Reds suffered their first defeat in six League 2 games against an impressive Exeter City side on Easter Monday.
The hosts were outplayed in the first half and lucky to only find themselves a goal down at the break after ex-Reds’ loanee Jake Taylor pounced in the 28th minute.
But they will feel they deserved something based on their second-half efforts. Exeter keeper Bobby Olejnik kept their lead intact with four great saves and they proved crucial when Ollie Watkins doubled Exeter’s lead with 16 minutes to go.
Crawley stay 16th in the table ahead of a run of tough fixtures against sides fighting for promotion, starting at Bristol Rovers on Saturday.
Mark Yates made three changes to the team which shared four goals with York on Good Friday. Matt Harrold (knee) joined Lee Barnard (calf), Jimmy Smith (ankle) and Lanre Oyebanjo (thigh) in the treatment room while Josh Yorwerth was on Wales under-21 duties.
Gwion Edwards and Lyle Della-Verde dropped to the bench and there were starts for Shamir Fenelon, Lewis Young and Gavin Tomlin.
Reds had the first sight of goal when Charles Dunne dragged his shot wide after being found by Young but the hosts were then forced onto the defensive.
Jayden Stockley headed straight at Callum Preston from Lee Holmes’ corner before Preston pushed away Holmes’ free kick in the 10th minute. From the resultant corner Stockley saw two efforts blocked, by Jon Ashton and then Simon Walton.
It was all action in the early stages. Olejnik dived at the feet of Liam McAlinden after Fenelon’s shot had been blocked before the visitors broke and Preston had to plunge to his right to keep out Watkins’ shot after Taylor’s pass had found him in the six-yard box.
Crawley’s goal continued to live a charmed life. After an attack down the left broke down Exeter exploited the space and eventually Taylor got in a scuffed shot which the hosts cleared.
Andy Bond was booked for a 20th-minute foul on Watkins and with Reds unable to keep possession for any length of time Exeter continued to dominate. Holmes found Watkins in space on the corner of the box and his drive flashed a yard past the post before the goal Exeter deserved finally came in the 28th minute. Watkins threaded his pass into the path of TAYLOR and he drilled a low close-range shot past the totally exposed Preston.
At this stage Crawley were just not at the races. Their offensive players struggled to hold the ball up and defensively they were hesitant and allowed Exeter far too much time and space.
Exeter nearly scored again in the 44th minute. Ryan Harley was the architect with a cross from the left but Dunne did enough to distract Stockley who headed over from close range.
Gwion Edwards replaced Gavin Tomlin at the break and within a minute of the re-start McAlinden had warmed Olejnik’s fingers with a powerful angled drive which the Exeter keeper pushed out for a corner.
It was 4-4-2 for Crawley now and with Fenelon and McAlinden up top, Young on the right of midfield and Edwards on the left they looked a lot more comfortable.
Watkins was booked for a late challenge on Walton before Reds threatened again when Sonny Bradley’s header was deflected wide for another corner.
The game was now much more of a contest but Exeter continued to threaten and Watkins forced Preston to make a save in the 64th minute when he met Holmes’ cross with a downward header.
But Olejnik was tested again three minutes later when Young’s pass picked out Fenelon whose shot on the turn was beaten away by the Exeter keeper.
Walton was replaced by Deacon with 20 minutes to go and seconds later Olejnik made another good stop to keep out Edwards’ low drive from outside the box as Reds began to build some pressure.
Deacon’s corner was met by Bradley, whose towering header was pushed over by the Exeter keeper. From the next flag-kick McAlinden saw his close-range effort smuggled off the line by Holmes.
It looked like the next goal would be scored by Reds but instead Exeter doubled their lead in the 74th minute. Stockley did well to spread the ball wide to Taylor on the right. His cross drifted over Preston and WATKINS rose to head into the top corner from close range.
There was a big cheer when Joe McNerney retuned after six months out as a replacement for Ashton before Holmes was booked for bringing down Edwards with 11 minutes to go.
Reds had to play the last six minutes with ten men after McAlinden hobbled off but they continued to try and get a goal back when McNerney’s shot on the turn from Deacon’s corner was blocked before man of the match Fenelon worked a yard of space but fired into the side netting.