Football: Rowbotham on cruise control

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Crewe Alexandra. . . .4

Preston North End. . .3

AFTER nudging Preston off the top of the Third Division last weekend, Crewe increased the lead to four points with a cool display and two hot goals by Darren Rowbotham last night.

A heavy pitch was a threat to Crewe's close passing style. The answer? Play it long and that is how Crewe cruised into the lead after only nine minutes. Shaun Smith's free-kick from his penalty area squirmed out of Kelham O'Hanlon's arms. Tony Naylor could have been excused if he had miscued his shot from an acute angle, but he kept his nerve and curled in his first goal in six games for the team with the daunting task of facing Leeds United in the FA Cup.

Preston's response was less orthodox, and short-lived. A shot by Tony Ellis from a scrummage was flying a yard wide of the target until the ball hit David Moyes and was deflected past a bewildered Mark Smith.

Crewe responded to that quirky setback in two minutes. A Giggs-style free-kick by Mark Gardiner smacked an upright and Rowbotham dived in to score after 26 minutes of a fast flowing game.

The Gresty Road pitch, in fact, dried out well and Crewe produced a goal of glossy quality six minutes into the second half. Steve Walters was twice involved in a move of at least eight passes before supplying the crucial opening. Rowbotham's footnote was a skimming low left-foot drive to give Crewe a 3-1 lead with his 12th goal of the season.

It had been a quiet match for Preston's and the division's leading scorer, Ellis (21 to his credit), who was not surprisingly replaced minutes after Rowbotham's lesson in marksmanship.

Mike Conroy cut the lead to 3-2 before Danny Murphy, 16, scored seconds after his 86th minute appearance as substitute. Paul Raynor had the last word in stoppage time.

Crewe Alexandra (5-3-2): M Smith; Collins, Wilson, Evans, Abel, Gardiner; Walters, Whalley, S Smith; Rowbotham, Naylor (Murphy, 86). Subs not used: Hughes, Wilkinson (gk).

Preston North End (4-3-3): O'Hanlon; Fensome (Cartwright 84), Moyes, Kidd, Sulley; Whalley, Lucas, Raynor; Ainsworth, Lucas, Ellis (Conroy 55). Sub not used: Woods (gk).

Referee: K Lupton (Stockton).