NEW TOWNS are invariably dismissed by middle Englanders as soulless developments, functional rather than aesthetic. Basildon, Harlow, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead all fall into this category, towns full of roundabouts, underpasses and organised retail therapy. You sometimes forget that Crawley is also a new town, as defined by the New Towns Act 1946. So should we really be that surprised that this is the home of a Football League club?
Not really, because it has over 100,000 people for a start. Like Stevenage, it has plenty of folk who love their football, although with its close proximity to London and Brighton, there are distractions.
2015-16 is Crawley’s fifth in the Football League. Around a decade ago, the club was in the Southern League Premier. In 2005, the SA Group, whoever they may be, bought the club and set about turning them into a full-time operation. It looked like pure folly.
When things look too good to be true in football, it’s usually because they are too good to be true. In 2006, Crawley nearly went under and were eventually forced into administration. In 2008, the SA Group sold out to Prospect Estate Holdings. Three years on, Crawley, then of the Conference, faced Manchester United in the fifth round of the FA Cup. They had beaten no less than Torquay, Derby and Swindon in the previous rounds. United only beat them 1-0, but at the end of the 2010-11 season, they won promotion to the Football League. It was quite remarkable given what had gone on before.
They went straight through League Two and also reached the last 16 of the FA Cup again after beating Hull City and Bristol City. Last season, Crawley were relegated back to League Two, and it seems to have had an impact on their gates – their current average is less than 2,700 which is the lowest since they entered the Football League.
I was given a brief run-down on Crawley by a supporter who divides his time between Celtic, Crystal Palace and his home town team. “It’s a really friendly place with a great atmosphere, you really feel you’re involved because you are so close to the action,” he enthused as we walked to the Checkatrade stadium from the nearby sports centre.
Football League football with a non-league atmosphere
What I saw was, essentially, an up-market non-league ground and not too many people heading to the game between Crawley and Luton in the FA Cup. The weather was dire, a gloomy afternoon with incessant rain, and it didn’t look like the locals were especially enticed by the first round of the Cup. “People don’t turn out for cup games,” said one steward when I asked where everybody had gone.
I expected more people to have come from Luton. This was an easy trip for Hatters fans – a direct train from Luton to Three Bridges and then a short hop to Crawley. Those that did decide to make the journey were sitting alongside me on the train from London. “The thing is, Crawley won’t be in the league in a year or two. They can’t do it long-term – look at their crowds. No, I don’t think we will be coming here very often,” said one Luton die-hard.
Luton had already been to the Checkatrade once this season and were beaten 2-1 on October 17. The crowd that day was 3,335 but when the turnstiles stopped clicking for this particular game, the gate was a paltry 1,929. Admittedly, this was not a plum tie as Luton were in 13th place and Crawley 16th in League Two, but this was the second sub-2,000 crowd at Crawley in eight days, which must surely concern the club.
That Luton fan’s prediction that Crawley may not have a long-term future in the Football League is shared by quite a few people. Certainly, Crawley represent “the new breed” in footballing terms, although on the evidence of a trip to the Checkatrade, they are not flush. “Tinpot but proud,” claimed one banner behind the goal, obviously a reference to jibes the club have received since joining the Football League. Whichever way you look at it, though, there is a temporary feel to the place, notably in the tarpaulin roof of the East Stand, which looks like it belongs at a country showground rather than League Two. You sense that although Crawley, on the pitch, were able to move up through the ranks quickly, the ground has yet to keep pace.
The teams lined up as follows:
Crawley Town: Darryl Flahavan, Lewis Young, Josh Yorwerth, Sonny Bradley, Christian Scales, Gwion Edwards, Simon Walton, Jimmy Smith, Roarie Deacon, Matt Harrold, Rhys Murphy
Luton Town: Elliot Justham, Long, Scott Cuthbert, Luke Wilkinson, Scott Griffiths, Adam Lawless, Olly Lee, Jon Smith, Josh McQuoid, Luke Guttridge, Jack Marriott
Crawley started the better of the two sides, with Scales’ willingness to run into the area causing problems. Striker Murphy was also lively, but his finishing left much to be desired. You couldn’t fault his energy, however. Scales weaved his way into the area and sent a left-foot drive across the area as Murphy dashed in, but his effort went wide.
Deacon should have scored when the ball fell kindly for him inside the area, but his shot was inches past the post. At the other end, Jon Smith had a long range shot that almost found the back of the net.
Can Crawley Town sustain Football League status?
You could see the anxiety on the brows of Luton boss John Still and his number two, Terry Harris, who kept feeding instructions to their team as Crawley had the upper hand in the first half.
But Luton came out energised in the second period and took the lead after 54 minutes, McQuoid scoring an outstanding curling shot from outside the area. Crawley soon equalised when the impressive Matt Harrold headed home from a corner on 63.
Luton had the final say when Crawley’s defence made a hash of a clearance and McQuoid side-footed into the net from six yards. There was barely a minute remaining of normal time. Final score: Crawley Town 1 Luton Town 2.
The Crawley matchday experience is pleasant enough. The club still retains many of the traits that attracts people to the non-league game. The big question is whether Crawley can sustain Football League status.