Reds bowed out of the Carabao Cup and had striker Dominic Poleon sent off in a dramatic finale at the Memorial Stadium.
Poleon, who came on with 30 minutes to go, had been booked for his protests to referee Lee Swabey after his goalbound shot appeared to strike a Rovers defender.
The hosts made it 2-0 moments later when Ollie Clarke added to Kyle Bennett’s first-half opener, but Mark Connolly pulled one back in the 88th minute.
Then in stoppage time the referee stopped play on the edge of the Rovers’ box after Reece Grego-Cox went down. Poleon tried to block keeper Adam Smith’s clearance and was shown a second yellow card. Crawley had every right to argue that a drop ball on the edge of the box should have been awarded. It was a controversial end to a slow-burner of a cup tie which sparked into life in the last 15 minutes.
Harry Kewell rang the changes after fielding the same starting XI in our opening two League 2 games.
Ollie Palmer and Filipe Morais rested slight knocks while Glenn Morris, Poleon and Dannie Bulman dropped to the bench with Josh Payne left out of the squad.
Rob Milsom – who completed his move to the club on Monday - Reece Grego-Cox and wide man Tarryn Allarakhia came in for their debuts and there was a first start of the season for goalkeeper Yusuf Mersin and Mark Randall. A familiar face in the Rovers’ line-up was Kyle Bennett, who had a loan spell at Crawley in 2012.
After a quiet start Rovers threatened in the 11th minute when Bennett met Daniel Leadbitter’s cross with a glancing header, but failed to keep it on target.
Reds enjoyed some good spells of possession in the first half but created just one chance – and failed to take it. In the 15th minute George Francomb’s low cross from the right picked out Camara six yard out but he scuffed his shot wide of the target.
Mersin was called into action for the first time when he smothered Steffan Payne’s angled drive then Mark Connolly deflected Sam Matthews’ effort over after neat skills by the home midfielder.
Crawley managed to deal with the resultant corner but were undone from another flag-kick in the 33rd minute. No one in the visitors’ defence picked up either Payne when he got a touch to Leadbitter’s right-wing corner or Bennett, who stooped to head past a helpless Mersin from about three yards. A really poor goal to concede.
Rovers sensed Reds’ vulnerability and from another right-wing cross Tom Lockyer was again unmarked but headed the ball into the ground and over the bar.
Mark Randall was booked for a foul and although Reds had possession in good areas they had mustered little threat in the first half apart from Camara’s bad miss.
The pattern of play remained unchanged at the start of the second half with Reds again enjoying good spells without testing Adam Smith in the home goal. At the other end Mersin saved two efforts on target by the lively Matthews while Payne couldn’t keep a free header down as Rovers looked for the second to kill off the tie.
Kewell made a double change just past the hour, introducing Poleon and Dannie Bulman before Grego-Cox was brought down 25 yards out but Josh Doherty failed to keep his left-footed free kick on target.
All the time the deficit was a single goal Crawley were still in the tie and with ten minutes to go Kewell threw on Ashley Nathaniel-George for his debut in place of Camara.
And the substitute nearly made a decisive intervention. He weaved his way past two defenders to create space for Poleon whose shot appeared to have hit a defender. Referee Swabey waved play on and Rovers broke. Ollie Clarke picked up possession 25 yards out and his shot beat Mersin.
Kewell picked up a yellow card in the technical area for his protests.
Reds kept going and two minutes from time Randall’s powerful shot struck the post. Reds recycled possession and when Nathaniel-George crossed from the left Mark Connolly crashed a close-range header past Smith to make it 2-1.
But despite five minutes of stoppage time Crawley couldn’t conjure up an equaliser and will now be without Poleon for Saturday’s trip to Port Vale.
Reds: Mersin; Francomb, Vincelot, Connolly, Doherty; Allarakhia (Poleon 62), Randall, Milsom (Bulman 62), Young; Grego-Cox, Camara (Nathaniel-George 81). Unused subs: Morris, McNerney, Sesay.
Attendance: 2336 (47 Crawley fans)
Picture: Alex Rodman is sent tumbling by Panutche Camara. Photo by Simon Dack