for the Blades but another fine save from the busier Garratt and the Alex goalkeeper regrouped to prevent a low cross from Flynn reaching a cluster of bodies inside the six-yard box.
The influential Murphy made way with 10 minutes left, to be replaced by Diego De Girolamo. Guthrie was booked before being replaced by Greg Leigh. Turton was also cautioned for a late pull back on Scougall. He made way in the dying minutes for Ben Whiteman.
Turton had a late effort that drifted wide of the mark as Crewe exited the FA Cup at the first round stage.