When comedian Mark Watson pulled Crawley Town out of that famous velvet bag on Sunday afternoon, the FA Cup seemed to have produced its ultimate romance tie: Manchester United vs Crawley Town. Non-league nobodies against Premier League superstars. It was the draw that, on the face it, would reignite the public interest in the cup. A tie harking back to the glory days of a once great competition. Except, it's not quite the romantic tie some people might have you believe.
Having become only the sixth non-league side in the history of the FA Cup to reach the 5th round - and the first since Kidderminster in 1993 - you'd be forgiven for eulogising over their achievement. However, for fans well-versed in the nuances of non-league football, it's become incredibly fashionable to dislike Crawley Town.
But first, a bit of background knowledge. Formed in 1896, the Red Devils were notable in the football league by their absence; never having stepped foot amongst the 92 best clubs in the land. They were regulars in the Southern Premier League for decades, and only as recently as 2004 made it into the Conference National. In 2005 they were bought by the SA Group, and made the decision to go full-time for the first time in the club's history, leading to a mass exodus of players who couldn't afford to leave their 'proper' jobs. With a lack of playing staff, Crawley went on a mad last-day-of-the-January-Transfer-Window-style hiring of players. A year later, when the SA Group decided to up sticks and leave, Crawley were left with a huge mountain of debt which they couldn't sustain. In August of 2006, Crawley Town announced they were to fold, and were within an hour of liquidation until a last minute deal was produced to save the club.
Fast forward to 2010, and current chairman Bruce Winfield announced that the club had resolved all its debts, and, in a more shocking revelation, had persuaded some foreign investors to pump money in to the club. A local businessman made good, taking over his local club, and persuading foreign businessman to invest: what's to dislike I hear you ask?
In the summer transfer window of 2010, Crawley Town spent more money on players than all of the teams in League Two combined: Just over £1million. With former creditors at the club receiving 10p in every £1 they invested before going into administration, these new anonymous backers seem to have no consideration for the local investors of the previous regime; flinging their money around at a whim. And these anonymous backers? Well, as it suggests, no one really knows. Based in Hong Kong, the two gentleman involved are listed as 'a banker' and 'in the restaurant business', but as yet remain nameless. But having only been to the club once, and already investing over £1million, you can't help but feel there may be something slightly strange going on.
Of course, jealousy from other fans has something to do with Crawley's lack of popularity. It's always been the case that the richest teams win the competitions, but when a club becomes nouveau riche, resentment from other fans seems to ramp up a notch. But for all the feelings of a siege mentality at Crawley, surely an investment from anonymous Asian backers is unsustainable? It's been seen countless times before: a struggling club is suddenly given a huge cash injection, and before you know it, living above their means, they get relegated down the divisions (Southampton, Leeds, Portsmouth, etc.)
Of course, Boston Utd were once such club. And one facet of their demise was the current Crawley manager, Steve Evans. Managing the club from 1998-2002, Evans was investigated by the FA for 'contractual irregularities' towards the end of his reign. It thus transpired that Evans was keeping two separate books at the club: one for what the club was actually paying the players. And another for what the club were declaring they payed the players. Needless to say, he was found guilty by the FA, and banned from the game for 20 months. He later appeared in court charged with fraud, for which he was, again, found guilty and given a year's suspended sentence and a fine of £10,000. The controversy has continued at Crawley, where last year he was sent from the dugout numerous times over the season, and subsequently given a ten game ban.
Manchester Utd vs Crawley Town, romantic? There's more romance in a Premier League players' orgy.