Saturday, 9 April 2011

Mini Man Utd.

When your favourite football team is Manchester United you have to get used to being insulted by jealous fans of clubs that couldn't win the right to fart in the bath. You're accused, above all, of being a glory hunter, even if you started supporting them, as did I, when they were in the old Second Division (yes, that long ago) and had to wait decades before any other victory of note, save the odd FA Cup (which, it must be said, was worth something in those days). Finally, the glory days come; you stack up Premier League Titles, FA Cups, a couple more European Cups, the odd League Cup, some Interplanetary Knockout Trophy where you defeat a team from an island off the coast of Tonga to be crowned Best Team in the Universe©, at least until you fly back to England and, completely jet-lagged, lose at home to Stoke City or some such. You bask in your team's achievements and close your now triple-glazed windows to block out the insults of passing Liverpool supporters who can't get over the fact the last time they won any important domestic gong, moustaches were still a legitimate sign of virility on Merseyside. I'm purposely not mentioning their extraordinary 2005 Champions' League victory over AC Milan as it, quite frankly, doesn't suit my agenda. See what I've learned from Flat Earth News? Impressive, eh? Get your copy now 'n' all that, but I digress.

So, your main team is doing handsomely, but what about your home-town club? Not everyone was born within a Premiership striker's spitting distance of a major ground and those Arsenal supporters from Taunton surely also think fondly of their Somerset roots come Saturday afternoon. I happened to be born within a Cantor's wail of White Hart Lane, moved to Salisbury until I was six then spent my most formative years in that most anachronistic of settlements, a Labour stronghold in West Sussex. That's right, Not since Gordon Brown moved into Number 10, Downing Street, has an entity ever been so incongruously located. Still, the development of Crawley New Town was probably the last work of genius by any British Government. Half way between London and Brighton with its own industrial estate and its nose nestling warmly in Gatwick Airport's crotch, Crawley was and is a success story: Gatwick 'blossomed', at least in an economic sense, improved rail speeds meant that one could commute to London easily from any of its three railway stations and the Manor Royal Estate continued to provide work for just about everyone else. However, Crawley Town FC was as moribund as any non-league outfit; sandwiched between the capital and Brighton and Hove Albion (which were, for quite a time, reasonably successful, nearly beating...Manchester United in an FA Cup Final, no less), they were never likely to attract either interest or investment outside of the town's borders. They even almost went under twice in the last twelve years, but then things started to change. They hired a rather controversial manager who had been previously convicted of tax evasion or some such, then the owner miraculously found investors who provided the club with enough cash up front to make some significant lower-league purchases and start stringing some results together. Just as when the Glazer family bought Manchester United a few years ago, people began to clamour for a little more transparency in the matter of Crawley Town's new-found wealth and success. They refused to name their new investors, blocked enquiries and continued to win matches by fair means or, on occasions, foul. They started to be reviled as United were reviled, even if they were playing in completely different leagues in all senses. It was strange to have my favourite team and my sort-of home town club accused of similar skulduggery and the whole story took a further surreal twist when Crawley Town made it through to the fifth round of the FA Cup only to be paired with...Manchester United at Old Trafford on February 19th of this year. Supporters of other teams in the Blue Square Premier called on Man Utd to give Crawley a kicking they'd never forget while everyone else with a larger grudge against United than Crawley called for the opposite to happen. This was a fight between two school bullies, each one only garnering support by default. Crawley lost 1-0 to a United B/C team, their honour intact, many feeling they could have won it if luck had been on their side in the closing minutes.

The story doesn't finish there. Crawley today won automatic promotion to League Two, what we used to call the Fourth Division (go figure, those who aren't familiar with English professional football) and Steve Evans is already eyeing, as he should, greater glory in the future. My advice to any of you out there looking for a currently unfashionable team to support so you can brag in years to come as they parade a freshly-won European Cup that you 'supported them while they were still in the Blue Square Premier': go for Crawley Town. Take your fiancée to Crawley for a weekend and spend Saturday afternoon at the Broadfield Stadium; she'll never forget it, or allow you to, for that matter. In footballing terms, though, we have seen the birth of the next behemoth, and Crawley is its name...

No comments: