Reds were denied the first win of the Dean Saunders’ era after MK Dons snatched a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser at a vibrant Checkatrade.com Stadium.
Six minutes and 21 seconds of injury time had been played when Dele Alli stabbed in MK’s second goal past stand-in goalkeeper Matt Harrold.
It was desperately hard on a Crawley side who played magnificently during a full-blooded encounter, especially after losing goalkeeper Brian Jensen in the 38th minute when he dislocated a thumb after a challenge from Samir Carruthers.
With Saunders frustrated in his efforts to sign a second goalkeeper in time for the game substitute Harrold went between the posts and it was testament to his growing confidence and the herculean efforts of the ten players in front of him that he had no chance with either goal and was so well protected that he only had to make one save of note when he kept out Ben Reeves’ effort from close range with his legs.
With the home fans fully behind the side it made for a vibrant atmosphere and despite the late heartbreak, they will have been encouraged that Reds can climb the table if they continue to play with the same commitment and skill in the coming weeks.
Dean made four changes to the side which had drawn 0-0 with Colchester 13 days ago in his first game as Interim Manager.
In came fit-again Lanre Oyebanjo and Sonny Bradley alongside new signing Darren Ward in defence. Gavin Tomlin partnered Izale McLeod up front while another newcomer, Blair Anderson, was on the Reds’ bench.
McLeod was certainly up for the battle against his former club. After three minutes he was convinced the returning Kyle McFadzean had handled Gavin Tomlin’s cross but referee Graham Salisbury waved play on.
But McLeod had better luck in the 14th minute. As he ghosted past McFadzean the defender stuck out a leg for a clear penalty which McLEOD stroked into the bottom right-hand corner.
The early goal enthused Reds and the home fans and although MK had two good chances, both squandered by Carruthers, to equalise Crawley were in control when Jensen suffered his injury diving at the feet of the MK wide-man.
Medical staff tried to put his thumb back in place but he had to come off and Harrold, who had never even played in goal in training, emerged sheepishly from the dugout to huge cheers from the home fans, including his Dad – a former goalkeeper!
Harrold looked initially nervous but he emerged early for the second half to get his bearings while Jensen took his place at the front of the Bruce Winfield Terrace to give him encouragement behind the goal.
Things got even better two minutes into the second half. Lewis Young, who had come on in the first half after Conor Henderson had been clattered and forced to go off, won back the ball and fed McLEOD who drilled an angled shot into the far corner for his 11th goal of the season.
There was a predictable response from the visitors who began to shoot on sight and get the ball into the six-yard box at every opportunity. Will Grigg fired over from six yards then the roof nearly came off the Bruce Winfield Stand when Harrold kept out Reeves’ effort with his legs.
The pressure finally told on 76 minutes when GRIGG headed past Harrold from Reeves’ cross although to be fair there was little the stand-in keeper could do.
There was a moment of alarm when Harrold’s goal-kick was charged down by Grigg but he won the race for the ball as it looped goalwards.
It looked as if Reds were going to hold on. In the third minute of stoppage time Lanre Oyebanjo cleared Reeves’ corner off the line but just when it looked like Crawley were going to hang on, ALLI produced a composed finish in a crowded box after a cross from the right came through a crowded box.
The home fans were deflated but they were on their feet at the final whistle to applaud a magnificent effort by Saunders’ men.