Time to fill out that expenses form...
The weekend just gone saw the first side across England’s top five divisions promoted. Yes, I said five divisions, because I’m a York City fan and I like to feel relevant. Crawley Town made it to the promised land of the Football League, leaving the other 23 Conference sides to scrap over the one remaining promotion place. And if you think I’m going to doff my cap in recognition of Crawley’s achievement, then you have another thing coming.
I suppose what fuels the old ire more than anything has been the feeling of helplessness this season. The Crawley juggernaut was always going to win the league. For someone who only ever follows Premiership football, it would be easy to dismiss the likes of Matthew Tubbs, Sergio Torres and Richard Brodie. But when you consider that these players cost £70k, £100k and £275k, with undisclosed fees for some of Crawley’s other players likely to be in the six figures, a level playing field was always going to be a pipedream. To put this in context, York were being labelled ‘moneybags’ by rival fans when we splashed £55k on Gash (Michael), two seasons ago.
‘So it’s solely to do with envy then?’ I hear you ask from behind the fourth wall. There’s a bit of that. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise. But while some teams attempt to run their affairs with complete transparency, Crawley are somehow able to assemble a League 2 squad with cash so mysterious it may as well come from Lord Lucan and Shergar’s joint account in North Korea. Once financial doping’s shady face pops up from behind the curtains, all sense of decorum goes out of the window. Crawley are nothing new, I’m not naïve. But where I perhaps do lapse into naivety is in wanting to retain some semblance of fair play. Money is filtering down through the divisions, we know this. But lower league and especially non-league football isn’t supposed to be like that. Chelsea buy titles. Crawley don’t… oh fuck.
What manifests this aversion to Crawley is the set up of the Conference. Two teams go up. TWO. I sat in semi-tipsy stupor at Wembley last May to watch Oxford beat York 3-1 and bid adieu to the non league. I couldn’t begrudge Oxford this because they outplayed City, outsupported us by about 4:1 and didn’t try and run across the pitch and kick our teeth in (I’m looking at you, Luton Town). Sides lose in play-off finals, yes. But when only two sides go up, one of which by the play-off route, it seems cruel at best that the second-placed side in the league can potentially be deprived a promotion place.
And having watched numerous Blue Square Premier and League 2 games in recent seasons, including seeing York (seventh in the Conference at the time of writing) completely outplay and thrash Rotherham (10th in League 2) 3-0 in the FA Cup in November, I have to say the difference in quality between the divisions is negligible to nonexistent.
Andi Thomas of the excellent Twisted Blood made a pertinent comment on the situation at Crawley in response to an article posted by the first-rate Two Footed Tackle (read here):
“In any case, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to despise both the system that creates such opportunity, and the flash bastard who takes advantage of it. The City boy in the white-collared salmon shirt with the braying laugh and the perfect teeth waving the fifty-spot in your local is only there because society has determined that he is able to profit at the expense of others. Doesn’t make him any less of a wanker.”
Steve Evans does not wear a white-collared salmon shirt, have a braying laugh or wave fifty-spots around (he might actually do the latter), but this doesn’t make him any less of a wanker. He is not a likeable man. Actually, that is putting it incredibly lightly. The man is a grade A knobhead with a penchant for saying much worse. Regularly sent from the stands for his Bernard Manningesque deftness of phrase, the man also deemed it appropriate behaviour to turn up to Old Trafford for the 4th round FA Cup tie with United looking like a fat perfume counter girl at Boots.
That aside, Evans’ part in financial irregularities at Boston are fairly well documented and merely serve to stoke the contempt to which Crawley are held by large swathes of the footballing community. It is almost a case of once bitten, twice emboldened for Evans. Given wads of cash at Boston (albeit illegally), he now spends greater sums with no idea where it is coming from. He ruined one club and could be on his way to ruining another, as the FA sit idly by as usual.
If you try and build a tower of expensive apples on a foundation of onions, no amount of pretending will prevent it coming tumbling down when the weight of the bigger, shinier apples you’ve insisted on buying to satiate your impossible ambition becomes too much to support. Crawley may thrive in the Football League next year and they will no doubt target promotion. But they are still an unknown in terms of how far this spending muscle will be flexed and other clubs at the top of the league also have significant budgets to play with. How long the backers will stay around in a league where success cannot be easily bought (no matter what Evans says about them not expecting a return) remains to be seen. Certainly, they are not winning many friends on their way.
Character assassination aside, it is the genuine Crawley fans who may ultimately suffer and that is the saddest part. When all’s said and done, and following the sad death of co-owner Bruce Winfield last month, how long is Sue Carter likely to remain interested in the club should the ambitious plans fail to materialise a la Rushden & Diamonds? Much like winning the league by tweaking the finances of a club on the editor of Football Manager, the success of Crawley this season is intrinsically sullied by similar accusations. And in much the same way, the nameless Asian backers would have no qualms about resetting the editor and walking away if success is not forthcoming.