Once upon a time, a football team from a moderately-sized satellite town, who play their league matches in the Conference Premier, went on a five match winning-streak in the FA Cup to earn themselves a trip to Old Trafford to face the greatest team in the land, Manchester United. On their way, the plucky non-leaguers eliminated the likes of Derby County and Swindon Town, teams that can be found 31 and 58 league places above them respectively.
But while this fairytale makes great reading, the ascent of Crawley Town FC is in reality a logical consequence of the events of last summer. Having been on the brink of bankruptcy, last July co-owner Bruce Winfield announced to the press that Crawley were not only now debt free but had also attracted a number of unnamed investors who were willing to pump upwards of half a million pounds into the club.
Matt Tubbs, top scorer in the previous Conference Premier season, was signed from Salisbury City for a club record £70,000. This record was shattered as Richard Brodie of York City was picked up for around £250,000, a staggering figure for a club playing in a division in which some teams remain only semi-professional.
By the end of their spending spree Crawley had recruited 20 players, shelling out around £0.5m in the process. The record-breaking FA Cup run suddenly seems somewhat more plausible when this figure is brought into perspective – the combined spending of every League 2 club over the same period was in fact lower than Crawley’s extraordinary outlay.
Not unsurprisingly, the displays of opulence that have led to the Sussex-based club earning the nickname of the ‘Manchester City of non-league’ have not generated a warm response from the supporters of rival teams. However, rather than being a simple case of jealousy, the distaste with which Crawley are viewed has more deep-rooted causes.
For a start, Crawley are not and have never been a particularly well-supported club. Attendances this season have averaged just over 1,800, a figure bolstered by some impressive away contingents for several matches and placing Crawley only 10th overall in the attendance league table.
Mediocre attendances aren’t Crawley’s most irksome feature however. Aptly for a club that share their FA Cup opponents’ nickname of the ‘Red Devils’, the Conference title-chasers have their very own fiery Glaswegian on the touchline.
Steve Evans may not have won as many trophies as Sir Alex, but there can be no doubt that he is as competent a manager as can be found in non-league. In less than four years Evans was able to guide his previous club, Boston United, from the Southern League up to the heights of League Two.
Steve Evans has also never been knowingly under-opinionated when in the dugout. The nature of non-league is that the participants in a match – whether the officials, players or coaching staff – can be heard from the terraces by spectators much of the time. Evans’ frequent and prolonged foul-mouthed tirades during games have seen him repeatedly sent to the stands, and even receiving a ten match touchline ban in his second season at Crawley. It remains to be seen whether a trip to Old Trafford will leave Evans dumbstruck, but one suspects that the 4th official will have become well acquainted with the Glaswegian by full time.
Despite United finally losing their unbeaten record last weekend, the result of the match on February 19th already feels like a foregone conclusion. Reality dictates that, even up against a likely team of fringe players and reserve-teamers, Crawley should be satisfied to simply give a good account of themselves, enjoy the occasion and, with half a million pounds in TV revenue on the table, enjoy their payday. But this is not the Crawley way and, given that United crashed out to League One opposition last season (albeit a Leeds United side that could well join them in the Premier League next year), there remains a smidgen of hope, false or otherwise.
Often on these occasions one player can rise above his teammates to provide the performance that can define the tie, if not always the result. For instance, Jermaine Beckford’s coolly-taken winner in Leeds’ aforementioned defeat of Manchester United demonstrated his ability to transfer his lower league goal-scoring prowess into a higher-pressure environment. Similarly, Yeading’s third round FA Cup tie against Newcastle United in 2005 provided a perfect platform for a young DJ Campbell to showcase his skills; six years later, the Blackpool forward is the fourth highest English goal-scorer for the current Premier League season.
A primary candidate for a starring role in Crawley’s big game is Sergio Torres, a man who will draw much attention prior to the tie due to his more famous (more out-of-form) namesake, but is a highly talented footballer in his own right. The Argentine dropped down from League One Peterborough United to join Crawley and has become an instant success at the club, impressing throughout their cup campaign. With Chelsea’s Fernando seemingly like kryptonite to the otherwise omnipotent Nemanja Vidić, the centre-back may be grateful that he will most likely be watching Sergio from the comfort of the Manchester United bench.
This fixture will pit the best of non-league against the best in the country, a modern fairytale for the modern game.
Fittingly for a match that will be played in the same week as St. Valentine’s Day, Crawley Town have shown that cup romance isn’t dead – even if it does require a few expensive purchases to help things along the way.