Steve Evans had left the door to his office wide open. As we walked past, our eyes were understandably drawn towards the large whiteboard attached to the wall, upon which was scrawled a selection of names in red marker pen. It was obviously the squad for the forthcoming season, but some of the names were both new, and rather incredible. Tubbs, Torres, McAllister, Kuipers. We looked at each other in disbelief, and then the Chief Executive hurriedly stepped in front of us and closed the door.
“You shouldn’t have seen that,” he said. “Some of those deals will be announced shortly, but some aren’t yet completed. Please keep it quiet.”
We all promised not to breath a word. Looking back, it’s quite possible that the whole thing was staged. We were amongst Crawley Town’s most committed supporters- around a dozen of us, desperate to do the best for our football club. Letting us into a secret that wouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world for twenty four or forty eight hours then asking us not to breath a word may just have been a way to make us feel special and keep us on side. If it was, it worked admirably. At the meeting that followed we would have volunteered for just about anything.
The previous season, 2009/10, had seen a rather impoverished Crawley Town under the aforementioned Evans and his assistant Paul Raynor- perhaps lazily referred to recently as Laurel and Hardy by Ben Smith, in his otherwise excellent book Journeyman- finish the Conference season in seventh place. Best player and top scorer Charlie Ademeno had left shortly afterwards, citing a desire to play for a club that was going places. Despite that, the supporters were rather content. Recent history had included administration, regular points deductions for financial irregularities, and schism in the fanbase that led to the club having both a Supporters Trust and a Supporters Club despite an average crowd which struggled to reach one thousand. Against that backdrop, seventh and anonymity was rather miraculous. Evans was equally loved and loathed. Many of the supporters hated the baggage that came with him, and the hatred it brought on our football club. No one liked us, and we did care. But even his biggest detractors had to admit he was doing a decent job.
A chief reason for our contentment was that the club was financially stable. Under owners Bruce Winfield and Susan Carter spending had been properly regulated. Both Susan and Bruce were locals; Bruce, particularly, was a supporter first, a businessman second. We trusted him implicitly; he was one of us. When he announced during the summer that he’d secured additional investment from the Far East, we were delighted; but the truth was that none of us really imagined what that meant for the club until that glimpse into Steve Evans boudoir.
Six months later, on 19th February 2011, three thousand Crawley supporters- accompanied by six thousand more who we’d never seen before and would never see again- stood outside Old Trafford wearing looks of happy incredulity. If we’d dreamt of such a day, and surely we had, it was a dream which even the most optimistic amongst us would have dismissed as ridiculous. It was the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. We were only the sixth non-league side since the war to reach this stage, and prior to this season we’d been knocked out at the first hurdle six times in a row. There had been more chance of Steve Evans winning the ‘Britain’s Most Humble Manager’ contest than us having a cup run. When we’d drawn Newport County away from home in the Fourth Qualifying Round we’d expected another defeat, an expectation which was further confirmed when they beat us at home in the League only seven days prior to the tie. Yet we swept them aside, and followed up with victories over Guiseley, Swindon Town, Derby County and Torquay United, before being paired with Manchester United.
“I suppose you’ll want a draw; get us back to Crawley and earn some more money?”
Paddy Crerand grinned. I pondered the question. “The problem is, we already have terrible fixture congestion. We can’t really afford another game.” He nodded, sagely, as I added, “We really need to beat you today.”
I must point out that I don’t normally hobnob with former international footballers. Indeed, apart from once becoming tongue tied in the presence of Gordon Banks, and annoying Peter Lorimer when I was eleven years old and could only think to ask him what Allan Clarke was like, the nearest I’ve come to a meaningful relationship with such a player was when Claude Davis thanked me for keeping his seat warm before a home match. I was presenting a cheque for the supporters trust, by the way- the team didn’t need a fat bench warmer. They already had Steve Evans.
Paddy was quite cheery about the whole thing. But he was paid to be cheery. You see, for the only time in my life I’d decided to go executive. I figured that as Crawley Town were unlikely to get to the Fifth Round of the FA Cup ever again (actually, it turned out that they did, twelve months later), and even more unlikely to return to Old Trafford, I would push the boat out and have a once in a lifetime experience. I was so overwhelmed I’d even suffered a taste bypass and bought a half and half scarf as a souvenir. Roy Keane would have hated me.
