Crewe Alex: Tootle eyes comeback for crucial phase in Alex campaign
M ATT Tootle hopes his ill-timed absence from first-team duties won't cost him a place in an end-of-season Wembley showpiece.
The full-back has been sidelined for the last month, first through injury, and then illness.
He limped off against Bradford on March 20 with a thigh strain. But just as he was ready to take up Crewe's promotion baton again he contracted a virus which left him with more than a sour taste in his mouth during the important Easter programme.
"I was throwing up for 30 hours non-stop," agonised Tootle. "It just hit me and it couldn't have come at a worse time.
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"I'd been enjoying my football up to the injury and I thought I was in contention for the game at Crawley on Good Friday. I was dying to play, but I walked through the door of the training ground and chucked up."
During Tootle's extended sick leave, Crewe maintained their impressive advance towards a top-seven finish with first Jordan Brown and then Kelvin Mellor proving to be worthy replacements.
Mellor's impact has been telling enough to leave Tootle doubting whether he can bank on a swift return to the back four for today's crucial home assignment with Cheltenham.
But with the potential prize of a Wembley date lying on the horizon on Sunday, May 27, now is not the time for anyone to be warming the Alex bench.
"Hopefully I can get back in as I'd hate to miss out playing at Wembley if we got through the play-offs," admitted Tootle.
"It is just a question of pushing on in training and trying to impress to win my place back in the side.
"The lads have kept it going.
"To be honest I didn't expect anything else of them. And Kelvin has gone in and done well. He's taken his chance and I am over the moon for him.
"I'm waiting to get back in, but I'm not expecting to, although I've been really pushing myself by doing extra work on the training ground.
"It's an exciting time and I want to be involved. But this is the first time I've experienced the cruel ways of football – it's a real test of character for me."
While Crewe's progress has been slowed down by three draws against Northampton, Crawley and Macclesfield in their last four outings, the consistent streak they have hit at Gresty Road augurs well for them as the season reaches a climax.
Two of their last three games are in front of the Alex faithful which has warmed to their big improvement as seven of the last 10 home fixtures have been won.
Earlier in the campaign they had struggled for success in South Cheshire and went more than two months without a win.
"Our home form has improved massively," pointed out Tootle. "We knew it would be crucial.
"It pushed us up the table last season, but it really killed us losing so many games away.
"We always knew we would have to get our home form sorted out and we need to keep that going until the end of the season.
"It's about being in form at the right time and people realise we are a force to be reckoned with now.
"Blackpool showed that a couple of seasons ago when they went up to the Premier League via the play-offs.
"There's no point in getting into the play-offs and not playing well. You look at Oxford and their form is poor at the moment.
"We think we can go on and do something. We've got the advantage in that we're playing well and if we can go unbeaten for the rest of the season then I think we'll get there."
Such form would extend Crewe's current 13-game unbeaten run to one short of the club record 17 set across the latter stages of the 1994/95 season and the start of the 1995/96 campaign.
In the midst of that stellar sequence was a play-off semi-final defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers, but it didn't break the unbeaten run as it was on the away-goal ruling after 0-0 and 1-1 draws.
Nevertheless, that's a scenario the Railwaymen will not want to repeat if they can nail a top-seven place on May 5.
"You do worry that the run might end, but our form is that good you can't see anyone beating us," insisted Tootle.
"I always felt that if we played properly teams wouldn't be able to beat us. We've just got to keep pushing and keep this run going. Steve Davis and all the lads believe we can go unbeaten for the rest of the season.
"Cheltenham will be a difficult games and we know they will be a totally different outfit to the one we beat 8-1 last season.
"But we've just got to carry on doing what we're doing. We've had a great run, but we're still not in the play-off places yet. The next two games are massive for us. It's great to be involved in these sort of games.
"Last year we played at Bradford on the last day and there was nothing on it and it turned into being like a testimonial match."