In Crewe, the play-offs have fallen so short of expectation in recent years they are regarded as overtures to angst rather than delight. True to form yesterday, they lost their way and probably their chance of promotion from the Second Division.
Leading 2-0 thanks to goals from Colin Little and Mark Rivers, they capitulated so thoroughly in the second half they could consider themselves fortunate to get a draw. Even so, you had to feel sympathy for them as Notts County's equaliser came in injury time. The momentum will be with the home team in Wednesday's second leg in Nottingham.
Three times in four years Crewe have glimpsed promotion via the play- offs and finished with nothing and afterwards their manager, Dario Gradi, did not come over as particularly optimistic. "We're worse off than we were," he said. "A lot of my players didn't perform today and I don't have much time between now and Wednesday to change things. We'll go there without a clue how we're going to do."
Crewe's performance mirrored their season: bright and imaginative at the start, clueless and disappointing at the end. For much of the year they had expected to claim an automatic promotion spot but arrived at this match with a dismal run of 10 defeats in their previous 14 games.
Not that they began looking as if they had misplaced their confidence. Within three minutes they were ahead when Little eluded the pedestrian visiting defenders to head in powerfully at the near post from Mark Rivers' corner. Soon after, Danny Murphy hit a post with a volley.
In between, County's keeper Darren Ward had given Crewe another goal - kicking a clearance against Rivers and watching helplessly as the ball rebounded into the net - and if the home side had reached the interval four goals up they would not have been unduly flattered.
Injury cost Crewe the game's best player, Danny Murphy, but that could only partly explain why a team which had barely been inside their own penalty area before half-time could hardly get out of it afterwards. As a consequence, County changed from ponderous and dim-witted to irresistible. After 55 minutes, Crewe's left-back, Lee Unsworth, lost possession 35 yards out and before he could retrieve the situation Steve Finnan had lashed the ball under Mark Gayle's body at the near post.
That was bad enough but in injury time the Crewe defence allowed Tony Battersby to turn and cross from the right and Gary Martindale headed the equaliser. Wembley looked an unlikely prospect for Crewe last night.
Goals: Little (3) 1-0; Rivers (17) 2-0; Finnan (55) 2-1; Martindale (90) 2-2.
Crewe Alexandra (4-3-3): Gayle; Westwood, Lightfoot, McAllister, Unsworth; Savage, D Murphy (Blissett, 75), Whalley (Tierney, 69); Little, Macauley, Rivers (Collins, 69).
Notts County (4-4-2): Ward; Derry, S Murphy, Strodder, Barraclough; Finnan, Rogers, Richardson, Agana; Battersby, Jones (Martindale, 77). Substitutes not used: Hogg, Pollitt (gk).
Referee: D Allison (Lancaster)
Bookings: Crewe Savage; Notts County Strodder.
Man of the match: D Murphy (Crewe).