Chris Slegg - LKOLondon & SE reporter
Crawley Town and Manchester United finished last season separated by an entire 92 League places in England’s football pyramid, but they have plenty in common.
The teams – who met in the FA Cup 5th round in February – both finished up as champions of their respective divisions. Both share the same official but little-used nickname, the Red Devils. Both have Scottish managers. And neither club is exactly popular with opposition fans.
If you’re a Twitter user then you can’t have failed to notice some of the insults that were flung Crawley’s way when a 3-0 win at Tamworth in early April saw them clinch promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history.
“Every fan would be envious of a club that has got success by financial means or by any means. We’ve been envious of others in the past,” chairman Vic Marley told me before heading out to this week’s Football League AGM in Cyprus where his club and AFC Wimbledon were officially sworn in as Football League members.
Crawley runs through Marley’s veins. He talks warmly of the days when the team played at the Town Mead ground. “If it had been raining and you walked over that pitch, then you’d be stuck for days. It was a pretty grim ground. But there were good days even then. Now we’re looking forward to local derbies in the League with Aldershot and Gillingham. We’re going to be playing against big names like Bradford City and Bristol Rovers. It’s like a dream.”
He and hundreds of lifelong Crawley fans have waited decades for days like these. The perception from outside though is that Crawley have bought their success. Estimated transfer fees of £600,000 last season saw them outspend every team not just at their own level but also in League Two.
“We spent more in the transfer market, but our wage bill wasn’t even the highest in the Conference,” insists Marley.
Just where has the money come from? The ownership of 40% of the club remains a mystery. All that has been made public is that the investment hails from the Far East. Why won’t Crawley enlighten us further?
“We’re not unique in this respect,” Marley explains. “Various clubs have this set-up whereby some of the shareholders don’t want to be in the limelight. The majority of our shareholders are all named – Susan and Ian Carter and the Winfields. Like many other clubs we also have investors who aren’t in the front row.”
So what attracted those overseas investors who would rather keep their identity secret, to Crawley? “I can’t speak for them. It’s a pure investment for them. They are enjoying the rise of Crawley Town. It’s an exciting town, a prosperous area in the South East and they liked the challenge of trying to take Crawley into the League. They could have invested in York, or Wrexham or Luton but to get Crawley into the 92 was a bigger challenge for them and that’s why they took it on.”
Manager Steve Evans has already been busy in the transfer market this summer. New forward options are in place with John Akinde having arrived from Bristol City and Wesley Thomas from Cheltenham. In midfield Jamie Day, who boasts League experience with Peterborough, has signed from Rushden & Diamonds while Scott Davies has also joined from Reading.
Marley says there are more signings to come, and is confident that Crawley can do a Stevenage and win back-to-back promotions. “Maybe we can do it in better style. What they’ve done is fantastic but - and I don’t want to sound cocky - we don’t like play-offs. I would be an optimist to say we could be in the Championship within five years, but if you aren’t optimistic you won’t get anywhere.”
Crawley have already sold 1,000 season tickets for their debut season in the Football League. They’re hoping for average crowds of over 3,000 in their 5,000 capacity Broadfield Stadium. Should their rise continue, should the Championship one day become a reality, there is scope to expand the stadium to 17,000. Crawley might never win any popularity contests, but then again, that’s never held Manchester United back.