Reds finished the season, as Head Coach Gabriele Cioffi had promised, with ‘the chin up’ after a deserved win over play-off contenders Tranmere.
The visitors, who made eight changes, may have had the play-offs in mind but there was no denying Reds deserved to win thanks to first-half goals from Ashley Nathaniel-George and Filipe Morais and a stoppage-time third from Panutche Camara. James Norwood had got Rovers back into it with a penalty early in the second half.
Reece Grego-Cox, David Sesay and Matty Willock came into the starting XI and there was a welcome return on the bench for Jimmy Smith, out since September with a knee injury.
Reds dominated the early exchanges, working the ball quickly through the midfield and bringing Nathaniel-George and Morais into play when they could from the flanks.
But it was Tranmere who had the first sight of goal when Jonny Smith headed Norwood’s cross back across goal and Joe McNerney cleared off the line with Chris Dagnall threatening.
Reds went close on the half hour when Grego-Cox’s volley was headed off the line by Zoumane Bakayogo after keeper Scott Davies lost possession and Tom Dallison chipped it towards the back post.
The home side began to up the tempo and they took the lead on 36 minutes. Callum Willock took a pass from Nathaniel-George in his stride and when Davies parried his shot it was Nathaniel-George who reacted quickest to fire the loose ball home for his sixth goal of the season.
Six minutes later it was 2-0. Francomb’s corner dropped to McNerney on the corner of the six-yard box and his low shot was turned in by Morais, for his eighth goal of the season.
It put the seal on a good first-half display but within two minutes of the re-start Tranmere had one back when Nathaniel-George brought Adam Buxton down in the box and Norwood rolled the resultant penalty into the bottom corner to make it 2-1.
Morais was replaced by top scorer Ollie Palmer on 66 minutes and soon after Glenn Morris made an instinctive save to push Norwood’s flick wide for a corner after Reds failed to clear a long ball.
Crawley regrouped in the closing 20 minutes and began to get on top again. Davies denied Palmer with a sprawling save then in stoppage time came a great goal to end the season. Man of the match Camara won the ball in Reds’ half, knocked it past Steve McNulty and then outpaced the Rovers’ defender before rounding Davies and firing into an empty net for his second goal of the season.
The cheers had hardly died down when there was a rousing ovation for the stoppage-time introduction of Jimmy Smith and a League debut for Brian Galach.
Camara’s goal was a fitting way to end what at times has been a tough season but hope springs eternal and on this evidence Reds have some good young players to build a more successful team around next season.
Reds: Morris; Young, McNerney, Dallison, Sesay; Morais (Palmer 66), Willock (Smith 90+2), Francomb, Camara, Nathaniel-George (Galach 90+2); Grego-Cox. Subs not used: Mersin, Doherty, Gambin.
Attendance: 3183 (783 Tranmere)
Picture: Ashley Nathaniel-George celebrates with David Sesay after putting Reds in front. Photo by James Boardman