Just five short years ago non-league Crawley Town were one hour away from liquidation. Now they top League Two and are strong favourites to achieve promotion. With the decent backing they have, a squad packed with higher-level experience and a manager who has finally found his spiritual home it seems that anything now might be possible.
The journey from there to here however has not been an easy one. On three separate occasions the club has been deducted points (twice for their financial plight and once for fielding an ineligible player) and it was only in 2010 that the picture turned rosy for the Town with firm investment propelling them into the league. In the process they also became the nation’s favourites with a superb display against the other Red Devils up north in a cup run that showed they have the class to go far.
We asked the Crawley Town Mole – two journalists who cover the club for a local newspaper – just how many chapters there are to go in a so far enthralling tale.
How have things changed since the takeover in April 2008? Things were still pretty tough for the first couple of years wasn’t it?
The first season was tough as the owners cleared the debts, with the players even travelling to away matches in their own cars and manager Steve Evans being forced to sell his best players. However, despite this the side battled hard to a commendable seventh place finish in the Blue Square Premier in 2009-10.
Everything seemed to change in 2010 when it was announced that the club’s £1 million debt had been cleared and Steve Evans would be given the funds to assemble a top squad, containing the likes of Torres and Tubbs. What was it like to cover that as a journalist and are you a fan yourself?
It has been a fantastic experience to report on and it would be hard not to be an admirer of what has been achieved.
Many of my friends are fans, who do spend their hard-earned wages following the team have found it to be a stunning change of fortunes. That summer was an incredible time for the club and it seemed to be the Reds were breaking their transfer record on an almost weekly basis. Matt Tubbs, bought from Salisbury City for £75,000, was the first arrival. He was instrumental in the promotion-winning campaign, bagging 40 goals, while midfielder Scott Neilson, defenders Pablo Mills, Kyle McFadzean and Dean Howell were also influential. Striker Richard Brodie played his part, but after shelling out £275,000 on him, he’s now on loan back up north after suffering home sickness.
Premiership? Unlikely in the near future, but not impossible long-term with organic growth, as Wimbledon and Wigan have proved I suppose.
Last season included some memorable cup games against Derby and Manchester United but the primary objective of course was to attain league status. Once that was achieved what were the pre-season hopes/expectations for the next 12 months?
Old Trafford was certainly extremely memorable. The home fans were out-sung, United played a weakened team and Sussex-based fans who travelled up having never watched the team before vowed to attend more games in future. It captured the town’s imagination. Then in the summer Crawley were installed as 3-1 favourites for the League Two title. It seemed astonishingly short, considering that previous pre-season favourites had always been double figure odds and that it was several decades since any club promoted to the league had won the fourth tier title straight off. Plus, they were not a team returning to the league, but new to it. What the bookmakers had considered, however, was that Crawley had brought in an Everton youngster, Hope Akpan, and Macclesfield striker Tyrone Barnett, who scored 13 goals in a struggling team. They also kept a good chunk of their promotion heroes and had £2million from the cup run – and kept Matt Tubbs. Back in August, a top three finish looked a strong possibility if they could keep up the momentum.
Now you’re sitting pretty atop League Two with a successive promotion within reach. With the momentum, a quality squad, and further funds at your disposal how long can you see this continuing? Broadly speaking, how far can Crawley Town go? Is the Premier League a realistic aspiration?
If Crawley go up, which seems a distinct possibility as they have strong hopes of strengthening in January, some of the more experienced players like Claude Davis believe they can compete at the top end of League One. Several teams have found the jump from League Two to One very hard. However, Crawley earned a handsome FA Cup away win at Bury and it is quite possible that confidence and momentum could take them to the top seven of League One. Crowd averages have risen to about 3,000 so they would be a jolly small Championship club if they reached that level, but doing so is possible. Premiership? Unlikely in the near future, but not impossible long-term with organic growth, as Wimbledon and Wigan have proved I suppose. But it is a lot harder these days.
The Government had the foresight to build Gatwick Airport decades ago just in case the club ever got into Europe!
You are sometimes termed the ‘Manchester City of the lower leagues’. Unfair? Does the tag irk you and does it belittle the achievements?
It is unfair now, because Football League rules say football budgets have to work within certain limits of turnover. The key is to enjoy the ride and not be bothered by it.
How much credit can Steve Evans be given for the recent rise?
A massive amount. You can give a manager any amount of money but if he doesn’t produce the goods he’ll get fired. Ask Luton, Oxford and any number of big clubs who have dropped out of the Football League and not found it the easy ride back they thought it would be. Evans, as I said, finished seventh before the big investment of two summers ago so was steering the club in an upward direction. He has found many gems and blended them into a team full of confidence and desire.
What effect has the club’s recent glories had on the area?
The Government had the foresight to build Gatwick Airport decades ago just in case the club ever got into Europe! Seriously, one of the by-products has been a boost to the local economy. The club has also set up a full Academy, for every age-group up to U18s, in the short time since joining the Football League. That gives local youngsters of all ages the chance to play – or aspire to play – under the banner of a club without travelling for hours and miles to a number of London clubs, or Brighton.
You can follow Crawley’s progress @CrawleyTownMole