When the full-time whistle blew at Broadfield Stadium this evening with Steve Evans gesticulating at the referee in the background over the amount of time added on at the end of the match, there was an outpouring of joy and delight that the stadium has probably never seen before. It would probably not, however, be overstating things to say that this joy was only scantly mirrored in the outside world. Non-league football probably hasn’t ever seen a less popular set of “giant-killers” (if, considering everything, that is how this match can really be framed) and, for those of us that love non-league football, the feeling of ambivalence towards Crawley Town on an evening such as this has felt odd, almost unnatural. We’re supposed to love our giant-killers. Instead, tonight felt lop-sided, as if the planets had slipped out of alignment.
The Daily Mail chimed in this morning with a hagiography of the club that contained some surprising assertions. It claimed, for example, that “Crawley’s home gate has doubled to around 1,200” this season, which is just plain wrong – their average home crowd this season is 1,694, up from 913 last season but almost identical to their average home attendance – 1,682 – of two seasons ago. In addition to this, it would appear that, according to this report, the selection of lower division footballers that have pitched up in West Sussex over the last few months or so have done so out of the goodness of their hearts rather than for financial consideration and that all of the the money spent on them was not only all paid up front, but was considerably less than was reported anywhere at the time that the transfers were going through, when they were never denied by the club. Eyebrows have been raised nationwide at such claims.
Perhaps Crawley Town’s new owners have found a form of something approaching football alchemy, or perhaps there is an attempt going in some quarters to try and whitewash their recent history, painting them as the plucky underdogs that the press loves to talk up so much on the day of their big FA Cup match. On the pitch, though, such concerns don’t amount to a great deal and Crawley outplayed a Derby County team that are three divisions above them and who, after a bright start, looked lethargic for much of the match. Within nine minutes, the Crawley goalkeeper Michel Kuipers had mistimed a race against Derby’s Chris Porter to get to the ball first and gave the forward the opportunity to look for a penalty kick. Kris Commons’ penalty, however, was weak and Kuipers blocked the ball.
An early opening goal may have settled Derby nerves, but the penalty miss seemed to have the polar opposite effect upon them. They soon found themselves pegged back by an effervescent Crawley midfield and after half an hour Crawley took the lead, when Matt Tubbs’ shot was charged down into the path of Craig McAllister, who finished into the corner of the net. Within minutes, Crawley nearly doubled their lead, but McAllister’s shot was well blocked by Rob Pringle. The half ended, however, on something of a sour note when Tubbs crashed into Robbie Savage with a tackle that should have earnt him a red card, but didn’t. Savage, who is starting to look more and more like a pantomime dame as he heads towards middle-age, protested loudly but his appeals, which seemed to follow the referee up the tunnel at half-time, fell upon deaf ears.
It had been a tepid first forty-five minutes from Derby County but they improved in the second half, despite increasinglty monsoon-like conditions and with eighteen minutes of the second half played drew level when Commons atoned for his earlier penalty miss by sending over a perfect cross from the right-hand side which Miles Addison met with a powerful header past Kuipers. This should have been the turning point of the evening, the moment at which the natural order was reinstated, but Derby, having brought themselves level, took their collective foot off the pedal. The Crawley players didn’t tire, though, and, with the match thirty seconds into stoppage time, the winning goal came when a shot from the edge of the penalty area from Sergio Torres fizzed through a crowd of players and into the corner of the Derby net.
In a moment of candour, ESPN’s Jon Champion noted that Crawley Town had spent more on players last summer than every club in League Two put together, and this gives us some insight into the fact that, whilst this evening’s result was a very good day at the office for Crawley and a very bad one for Derby County, it was not the seismic tremor that the traditional narrative of the FA Cup, which the mainstream media may choose to run with over the next couple of weeks, demands. The continuing presence of Steve Evans also remains a pock mark on the face of Crawley Town Football Club, and that the supporters of his club seem relatively ambivalent towards him even at a time of unprecedented success says a lot about how he carries himself now as well as the murkier aspects of his past.
Crawley’s supporters may feel that, after all that they have been through over the last few years of mismanagement, they deserve an evening like this. Time will tell on whether this particular “project” ends in yet more tears, though, and the cost for their supporters is that many people will not give the team as much credit as it might deserve for its win tonight, even though the players deserve full credit for their performances. Regardless of any other considerations, they earned the right to their celebrations. That the goodwill shown towards the club has been so muted certainly seems to be more a reflection on their manager than either of these two groups.
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