At later stages, clubs are now fairly open in their contempt for the FA Cup, fielding reserve teams and compaining about fixture congestion, but at this stage it still matters. This weekend sees the Fourth Qualifying Round, the sixth stage of the competition and that at which Blue Square Premier clubs enter. A win today will be worth £12,500, with the possibility of a lucrative match against the likes of Leeds United, Southampton or Norwich City to be shown on the television. There will be less of this quite singular financial distribution to go around this year, although we still don’t know exactly how much less – the FA haven’t yet found a replacement broadcaster for the matches that Setanta had in their portfolio and should the remaining rights be sold, they are unlikely to make anything like the money that the previous contract was worth.
This match has already caused a degree of controversy, though. Crawley Town indulge in the fairly odious practice of categorising matches for the purposes of ticketing. It’s a policy that seems to have more to do with fleecing money out of away supporters, but the FA have at least stepped in and instructed Crawley to cut their prices before the match. Checking the local press during the week before the match, the club had been expecting a crowd of over 3,000, so the incentive for the club to follow this sort of policy is fairly clear. Perhaps it is time for the authorities of the game to review whether this practice should be allowed under any circumstances. No-one would argue that clubs shouldn’t have the right to maximise their revenues from gate receipts, but the fact that “Category A” matches always seem to cost more than one would expect rather than “Category C” matches costing less than one would expect rather speaks for itself.
Sheets of rain had blown across the south coast of England during the morning, but the clouds had largely cleared by kick-off time at Broadfield Stadium. It seems likely to be a tight match. Just four points and six league positions seperate the two clubs, and they have already played out a 1-1 draw at Kingsmeadow last month. This afternoon, however, Wimbledon are slow off the starting blocks. Their passing is sloppy and the team looks unbalanced since the loss of Chris Hussey to Coventry City a couple of weeks ago. Crawley, by contrast, look focussed and competitive. When they take the lead after fourteen minutes, it’s no great surprise. Jefferson Louis’s shot is blocked, but Wimbledon don’t clear, allowing Thomas Pinault to release Danny Forrest, whose shot squeezes past James Pullen and in off the underside of the crossbar. The goal should wake Wimbledon up, but this doesn’t happen. Louis and Ben Smith both have chances to double their lead but waste their chances, and the home side pay the price for their wastefulness a couple of minutes from half-time, when Sam Hatton picks up the ball twenty-five yards out, funds himself a little space and drives a low shot past the Crawley goalkeeper Simon Rayner to bring things level.
What is noticeable about Broadfield Stadium is the friendly reception from the staff and supporters. The stewarding is first-rate (one boy faints during the first half and receives attention from three or four stewards before being whisked off for some first aid), and whatever ill will there may be between the clubs over the ticketing arrangements hasn’t affected the relationship between the supporters. At half-time, we are allowed out to mingle at the bar behind the goal at the opposite end of the stadium without a hint of trouble, and the temptation to forego the second half for the hyperactive company of Jeff Stelling is strong. early in the second half, Wimbledon manager Terry Brown makes a crucial change, replacing the hopelessly ineffectual Ricky Wellard with the more seasoned Kennedy Adjei. With Adjei providing some long overdue physical opposition to Crawley’s Eddie Hutchinson, Wimbledon start to look like the better team. John Main hits what seems to be Rayner’s outstretched leg but is taken by the referee as the foot of the post and, with fifteen minutes to play, he is hauled down on the edge of the penalty area but the otherwise excellent referee gives a corner rather than a penalty.
The remaining excitement comes largely from the periphery of the match. A stray yellow balloon drifts onto the field of play and into the Crawley penalty area, causing a a surge of exhortations to shoot before the referee, presumably mindful of last week’s match between Sunderland and Liverpool, runs over and bursts it and, five ten minutes left to play the public address announcer gives the crowd as 2,204, which prompts a steward behind the goal to shrug his shoulders and hoots of derision from behind the goal. A quick check gives the capacity of Broadfield Stadium as a very precise 4,996 – to suggest that the ground was less than half full seems fanciful, to say the least. The main stand, which seats 1,150 people, is more or less full, and it seems unlikely that there are only just over a thousand people in the rest of the ground.
It would have been somewhat unfair on the losing side if one side had won this match, so it will be all back to Kingsmeadow on Tuesday night for a replay. Anyone thinking of missing out on the third meeting between the two sides in a few weeks may be persuaded along by the draw for the First Round – away, against Millwall. With barely the width of a cigarette paper between the two clubs over two matches so far this season, though, there is still all to play for for both clubs. Whether viewed through rose-tinted spectacles or the cold glare of the necessity to make money, the FA Cup at least retains its interest for the time being.