Wes Brown’s deft header may have extinguished Crawley Town’s romantic FA Cup run, but their memory will live long after a performance soaked in character and fight against Manchester United. Keeping the Premier League leaders at bay for 28 minutes means the second-placed Blue Square Premier League side lasted longer than six Premier League teams have done at Old Trafford this season.
Complacency was always going to be United’s biggest enemy and Sir Alex Ferguson took a slight gamble by only naming three senior outfield substitutes. Inadvertently the biggest compliment directed at the visitors was that all three of these – Chris Smalling, Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney – were required. A gulf of 93 league places separates these two sides who share the Red Devil’s byname, but this gap was defied by the sheer positivity and spirit of the non-leaguers.
The hosts started with Gabriel Obertan and Bebe as wide outlets to support lone striker Javier Hernandez, but in the first half it was the exertions of twins Rafael and Fabio which caused Crawley the most inconvenience with the former duo having little impact. Rooney’s second-half introduction implied minimal change in formation for the 11-times FA Cup winners, as he occupied the space behind Hernandez in an attempt to nullify Crawley’s Sergio Torres. But as the latter grew into the game the England striker’s impact diminished – culminating in a caution for a petulant challenge on David Hunt.
If Crawley were to stand any chance of leaving the Theatre of Dreams with anything, they needed to get men in the final third to ally leading goalscorer Matthew Tubbs, which they continued to do. The 26-year-old striker was assured in his hold-up play, which in turn enabled the likes of Craig McAllister and Ben Smith to penetrate Man Utd’s rearguard. Desperation proved the perfect catalyst for Crawley as they sensed their FA Cup fairytale reaching its final chapter, their attacks grew in purpose but a decisive final ball was their undoing.
The Eon man-of-the-match award went to Crawley’s captain, defender Pablo Mills, following 90 minutes which encapsulated the gallant approach of his team. What Mills lacked in pace against the fleet-footed Hernandez, he made up for with great awareness and anticipation. With Crawley boss Steve Evans witnessing a performance from the home side which lacked their trademark fluidity, Richard Brodie was introduced in a bid to increase the aerial threat, a move which nearly came off as the big striker hit the crossbar with a looping header in the final minutes.
This was a chance for some of Utd’s fringe players to impress Ferguson, but barring Darron Gibson, most of these, Bebe and Obertan especially, did more harm than good. It was always going to take something colossal for the southerners to make history in Manchester last night, but Evans’ troops gave the Premier League leaders a real scare and they will have left the north very proud of their labours.