Reds were punished for their fallibility defending set pieces as they conceded three second-half goals to play-off chasing Bristol Rovers at a vibrant Memorial Ground in Saturday's Sky Bet League 2 contest.
Crawley matched their hosts for long spells but Matt Taylor twice profited with near post headers from corners to take his goal tally for the season to 25, and an exquisite free kick by Liam Lawrence settled the contest, although the result was harsh on Crawley who had their best chances in the second half when Sonny Bradley, twice, and Josh Yorwerth went close.
Mark Yates made five changes to the side which lost to Exeter on Monday. In came Josh Yorwerth, Gwion Edwards, Lyle Della-Verde, Matt Harrold and Roarie Deacon. Shamir Fenelon, Jon Ashton and Simon Walton dropped to the bench while Gavin Tomlin, Lee Barnard and Jimmy Smith were ruled out by injury.
With an expectant home crowd of 8,250 in good voice at kick off it was important that Reds settled into the contest quickly and this they did while looking to utilise Harrold’s physical presence and the pace of Deacon on the break.
Deacon was sent flying by Chris Lines in the 10th minute, which earned the Bristol player a booking, and in the opening quarter it was Reds who looked the more composed side with Rovers making too many unforced errors, much to the growing dismay of their fans.
Crawley won three corners in the first half but none of them tested Steve Mildenhall in the Bristol goal and although he had to turn a clearance from defender Mark McChrystal over his own bar it was a rare moment of alarm at either end.
The home side had struggled to move the ball quickly but towards the end of the first half they had their best spell of the game to date. Both Young and Bradley got in important blocks while Yorwerth was booked for a foul on Rory Gaffney, who played against Reds earlier in the season for Cambridge United.
Reds began the second half strongly and went close from two Della-Verde set pieces. A corner found Bradley but on the stretch the skipper could only direct his shot at Mildenhall then two minutes later his free kick from 28 yards out on the right picked out Yorwerth but the defender, under pressure from his marker, headed wide.
Crawley were made to pay in the 52nd minute when Rovers scored from their first shot on target. Lawrence’s inswinging corner, which he drilled in with pace from the left, found Taylor and he headed powerfully past Preston from close range to score his 24th goal of the season.
The decibel levels increased for the next few minutes as Rovers looked for a second but Reds held firm and made their first change after 65 minutes when Fenelon replaced Deacon. The striker quickly won as corner which was cleared to Bradley 15 yards out but he blazed what was a good opportunity over the bar.
Fenelon was then booked for simulation as he went down in the box trying to get on the end of a pass from the impressive Andy Bond and Frankie Sutherland then joined him for bringing down Daniel Leadbitter.
In contrast to the first half the second period had seen a noticeable increase in the tempo and going into the last 20 minutes Reds would still have felt they were capable of getting something from the contest.
But those hopes ended with 15 minutes to go when Lawrence curled a wonderful free kick from 28 yards out over the defensive wall and into the top corner, leaving Preston helpless, after Sutherland had been punished for a challenge.
Walton replaced Sutherland and moments later Preston made a great save at full stretch to keep out a rasping drive from Christian Montano but Rovers added their third from the resultant corner. Taylor, as he did for his first goal, met the set piece at the near post and guided an unchallenged stooping header past Preston and inside the far stick.
The score-line flattered the home side but Rovers had ruthlessly exposed Reds from set pieces for all of their goals.
Harrold got a standing ovation when he made way for Barnard with five minutes to go but it won’t have made him feel a whole lot better on an ultimately disappointing afternoon for Crawley.