Matt Tubbs scored twice as Reds returned to action after their enforced four-week break with a 2-1 win over Walsall at Banks’s Stadium.
Tubbs converted an early penalty and then headed home his second just after the break. Sam Mantom pulled one back and Billy Clarke’s late red card, for two bookable offences, left the visitors having to negotiate the final 12 minutes with ten men which they did with relative ease.
There were five new faces in the matchday squad but all were named on the bench as John Gregory made a solitary change to the side that shared four goals with Rotherham four weeks ago, Gary Dicker coming into midfield for Nicky Adams.
Such was the options open to the boss, neither Sergio Torres or Connor Essam made the matchday 18.
The pitch at the Banks’s Stadium was in superb condition and the irony was not lost on the travelling contingent when it was watered before kick-off!
Reds began brightly and were ahead after four minutes. Andy Drury’s cross struck Andy Butler on the arm as he tried to clear in the box and referee Simpson pointed to the spot and TUBBS gave Richard O’Donnell no chance with his penalty, his second goal in successive games.
Two minutes later the visitors threatened again when Clarke twisted past his marker on the edge of the box but his shot was blocked by a defender, legitimately this time.
O’Donnell was tested again on 17 minutes when Clarke hit one first-time from the corner of the box which the Saddlers’ keeper got his body behind.
Kyle McFadzean was booked for a foul on Michael Ngoo before Reds broke after clearing a free kick. Clarke and Mat Sadler exchanged passes before Clarke hit a right-foot shot over the bar from the edge of the box.
Halfway through the opening period Walsall had yet to threaten although Craig Westcarr wasn’t far away with a free kick from 22 yards which cleared the defensive wall and Paul Jones’ bar.
Reds were looking a real threat when they broke and after Tubbs fed Josh Simpson he whipped an inviting cross into the six-yard box that just eluded Clarke, whose excellent touch had started the move.
Walsall then threatened through the pace of Fabien Brandy. Milan Lalkovic laid his cross into the path of Mantom who steered his shot just wide of the left-hand upright.
It was real end to end stuff as the first half came to an end and Clarke again tormented the home defence before curling a low effort inches beyond the scrambling O’Donnell’s far post.
Clarke was involved again when Reds doubled their lead with a superb second goal on 50 minutes. Collecting a pass from Mat Sadler, Clarke curled a delicious cross away from O’Donnell from the left and TUBBS made no mistake with a simple far-post header.
Walsall should have pulled one back five minutes later when Michael Ngoo twisted and turned inside the box but delayed his shot a fraction and allowed McFadzean to get across and block his shot.
It was end to end stuff still and on the hour Crawley were desperately unlucky not to add a third when Mike Jones led another quick counter and cut inside before shuddering the bar with a right-foot shot from the edge of the box.
Instead, Walsall pulled one back on 63 minutes and this time the woodwork benefitted them. The ball was pulled back to the edge of the box and a side-footer from MANTOM hit the inside of the post and went in with Jones having no chance. It was the hosts’ first shot on target.
Clarke followed McFadzean and Mark Connolly into the book for a late challenge on Lalkovic then Simpson was sent spinning in the box by Mal Benning’s challenge but the referee waved play on before Lalkovic was booked for diving at the other end.
With 11 minutes to go Reds were reduced to ten men when Clarke, who had only been booked a few minutes earlier, kicked the ball into the crowd after the referee had blown his whistle for offside and collected a needless second yellow card. His second red of the season means a two-game suspension for the striker.
Reds knew what was coming in the closing stages. Brandy dribbled his way into the box but his shot was straight at Jones as the visitors left Tubbs on his own up front and soaked up the pressure.
Tubbs was replaced by Jamie Proctor at the start of five additional minutes which Reds negotiated solidly to secure their first win of 2014.