The motivation behind Dario Gradi's extraordinary 23 years in charge of Crewe Alexandra remained a mystery to Sir Alex Ferguson before the two longest-serving managers in English football met at Gresty Road last night. Now the understudy in longevity has an answer; it is nights like this.
Gradi's latest incarnation of raw talent honed into an accomplished football team came within 60 seconds of dragging Manchester United to a penalty shoot-out in the Carling Cup third round only for a visiting debutant, 18-year-old Kieran Lee, to spoil their fervent hopes of an upset with a fine run and finish in the 119th minute.
The heartache was palpable for Crewe, who had created enough chances to avoid the lottery of spot-kicks of their own accord, but there was ample consolation in the latest confirmation of their manager's remarkable methods.
For Ferguson, however, there was little comfort in the sight of his latest generation of young talent struggling until the dying seconds against League One opposition. From one to 11, United were unrecognisable from the team that strolled to victory over Liverpool on Sunday, and though many established stars were returning from injury, there was an uncertain, ponderous air that exposed the lack of depth in the squad at Old Trafford.
Right-back David Gray, striker Phil Marsh and central midfielders Ritchie and David Jones were all handed a rare start, but simply donning a United shirt does not make you a United player as Ferguson had cause to remind his players as early as the 15th minute.
On that occasion, the sluggish Gabriel Heinze and the casual Kieran Richardson were the objects of the United manager's anger at the precise moment Crewe broke and thought they had opened the scoring through the lively Luke Varney. An offside flag spared United on that occasion but there was no escape from the Scot's fierce criticism.
Ferguson, who nowadays rarely brings his hairdryer into the public domain, admitted: "I don't know what to make of it, I am really disappointed. I told the lads these teams battle and they would have to match that but we didn't do it. We allowed them to play. We all have to share the responsibility. Maybe it was a bit more difficult for some of the senior players to get motivated. It was a careless attitude and it was looking like penalties. Crewe were the better team and they were very unlucky."
After an opening in which United goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak was busy, the visitors edged in front in the 26th minute , captain for the night Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clinically volleying a Ritchie Jones cross into the corner.
Crewe were unperturbed, however. Three times Varney was denied by Kuszczak before winning their personal duel 18 minutes from time when he cut in from the left and drove his shot past the Polish international's despairing dive. Crewe deserved their shot at extra time and would have gone to penalties but for Lee's excellent finish -
"He has got great ability and he showed great awareness to make that run," said Ferguson - but Southend away, plus a managerial rebuke, awaits United. This was a night when his charges made Ferguson feel every one of his 20 years at Old Trafford.
Crewe Alexandra (4-4-2): Williams; Otsemobor, Baudet, Cox, Taylor (Bell, 75); Lowe, Osbourne, Rix, Vaughan; Maynard, Varney. Substitutes not used: Tomlinson (gk), Rodgers, Higdon, O'Donnell.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Gray (Lee, 75), Brown, Silvestre, Heinze; Solskjaer, R.Jones, D.Jones, Richardson; Marsh (Barnes, h-t), Smith. Substitutes not used: Heaton (gk), Shawcross, Rose.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Draw for the fourth round
Notts County v Wycombe
Tottenham v Port Vale
Birmingham v Liverpool
Chelsea v Aston Villa
Watford v Newcastle
Chesterfield v Charlton
Southend v Man Utd
Everton v Arsenal
Matches to be played 7-8 NovemberReuse content