Reds suffered their first defeat in seven League 2 games against a clinical Walsall side.
The hosts had a lot of possession in dangerous areas, particularly in the first half, but only had Ashley Nathaniel-George’s 40th minute penalty to show for their efforts.
The Saddlers were two-up at that stage thanks to a thunderbolt from James Clarke and Elijah Adebayo and crucially restored their two-goal lead three minutes after Reds had made it 2-1 through Wes MacDonald.
Not even the introduction of Bez Lubala could ignite the home side in the second half and it did look as if the physical and mental exertions of recent weeks had taken their toll. Substitute Josh Payne’s stoppage-time goal, his first of the season, put a fairer reflection on the scoreline but came too late to alter the outcome.
Gabriele Cioffi had made four changes to the side that beat Stoke in the Carabao Cup to try and freshen things up. Glenn Morris came back in goal and Mason Bloomfield and Nathaniel-George replaced Ollie Palmer, who was injured, and Bez Lubala, who was on the bench.
Josh Doherty served a one-match ban for accumulating five bookings and was replaced by Lewis Young while Ashley Nadesan (ankle) George Francomb (toe) and Joe McNerney (back) were still out. Denzeil Boadu made his first appearance in the squad as a substitute. Walsall’s line-up included former Red Mat Sadler.
Reds began on the front foot but it was Walsall who took the lead with a brilliant strike by Clarke in the 13th minute. Found in lots of space 30 yards out, the defender smashed a right-foot shot into the top left-hand corner with no chance for Glenn Morris.
The hosts responded positively with Reece Grego-Cox prominent. He went down under a challenge from MacDonald but referee Sam Purkiss waved penalty appeals away. Saddlers’ keeper Liam Roberts then had to turn Grego-Cox’s cross-shot over his own bar.
At that stage Reds looked the likelier to score the next goal but instead Walsall doubled their lead on 26 minutes. MacDonald attacked the space on the left, drilled the ball across the face of goal and Adebayo slid in to score from close range.
Reds weren’t playing badly but Walsall got men behind the ball when the home side threatened but they were nearly breached twice in the space of five minutes. Nathaniel-George’s shot on 34 minutes was blocked to Bloomfield but his angled effort was pushed out by Roberts. The pair combined again but this time Bloomfield’ shot on the turn from eight yards took a deflection and Roberts saved.
But they weren’t to be denied. On 40 minutes Nathaniel-George’s pass found Bloomfield clear and as he rounded Roberts the keeper brought him down. Referee Purkiss deliberated before pointing to the spot and Nathaniel-George converted into the bottom left-hand corner to make it 2-1.
But having got back into the game Crawley conceded a third three minutes later when MacDonald again got the better of David Sesay and curled a right-foot shot expertly into the far corner.
Nathaniel-George was replaced by Lubala at the break and Reds’ top scorer wasn’t far away with his first effort at goal on 51 minutes when his left-foot strike from 25 yards flew inches wide of the right-hand post. Lubala then teed up Nathan Ferguson in space 15 yards out but the midfielder failed to hit the target from a great position.
Payne replaced Dannie Bulman midway through the second half and while Reds continued to push, Walsall were proving a tough nut to crack.
Roberts pushed away a goalbound effort from Lubala with nine minutes to go and Reds finally found a way through deep into stoppage time when Payne found the top left-hand corner with a typically stylish strike from the edge of the box.
It was too little late but at least gave the score-line a fairer reflection of events.
Reds: Morris; Sesay, Dallison, Tunnicliffe, Young; Bulman (Payne 65); Grego-Cox, Camara, Ferguson (Allarakhia 90); Nathaniel-George (Lubala 45); Bloomfield.
Attendance: 2275 (264 Walsall)
Picture: Ashley Nathaniel-George converts his first-half penalty. Photo by James Boardman