Actually, at that moment I rather hated myself. Despite the luxury I felt dirty. My normal away experience at the likes of Histon, Barrow or Altrincham didn’t compare with this and, as I waited for the teams to emerge from the tunnel, I realized that I wanted to be behind the goal with the other Crawley fans. I’d sold out. This wasn’t what football was about. I’d had to dress smartly. I wasn’t allowed to wear my lucky shirt. Fondant potatoes- what kind of an aberration were they? Never again. Which, coincidentally, was what my wife said when she saw the credit card bill.
Sir Alex Ferguson had tinkered with his team. The starting eleven included Brown, O’Shea, Carrick, Anderson and Rafael- but it also included Obertan and Bebe. Rooney was on the bench. The Crawley Town side, resplendent in a one-off strip sponsored by a red-top newspaper (and which I’d refused to purchase accordingly) was that which most fans would have picked. In the lead up to the game we’d been remarkably confident; yes, we were playing Manchester United, but we’d already disposed of Swindon Town and Derby County so we had nothing to worry about. The patronizing questions we’d been asked by the media before the tie increased our bravado tenfold. I’d had more than my fair share of those; indeed, I’d become a media tart. BBC Breakfast, The New York Times, The Dubai National, The S*n, BBC Wales (“do you have any Welsh Crawley fans we could speak to?”), and one (sadly British) newspaper who asked me if we’d be having an open-topped bus parade of Croydon if we won. I advised him that we were, and that it would be designed to go directly past Selhurst Park before finishing by the town’s most prominent landmark, the Ikea chimneys.
The first half lessened our confidence somewhat. We’d not been overawed, but we hadn’t really imposed ourselves on the game either, and often needed to regain possession by waiting until Bebe put yet another cross out of play by the corner flag. In the 28th minute Wes Brown outjumped our defence and headed the ball home, so we went in a goal behind. Paddy tried not to look smug.
The second half began with the introduction of Wayne Rooney. “Now they’re for it,” said a United fan to my left, and indeed, Rooney looked lively- for around three minutes. After that he hardly touched the ball, and his sole contribution was a booking for a petulant foul on Kyle McFadzean as Crawley probed for an equalizer. Bulman and Torres controlled the midfield, Pablo Mills turned in a man of the match performance at the back, Tubbs and Hunt missed chances, and sixty six thousand people fell silent, as the remainder sang “Are you Alty in disguise?” Deep into injury time a Richard Brodie header left Anders Lindegaard groping at thin air, before bounding back off the bar. Then it was over. We ended the game having had the lions share of possession and the majority of the chances, but out of the cup nonetheless. After the match, Paddy and his newly arrived colleague Wilf McGuinness were suitably complimentary, yet…we’d lost. It was the last match we were to lose all season.
The money the club made from the match paid for a new East Stand, which supporters- without any affection- universally call ‘The Gazebo,’ and which remains as a constant, albeit cold and uncomfortable, reminder of our Old Trafford adventure. Evans, Raynor and indeed the entire team who contested that match are long gone. Two promotions and a relegation have followed, and these days around two thousand home fans turn up to watch a team firmly ensconced in mid table, slightly too good to go down but not really good enough to trouble the play-off spots. Still, perhaps that’s close to our natural level, and for once we might have some reason to be optimistic, with a generally discredited regime apparently about to depart the club and a prospective new owner, Turkish steel magnate Ziya Eren, waiting in the wings for the Football League to declare him ‘fit and proper.’ The amount of information already coming from Turkey about the intentions of Eren is at odds with the almost Stalinist levels of secrecy that have shrouded the club in recent years, and brings hope that the new owner will actually look to build a relationship with the supporters, something which has been sadly lacking.
That FA Cup run of 2010/11 provided an experience that we’re unlikely to ever repeat. Indeed, for a couple of years we had the kind of joy for which a football fan can wait an entire lifetime, a joy made all the more vivid by the misery that had gone before, and that remains with us despite the uncertainty that has characterized the last few years. The future may also be uncertain; but whatever happens, we’ll always have Old Trafford.
An extremely abridged version of this article (less than half of it, in fact) appeared in an earlier edition of the marvellous When Saturday Comes magazine.
Published on in National.