Cupid fired down his affective arrows yesterday, and the daffodils will soon be in bloom as a disparaging winter is finally thawed. With non-league outfit Crawley Town facing an FA Cup fifth round trip to the Theatre of Dreams this weekend, have they brought sentimentality back into the world’s oldest sporting competition? Sadly not.
When ‘Razor’ Ruddock pulled ball number 16 – Manchester United – out of the velvet bag last month, the footballing world rejoiced when Mark Watson drew ball number 1 – Crawley Town – to set up the most unthinkable mismatch of the round.
The world-renowned stature of the FA Cup isn’t a fallacy. This year’s cup kicked off back in August, when Wessex League Division One side Ringwood Town hosted divisional rivals Cowes Sports in the Extra Preliminary Round, in front of 118 spectators. Ringwood’s emphatic 5-0 win under the floodlights made for a long ferry-ride back to the Isle of Wight for the visitors. 759 clubs entered this year’s competition – just 16 remain.
While English football can sometimes be ‘kick-and-rush’, the league pyramid and the FA Cup are great institutions that are unrivalled on the world stage. A technically-sublime Spain won the World Cup last summer, but in their domestic league, the Villarreal and Barcelona ‘B’ teams currently compete in the second tier. Predictably, Real Madrid and Barcelona will contest this year’s Copa del Rey final. Life barely exists outside the top flight.
So, on paper, it seemed fitting to get excited when top-of-the-league side Manchester United (the Red Devils) were drawn against second-in-the-non-league club Crawley (also known as the Red Devils), who stood 93 league places below. To give some perspective, United hosted their lavishly-spending neighbours Man City last weekend – tonight, Crawley travel to Wrexham.
However, the Conference side won’t enjoy the underdog-backing goodwill of the nation, unlike the Burton Albion team whose 0-0 draw forced a replay out of United in 2006. Crawley’s antics – both on and off the field – have sabotaged their club’s respectability.
Crawley co-owner (and fan) Bruce Winfield cleared the club’s debts last summer, and investment from conspicuously-unnamed “passive shareholders” triggered a £500,000 spending-spree for ‘project promotion’ – more than the whole of League Two combined. While most Conference clubs scrape the barrel for freebies and youngsters, Crawley have moved the goalposts.
The fourth round victory over Torquay was no ‘giant-killing’, as Crawley look set to join them in League Two next year. On ITV, Chris Coleman scathingly rebuked Crawley’s churlish play-acting and for refusing to let the Gulls’ ground-staff work on the Plainmoor turf. And the aggressive touchline-demeanour of manager Steve Evans, which recently earned a 13-match ban, has hardly endeared the neutrals.
It’s a bitter irony that Crawley’s success could mean promotion at the expense of decade-old AFC Wimbledon, a club founded on the honour and ethos that makes the English game special. Without the integrity to match, Crawley’s underdog status is fruitless.
This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Ipswich Town on Feb 15th 2011.