Crawley 1, City 3
CRAWLEY'S Broadfield Stadium is probably the least glamorous stop-off on the League One circuit and for Phil Parkinson it had proved one of the most depressing.
His previous two visits to this corner of West Sussex with City had ended in misery – bad performances and nothing to show for the long hike south.
But that's not the case any more. Those past disappointments were banished last night by an exhilarating second-half display as his impressive team stepped up their fast start to the season.
A home team who had won everything and not conceded anything up to now finished well beaten – picked off by three quality strikes from James Hanson, Billy Knott and Mason Bennett.
City rounded off a long week on the road in the sweetest fashion possible. What a satisfying first ten days this has been.
After three appearances off the bench, Aaron Mclean was upgraded to start his opening game of the season.
It meant the Mclean and Hanson attacking partnership was reunited for their first full outing since Shrewsbury on March 22.
The striker's return was one of three changes from the goalless draw at Walsall. Alan Sheehan was back from compassionate leave and regained the left-back slot from James Meredith.
And Filipe Morais made his league debut – after facing Morecambe last week – in place of Mark Yeates. That meant Knott taking up the link role at the top of the midfield diamond.
Both Yeates and Meredith had decent games against Walsall but Parkinson has made it clear that he will ring the changes to give everyone match-time during the hectic opening weeks of the new campaign.
There was a familiar face in Crawley's goal – 39-year-old Brian Jensen. The Burnley legend, known as the Beast, did make a pre-season appearance last year for City at Guiseley.
The veteran Dane had hit the ground running with the Red Devils with three clean sheets and the home side were full of confidence from their flying start. In fact, City had been the last team to beat them at Valley Parade in April.
Morais had an early sighter at the Crawley goal from 20 yards after a booming clearing header from Andrew Davies.
Crawley were unrecognisable from the last meeting with City after a frantic summer of wheeling and dealing from John Gregory that saw 17 players come in and 16 leave.
There were only two survivors from four months ago – one of them, Gwion Edwards, needed careful watching on the right wing.
And Jordan Pickford – half the age of his rival keeper – had to be alert to save from Jimmy Smith's free-kick which deflected off Gary Liddle in the wall.
But Crawley nearly gifted City a goal when Jensen got in a mess with right back Lanre Oyebanjo, whose back-pass threatened to slip past the keeper.
Mclean closed in and wrestled the ball loose but was pulled up for a foul – and Jensen was not happy with the challenge as the pair briefly squared up.
City pressed again and felt they should have had a penalty when Knott's volley smacked against Oyebanjo. It looked a strong shout for handball but referee Carl Berry waved away their appeals.
Morais was booked for pulling back Edwards before City's back four could have been punished for switching off. Nobody picked up Bobson Bawling as he received Dickson's pass in the corner of the box but his drive flew over the angle.
It was a rare blemish from the defence, who had carried on the solid work from the week's previous two road trips. Izale McLeod had scored all three of Crawley's goals this season but saw little change from Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies.
At the other end, Liddle fizzed one over from 20 yards as City tried to ask questions of the division's most watertight defence. But the personal feud between Jensen and Mclean was hotting up after their early clash and the pair barged into each other again.
As half-time approached, Edwards cleverly carved his way through the light blue shirts. Eluding the challenge of Davies, he wriggled into the box at an angle but Pickford was alive to the danger and came sliding out to make the tackle.
The teenager's timing had to be spot on as the Crawley man went sprawling and the referee, who was perfectly placed, certainly thought so.
Pickford made another crucial intervention seconds later as a Crawley corner led to a brief scramble in front of goal. Skipper Joe Walsh's shot on the turn came through a sea of legs but the youngster was there to save.
City immediately responded at the other end, where Morais warmed Jensen's hands from long distance before the half-time whistle sounded.
The visitors began the second half with a change as Bennett came on for Mclean – and within five minutes they had the lead.
The goal stemmed from some neat passing on their right. Darby drove a low cross into the box, Bennett scuffed at it and the ball came through to Hanson.
He had time to get it out from under his feet and then slammed a left-foot drive into the roof of the net.
It was the first goal Crawley had conceded in 320 minutes of football – but they needed only four more to get back on level terms.
Davies gave away a corner under pressure and Ryan Dickson's set-piece was met with a decisive header through the crowd from Walsh.
But the game had burst into life and City dusted themselves down before striking for a second time. Again it was a cracking finish.
Knott exchanged passes with Morais before beating Jensen with a crisp half-volley into the bottom corner. It was a classy way for the midfielder to open his account in a City shirt.
It could have got even better for the visitors when the home defence opened invitingly for the advancing Sheehan.
The Irishman's shot was hit well but off target – but Jason Kennedy diverted it past Jensen and against the Crawley bar.
Home heads were spinning, so much so that Bawling started to make his way off when the number 20 board was raised before realising that it was City replacing the impressive Morais with Yeates.
But City were still not finished and earned themselves some breathing space with a third goal.
Hanson outmuscled Walsh and flicked on for Bennett, who calmly clipped the ball over the sliding Jensen to get off the mark for his loan club and put the seal on a good night.