Perhaps we should spare a thought for the ordinary supporters of Crawley Town. The thousand or so die-hards that have been going to Broadfield Stadium for a few years have had a tough time of it over the last few seasons and they may well believe that they, if no-one else, have earned their day in the spotlight. It’s also worth pointing out that support for the odious Steve Evans isn’t anything like as unanimously popular as one would expect, considering that this season is by a long way the most successful in the history of their club. Similarly, the players, whilst clearly too good for the level at which they play their trade, are paid to do a job and do it. Whatever may or may not happen at some indeterminate point in the future of Crawley Town Football Club is not their fault.
With a draw against Manchester United in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, most of the concerns over how the club was funding its extravagance have evaporated, as well. The line “it’ll all end in tears” has been said a lot about Crawley over the last few weeks and months, but this FA Cup run will have earned them well over £1m. The costs of the spending spree have more than been met. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still serious questions to be asked about how the largesse that allowed them the FA Cup run that has bailed out their losses came their way, and trite statements making reference to investors wishing to preserve their anonymity simply aren’t good enough, especially should we consider their level of spending to be a form of what has come to be known as “financial doping”.
And then there is Steve Evans. This evening, he cut a faintly ridiculous figure, with his bleached blond hair, a suspicious-looking tan and what some people watching the match on the television identified as eyeliner. He isn’t just a mere “manager”. If he was, why would he have been appointed as a director of Prospect Estate Holdings, the company that formerly owned Crawley Town, not long after the club’s summer take-over was completed? There isn’t anything to suggest that there is anything suspicious about this, but there certainly seems to be more to his involvement in the club than meets the immediate eye. His and his team’s behaviour before and during their Fourth Round win at Torquay United also came in for criticism and there can be little question that this particular FA Cup run has been one of the most divisive ever seen.
Over the last week or so, even their pre-match preparations have been criticised. A video for their FA Cup song had to be pulled (and, to the credit of the club, this happened with considerable speed) after a “supporter” was spotted making visual references to the Munich Air Disaster in it. He, it turned out, was already under a three year banning order by the club which has now been extended to a life ban. A one-off sponsorship deal for the match with The Sun has also caused consternation in some circles. For those of us that have followed the non-league game for a long time, the notion of supporting a Premier League team against a non-league team in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup – and Crawley are the first non-league club to have come this far since Kidderminster Harriers in 1994 – feels counter-intuitive.
And yet, credit has to come where it is due. Crawley Town were well-organised, tight and had Manchester United on the rack for long spells this evening. Wes Brown’s first half goal came against the general run of play, with the best other chance of the half being a twenty-five yard, dipping shot from Ben Smith that dropped not far wide of the Manchester United goalkeeper Lindegaard’s right-hand post. This was, as it was always likely to be, a scratch Manchester United side, and they looked uncertain against an up-tempo Crawley performance that showed little fear and had a plan to arrive at Old Trafford and take the game by the scruff of the neck. The players gave everything, and their support – even if most of the 9,000 travelling Crawley supporters never have or never will set foot in Broadfield Stadium again – was, as perhaps one might have expected, vocal and supportive of its team. Manchester United were lucky to go in at half-time with the lead and were even luckier to still be holding onto it at the full-time whistle.
The introduction of Wayne Rooney at half-time could be interpreted in many different ways, but it was probably a mistake. In the second half, United’s midfield was consistently over-run by Crawley’s and for the last fifteen minutes they were hanging on by their fingernails. Matt Tubbs managed to put an overhead kick over the crossbar from six yards out and, two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the match, Richard Brodie’s looping, slo-mo header dropped over Lindegaard and bounced away off the tops of the crossbar. It was close, very close and at the end of the match Alex Ferguson walked towards the tunnel in the corner of Old Trafford with a look on his place that was almost exactly half-way between grumpily philosophical and downright furious.
Had Crawley managed an equaliser it would have been an embarrassment for Ferguson, certainly, but a home draw against non-league opposition wouldn’t have been completely uncharted territory for Manchester United – Burton Albion and Exeter City both managed this, and on considerably thinner resources than Crawley have at their disposal at the moment. Yet this doesn’t mean that their team doesn’t deserve full credit for its performance. Even the most hard-hearted of us would have to concede that. There remain many serious questions to be asked about Crawley Town and there are still many reasons to despise Steve Evans but tonight will be remembered as the night that they gave Manchester United an almighty fright in the FA Cup. Evans’ continuing involvement at the club and the money spent to get to where they are, however, mean that their achievements will continue to be met with ambivalence by many in the broader public, and this is a trade-off that their supporters have no option but to accept.
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