When a non-league club gets as far as the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, the goodwill shown by supporters of other clubs often transcends league and occasionally even local rivalries. Not so this year. Crawley Town have an excellent chance of making the Fifth Round of the competition, but there is at best a feeling of ambivalence surrounding this FA Cup run. This, after all, is the club that spent more money on players during last summer than the whole of the division above it and is managed by a man that many feel should have been banned from the game for life.
As ever, there has been talk of giant-killing throughout the week but, in the case of this match, it doesn’t feel as if an away win would be much of a surprise. Torquay United fell out of the Football League in 2007 and spent a couple of years there themselves before managing to scramble their way back two seasons ago via the play-offs. They’re halfway down the League Two table at the time of writing, meaning that there are only a dozen or so league places between the two teams. There will be no “shock” result at Plainmoor this afternoon. Not that this is the narrative that Crawley want – they had the “Living The Dream” posters out this week, to which the natural reaction might have been, “Buying The Dream, more like”.
It’s a cold and blustery day on the English Riviera and play is held up for fifteen minutes on account of crowd congestion (or, as is pointed out to me, “it took longer than expected to get Steve Evan’s SHEER BRASS NECK through the gate”). The blustery conditions do not induce great football from either team, although Torquay, to their credit, do at least to put the ball on the ground whereas all the money thrown at Crawley Town seems to have bought the club is team that is a marginally more sophisticated version of John Beck’s Cambridge United team of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Torquay have the best of the opening chances and Danny Stevens has a shot that flashes just wide of Michel Kuipers’goal after a quarter of an hour, but it’s a poor match, full of unnecessary mistakes and occasional outbursts. Five minutes from half-time, though, Crawley take the lead with a goal copied word for word from one of Charles Reep’s manuals. Sergio Torres lumps the ball three-quarters the length pitch for Matthew Tubbs to drive the ball past the goalkeeper and in.
Things improve in the second half, as Crawley seem to settle and actually start playing some attractive football. Right on the hour, they are given a golden chance to wrap the game up when Chris Zebroski handles inside the penalty area for his troubles. Tubbs steps up with the penalty, but Scott Bevan reacts quickly and dives low to his right and save. Seven minutes later, they have a second chance from the spot after Lee Mansell and Jamie Cook get tied up in each others limbs. There’s a brief and rather unseemly row between two Crawley players over who will step up to be the plucky, underdog hero in the papers tomorrow. Craig McAllister finally wins the right, steps up and… misses.
As the second half wears on, though, a niggliness comes into Crawley’s behaviour that makes them even less likeable than they might otherwise have been. Defender Pablo Mills is booked and turns his back on the referee in the way that a sulking teenager might as his name is taken. A shove in the ribs on a Crawley player in his own penalty area (which ends in said player on the floor clutching, you guessed it, his face) leads to a bout of pushing and shoving, and a second yellow card for Crawley’s Dean Howell, who has been playing like the bastard son of Steve Bruce and a combine harvester. For the first time this afternoon, a previously toothless looking Torquay attack starts to look like doing something. A speculative shot from an angle bounces over off the top of the crossbar, and Torquay now play with a bit of urgency, but Crawley hang on reasonably comfortably to edge through the Fifth Round of the competition.
There will, however, be little cheering outside the Crawley area and few well-wishers sending them all the best as they prepare to see if they can become the first non-league side in modern times to get as far as the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. This is the cost of their largesse and the cost of the continuing involvement at their club – in a managerial position – of somebody that should have been banned for life from football for his systematic cheating at a previous club. The crocodile tears that he wept in court to keep himself out of prison have been replaced over the years with a lack of humility or grace that is an insult to those that he left behind at Boston United to pick up the shattered pieces of that club. That his team should have put in such a bullish performance this afternoon seems to indicate that he is building a team in his own image, and that is quite dispiriting, if you stop and think about it for a moment.
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