Crewe Alexandra survive late drama to secure Wembley date
CREWE finally saw off one of the most unlikely comebacks of all-time to book their place in a first Wembley cup final.
The Alex were leading 3-0 from the first leg against Coventry City and were well on course at 90 minutes to see out the second leg 0-0.
However, a Mark Ellis own goal three minutes into injury time, then a Leon Clarke effort moments later left the home fans' hearts pounding.
But Crewe made it through a nervy few final seconds and will now face Southend United – who they beat in last season's League Two play-off semi-final – for the trophy on April 7.
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Steve Davis selected the same team which had impressed, albeit in defeat, against Bournemouth last week.
That meant Harry Davis and Byron Moore had to be content with bench duty, while Matt Tootle was ruled out with a toe injury.
Coventry were also unchanged from their 2-0 win over Bury in League One at the weekend, with Alex old boy James Bailey lining up in the centre of midfield.
A crowd of 8,325 fans, including 2,268 away fans, had packed into Gresty Road to see if Crewe could hold on to a 3-0 first leg lead, making it Crewe's biggest home gate since entertaining Manchester United in 2006 but it was the visitors were straight on to the attack.
Carl Baker managed to gain enough space when up against left-back Gregor Robertson to swing in a deep cross towards Leon Clarke, which the striker headed past Steve Phillips but just the wrong side of the post.
Bailey was next to try his luck, although his long-range effort sailed over the crossbar.
The Alex were always looking dangerous on the counter-attack, knowing that an early goal at the right end could go a long way to sealing the tie.
Ajay Leitch-Smith was the prime sniffer of chances, but the first real opportunity fell to the hero from the first leg, Brad Inman, who had a fraction of a second to compose himself in the area before Cyrus Christie dived in to deflect his shot wide.
Robertson was being put under the cosh and Baker shrugged him aside to fire in another shot on target.
Phillips could only punch it clear, with the rebound falling just away from the onrushing Clarke. Abdul Osman was left walking on eggshells after being cautioned for a late lunge on Stephen Elliott.
Referee Graham Scott had given Coventry the advantage after the foul but, after Clarke's cross had been intercepted, a bottle was thrown at the official from the travelling fans in the Ice Cream Van Stand.
Coventry were desperately searching for a goal before half-time and Gary McSheffrey almost gave them it when he smacked a volley from wide on the left across Phillips and just inches wide.
Chuks Aneke, playing in the hole behind Leitch-Smith, was the fulcrum of Crewe's most impressive attacks, but it was Osman who played a killer ball behind the defence to set Kelvin Mellor free down the right.
The full-back drove inside, but never had the ball under enough control to cause too much damage.
Still, the attacking intent showed the Railwaymen were not content to just sit back and defend their advantage.
Robertson needed to show his cool as he rushed back to steal the ball away from the toe of Clarke as the forward was bulldozing towards the six-yard box and Crewe made it into the break with the score still goalless.
Mathias Pogba's through ball sent Mellor chasing down the right again at the start of the second half and the young right-back's low cross was nudged wide for a corner which gave the home side a decent opportunity.
Adam Dugdale was in space when he met Murphy's set-piece, but couldn't do enough with his header.
Aneke then delivered another fine pass to set Inman in running diagonally from the left across to the right side of the box, only to be denied by Richard Wood as he prepared to pull the trigger. Ellis then soon stepped up to fling himself at a cross, but his header was off-target.
Aneke kept up the tempo when he produced a nutmeg before releasing Inman to charge upfield and cut back for Leitch-Smith, whose shot from 12 yards was pushed out for a corner by Joe Murphy.
Coventry were pushing more men forward and Dugdale and Ellis needed to produce good tackles in their own area before the Sky Blues almost went ahead on the night when Baker had a glorious chance from five yards only to fluff his lines.
A red flare meant the tunnel was shrouded in smoke, but it did not put the Alex off their stride.
Aneke was at it again, looping a long pass to Inman in space on the left 20 yards from goal.
Inman, however, could not immediately get the ball under his spell and scuffed his effort. City seemed increasingly desperate.
Leon Clarke was booked for a foul on Ellis and substitute centre-back Jordan Clarke tried his luck from very long range without causing Phillips concern.
Inman had an optimistic penalty appeal waved away when he was caught in a Nathan Cameron-Murphy sandwich.
At the other end, Leon Clarke made the most of Crewe's foray forward for the set piece to find space on the break, but he could still find no way past Phillips.
The stopper then pushed out Baker's shot after a mazy run through the danger zone before Murphy blocked another effort and Robertson produced a last-ditch tackle to thwart Leon Clarke almost on his own goalline.
Cameron almost got lucky when a clearance deflected off him towards goal, but Coventry were never going to enjoy any fortune in this tie – or so it seemed.
In the third minute of injury time, Ellis hooked a header into his own net to make it 1-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate.
Barely 60 seconds later, Leon Clarke, showed the scoring instinct which had deserted him for 180 minutes to convert from close range.
The home crowd, who had been singing "Que Sera Sera" two minutes previously, then had to sit through another four minutes of nail-biting stoppage time.
Inman was booked for a cynical foul which gave the visitors a chance to throw the ball into the box – then almost scored at the other end after a near-pitch long solo run when the dead ball was cleared.
It was more nervy than it could have been, but Crewe held out and home fans spilled onto the pitch as referee Graham Scott finally blew the final whistle.