A Courtney Baker-Richardson penalty in the eighth minute of stoppage time consigned us to defeat at the Mornflake Stadium.
The spotkick, given for an apparent handball against Jodi Jones, was a hammer blow after we had been unable to make our second-half dominance count.
Sam Slocombe was recalled to Luke Williams’ starting XI after Aidan Stone had been selected for our Emirates FA Cup victory over Crawley and Bristol Street Motors defeat at Lincoln.
We played the majority of the Lincoln match with a back four but we reverted to three for this trip to Cheshire, skipper Kyle Cameron marshalling things from the left, Lewis Macari from the right and Aden Baldwin in the middle.
The dynamic duo of Jones and Aaron Nemane manned the flanks, while Jim O’Brien and Sam Austin were the shield behind attacking trio David McGoldrick, Dan Crowley and Macaulay Langstaff.
Dan Gosling, who made his debut off the bench at Sincil Bank, was joined on the bench by Connell Rawlinson, Richard Brindley, Tobi Adebayo, Will Randall, Junior Morias and Stone.
We made a bright start to the game but were almost hit on the break on seven minutes when Shilow Tracey demonstrated tremendous pace and power to take the ball into the area from the halfway line. Baldwin slid in to make an important challenge but the hosts kept the move alive, drawing a low save from Slocombe.
Two minutes later, the Alex had another promising moment as they turned the ball over on halfway and supplied Tracey – but he couldn’t get his 20-yard effort on target.
Our first real opportunity of the match came on 17 minutes when Nemane danced into the area from the right, only for Mickey Demitriou to block his shot with a sprawling challenge.
Courtney Baker-Richardson will have been disappointed not to have tested Slocombe with a skewed effort after Baldwin had misjudged a bounce out wide, but the keeper had to get his hands on the ball five minutes later to hang on to Demetriou’s back-post volley at the second attempt.
We started to assert more control on the half after that, getting into plenty of promising areas but failing to carve out any clear-cut opportunities.
That was until Crowley did brilliantly to win the ball in his opponents’ half before showing tremendous skill and awareness to slip Langstaff into the area. The forward wasn’t quite able to set himself for the shot, though, and Harvey Davies made a big one-handed save low down.
Crewe will have felt they probably should have gone in ahead on the stroke of half-time when Slocombe misjudged the flight of a wide free-kick, presenting Baker-Richardson with an excellent headed opportunity at the back post. He sent the ball high and wide, though, ensuring the half ended goalless.
We made a fast start to the second period and nearly had the lead when Connor O’Riordan forced his own goalkeeper into a good reaction save after Crowley had aimed a dangerous cross towards Langstaff.
Jones and Aaron Rowe both lashed shots over from the edge of the area shortly before the former got across the near post to meet Nemane’s low cross, which he could only send off-target with the angle against him.
Next to fire off-target was Tracey inside the area, with McGoldrick issuing our response after he couldn’t resist the temptation of a 35-yard strike when the ball bounced up for him. It was a comfortable save for Davies.
Jones was next to have a go, sending a low effort a couple of yards wide after we’d worked the ball to him from a short corner.
And we came agonisingly close to the lead moments later when Langstaff collected possession 25 yards out and tried an audacious left-footed effort, which curled just past the top corner of Davies’ goal.
Our frustrations continued as Crowley was crowded out when trying to fire the loose ball from Jones’ dangerous low cross goalwards inside the box.
Williams sent on Randall, and then Gosling, for Nemane and Austin as he looked to add fresh impetus to our pursuit for the opening goal and Gosling was part of an intricate counter-attack which resulted in McGoldrick’s left-footed effort being blocked by a sprawling defender on 85 minutes.
Crewe had barely laid a glove on us in the second half but fired a warning shot when Ryan Cooney broke the offside trap and looped an effort over the stranded Slocombe and on to his net.
There was then a bizarre moment, which transpired to be a huge turning point, as a promising Langstaff break was halted by the referee, who had pulled up with an injury.
Shortly after play had resumed with a new man in the middle, it was the assistant referee who was next in the spotlight after Jones had blocked a cross inside our area. He was initially unmoved by Crewe’s appeals but went on to signal for a penalty.
Baker-Richardson went to Slocombe’s right and, despite the keeper guessing correctly, found the net.
Play was halted for a considerable time in the aftermath due to crowd disruption and, once the match finally resumed, we were unable to rescue a point in the remaining seconds.
STARTING XI: Slocombe; Cameron, Baldwin, Macari; Jones, Nemane (Randall 75'); O'Brien, Austin (Gosling 80'), McGoldrick, Crowley; Langstaff
SUBS: Stone, Rawlinson, Brindley, Adebayo, Morias
BOOKINGS: Cameron 45+1', Baldwin 51', O'Brien 70', Jones 88', Randall 89'