Paddy McCarthy, James Wallace and Jose Baxter returned to Sheffield United’s starting eleven for this afternoon’s match at Gresty Road but Marc McNulty dropped to the bench despite scoring the opening goal during Tuesday’s win over Yeovil Town.
Former Crewe Alexandra centre-forward Michael Higdon also featured among the substitutes, together with Jay McEveley who damaged a shoulder against Bradford City last weekend. Febian Brandy, previously of United, appeared for the hosts after extending his loan from Rotherham.
Just a couple of weeks ago, this appeared to be among the most routine fixtures on Sheffield United’s League One calandar.
Three games and as many victories later, Crewe Alexandra entered today’s match at Gresty Road an altogether more confident and formidable team.
Not that United, whose players had walked into the stadium rather than arrive by coach, were short of self-belief themselves after recording wins over Bradford City and Yeovil Town en route to Cheshire.
Indeed, they should have taken a third minute lead when Chris Basham, partnering Paddy McCarthy at centre-half, powered forward and set in motion the chain of events which, after Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Stefan Scougall had both taken touches, ended with Jose Baxter forcing Ben Garrett to make a smart, reaction save.
Sixty seconds later, only the width of a post prevented Craig Alcock from opening the scoring, again from a Campbell-Ryce centre.
United had wasted no time seizing control, hunting down the ball and breaking at speed, but when Marcus Haber forced Mark Howard to come darting off his line, it served to remind them that Crewe still posed a threat.
United, though, continued to dominate.
Baxter, who later squared-up to Adam Dugdale after being caught late by the defender, caused all sorts of problems during the early stages. Especially when he collected the ball from deep.
Anthony Grant was cautioned for a heavy tackle on Scougall while Jamie Murphy twice shaped to shoot, before being crowded-out, after patient passing moves.
As the half progressed, Crewe began to establish a foothold in the contest.
Their passing became more fluid and incisive but, as Febian Brandy demonstrated in the 26th minute, not the final ball.
United responded with another period of pressure. But Crewe, despite again finding themselves fimly on the back foot, were proving adept at massing players behind the ball.
In the 37th minute, however, they posed some questions of their own.
Howard flung himself through the air to palm George Cooper’s long-range attempt to safety while Alcock was forced to hook clear during a scramble following the resulting corner.
James Wallace was inches away from producing the perfect counter-punch when, reading Murphy’s intentions, he desperately tried to get a touch on the Scot’s low, powerful cross.
United started the second half in the same manner they had the first.
Campbell-Ryce found himself in a promising position out wide but, after ghosting inside, saw an extravagant attempt to curl the ball home with the outside of his foot end in disappointment.
Then, Murphy whipped a powerful cross into Garratt’s area but no visiting attacker could find what would surely have been a decisive touch.
Basham joined Grant in the referee’s notebook for a trip on Grant as Crewe looked to mount an attack of their own
United pressed forward in search of the goal their contribution had deserved.
Only Dugdale’s superb intervention prevented Murphy from finding Scougall just beyond the penalty spot.
Then a misunderstanding saw Baxter step over the ball rather than try and divert it past Garrett after another good move.
Wallace’s angled shot fizzed just past the Crewe goalkeeper’s far post. Likewise another low and long-range effort from Baxter.
At the other end of the pitch, Brandy saw an effort deflected behind for a corner.
The former United winger was withdrawn soon after as Jamie Ness entered the fray in the 64th minute.
Danny Haynes, on loan from Notts County, also made his Crewe debut during the double change.
Haber was the player to make way.
United’s dominance finally told in the 69th minute.
Murphy powered past two markers in front of the ‘Ice Cream Stand’ before slowing, almost to a halt, as he tracked those darting forward in support. SCOUGALL was the first to arrive and he duly slid home.
Crewe were forced to make their third and final change soon after when Bradden Inman departed on a stretcher.
Billy Waters came on and soon after, in the 79th minute, Baxter was awarded a penalty after being scythed down as he primed to shoot in front of goal. But Garratt, diving well to his left. proved equal to the task and palmed the ball away.
That escape seemed to inspire Crewe who went on to apply some of their most concerted pressure of the afternoon.
United made a triple substitution with six minutes of normal time remaining.
Basham, holding a dressing to a head wound, Scougall and Baxter were all taken off.
McEveley, Reed and Marc McNulty took their places and, within seconds, the latter missed a wonderful chance to double United’s advantage but scuttled his shot the wrong side of the near post.
Before play restarted, Ray was shown a red card although there was confusion as to what it was actually for although there was some suggestion he had manhandled the referee.
Campbell-Ryce got his feet in a tangle when, during 10 minutes of added time, Murphy made his way to the byline for the umpteenth time. McNulty and Wallace were both booked as United saw the match out.
CREWE ALEXANDRA: Garratt, Tootle, Ray, Dugdale, Turton, Inman, Cooper, Leigh, Haber, Brandy, Grant. Substitutes: Shearer, Guthrie, Atkinson, Waters, Ness, Tate, Haynes.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard, Alcock, Harris, Wallace, Basham, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter, Campbell-Ryce, McCarthy. Substitutes: McNulty, Davies, McGahey, McEveley, Higdon, Reed, Turner.
Referee: P Bankes (Merseyside)