Crewe stretched their club record sequence to 17 matches without defeat in securing a narrow lead to take into Wednesday's second leg in Essex. Eleven points separated these sides in the League Two table – a gulf explained partly by Southend's home and away double in the games between them. But it was only in the final 20 minutes of this play-off semi-final that it was apparent which team had finished fourth and which had trailed in seventh.
Crewe appeared upbeat, having qualified for the play-offs despite languishing as low as 18th when Steve Davis succeeded Dario Gradi in November, while Southend were unable to take the last automatic promotion spot on the final day.
The force was often with the home team, although the advantage they hold came from a goal hardly in keeping with the purist ideals of the club. Five minutes after half-time, Crewe's captain Ashley Westwood launched a long diagonal free-kick and Anthony Dugdale, a central defender released by the club in 2009 and re-signed a year later after doing the non-League circuit, climbed highest to score with a fine looping header.
It was the first time Paul Sturrock's defence had been breached in nine hours and 26 minutes of playing time and a second breakthrough would have followed had Cameron Belford not saved superbly from Ajay Leitch-Smith. "That was miles away from how we have been playing," said Sturrock, whose side had ended the season with four straight victories. "Butif we bring our top game to the second leg, I'm sure we will get the result we need."
Southend finished with a rush that will give them heart. The Tunisian forward Bilel Mohsni wastefully headed over from close range and Ryan Hall saw a shot on the run touched round the post.
Crewe, whose last defeat was at Southend in February, were seldom able to get their 15-goal leading scorer Nick Powell on the ball, although he was denied when a half-chance fell to him in stoppage time. "We have coped well with the occasion but Southend will be wounded," Davis said. "We have to be ready for that on Wednesday."
Crewe (4-4-1-1): Phillips; Carl Martin (Bodin, 89), Dugdale, Davis, Mellor; Moore, Westwood, Murphy (Bell, 77), Tootle; Powell; Leitch-Smith (Clayton, 84).
Southend (4-3-3): Belford; Clohessy, Phillips (Prosser, 66), Barker, Gilbert; Timlin, Grant, Ferdinand (Leonard, 60); Hall, Neil Harris (Eastwood, 73) Mohsni.
Referee Michael Naylor.
Man of the match Westwood (Crewe).
Match rating 7/10.