Manchester United breathed a huge sigh of relief as they defeated non-League Crawley 1-0 on Saturday to book a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals despite a lacklustre display at Old Trafford. United defender Wes Brown's first half header proved enough to sink the minnows, but the 11-times FA Cup winners were forced to endure an uncomfortable time at the hands of opponents 93 places below them on the league ladder.
Crawley were a credit to the fifth tier of English football as the Conference side produced a spirited performance which earned them a standing ovation from the near 75,000-capacity crowd at the end. They could even have snatched a draw if Richard Brodie's stoppage time header, which struck the crossbar, had dropped an inch or two lower.
This tie was all about Crawley, who were seeking to become the first non-League club to reach the quarter-final since the war. The journey which brought them to Old Trafford had started four months earlier in Wales against Newport County in the fourth qualifying round and continued with victories over Guiseley, Swindon, Derby and Torquay.
Crawley were backed by a huge travelling contingent of 9,000 fans, about four times their average home league attendance. Their team was spinkled with former youth team players from Premier League clubs, while veteran keeper Michel Kuipers had spent time in the Dutch marine corps.
Kuipers was expecting to find himself in the firing line against the Premier League leaders, but United struggled to stamp their authority as Crawley quickly showed they had not arrived just to make up the numbers. Indeed, United's keeper Anders Lindegaard was almost embarrassed by a speculative 25-yard effort from former Arsenal trainee Ben Smith in the 11th minute which sailed narrowly wide of the target.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson made nine changes to the side which started the win over Manchester City, with Anderson and John O'Shea the only survivors. There were rare starts for Portugal U-21 international Bebe and Mexico striker Javier Hernandez, while Dimitar Berbatov was not involved ahead of next Wednesday's Champions League tie away to Marseille.
It was Darron Gibson who proved Crawley's undoing, the Republic of Ireland international delivering an inch-perfect cross for Brown to head the hosts into a 28th minute lead from their first serious threat. Then Gibson threaded a delightful pass for Fabio da Silva to kill the tie off but the Brazilian full back produced a tame finish and Crawley survived.
It was a sign of Ferguson's frustration that the United manager sent on Wayne Rooney at the start of the second half. But Rooney's presence did little to lift United as Crawley dug deep to scare their opponents.
David Hunt was presented with a golden opportunity to equalise following substitute Brodie's 72nd minute cross. To United's relief, Hunt showed no composure as he lashed his shot wide.
And two minutes later Matt Tubbs, Crawley's leading scorer with 28 goals this season, spurned an even better chance when his overhead kick from four yards cleared flew over before Brodie hit the bar in stoppage time.