Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Back Of The (Inter) net- A Football Away Day at Crawley Town FC

Crawley Town FC Mascot (Reggie the Red)

Having not set foot inside a Football League ground in far too long, I will admit to being a little unsure as the travelling party of myself, my son (Jamie), Dad (Tony), brother (Simon) and brother in law (Grant) set off for the Broadfield Stadium in the early afternoon, ahead of taking in Crawley Town v Accrington Stanley. 



As a disabled supporter, I can begrudgingly admit my mobility isn't what it was even given the constraints of a relatively mild form of cerebral palsy, in addition to a later ankle injury. And so a sizeable portion of the drive down from Haywards Heath via Portsmouth (thank you Mum/Dad and Simon) was spent wondering exactly what I'd let myself in for- after all, it had been a while since the awkward shuffle to and from a seat and that after the sometimes equally daunting squeeze through the turnstile...

 



Luckily, I needn't have worried about going down before even being touched this early- Dad and I ushered in through a side gate before being reunited with everyone else. Looking around the “fan zone” area as you enter the ground, what struck me was the community pitch (or “ball court” as it’s properly dubbed, according to the club's community foundation web site, in something of a confusing Americanism surely more at home in the NBA than the lower reaches of the Football League). 



Forgive it that, though, if you'd be so kind, and it becomes a brilliant example of what lower league football probably does far better than higher up the pyramid- actually tangibly fostering that often missing sense of community, Any profit made from bookings is reinvested in projects around the local area and the Crawley Town foundation itself given pride of place in the usual sponsor's position on the shirt- a nice touch, and surely to be applauded.




After investing by proxy via drinks all round in the Supporters' Alliance bar- at least, that's how I'm justifying it- time to take our (admittedly) surprisingly good seats in the West/Family Stand, three rows up from the halfway line in terms of the actual view. From such a close eye on the kick- off, the neutral couldn't have complained, as practically the first bit of action of the game brought with it a goal following a minute's silence and sobering blast of the Last Post in commemoration of Armistice Day.



Unfortunately, given our allegiance for the day, it was on-loan Fulham youngster Luca Ashby-Hammond picking the ball out of his net after barely two minutes, having swapped West London for West Sussex for the season. Accrington making something of a mockery of the now- lazy “who are they?” cliché as Jack Nolan pegged in down the right and walloped home.



Within six minutes of that, it was honours even as Danilo Orsi snaffled the first of his two goals of the afternoon, getting the better of Jon McCracken in a one on one before slotting in- cue a collective (and happily an agonising VAR wait for approval-free) roar from the home end. Where John Coleman's men undoubtedly brought the brawn, Crawley under Scott Lindsey seemed to have a touch more silk, some decent pass and move offering them plenty of attacking opportunity in a far cry from last season- when only a penultimate day point kept them in the league by the skin of their teeth.



On this evidence that won't be an issue this time out, their current relative improvement suggesting they might finally have found some stability following more than a little post- WAGMI United chaos. Having been turfed out of Valley Parade, it seems the group, spearheaded by co- chairmen Preston Johnson and Eben Smith, have found themselves and their crypto-currency money a stage down south on which to build and eventually play out their vision. Beginning with an intended play-off place and promotion challenge as the first phase of a plan intended to climax in the end goal of a Premier League place, the funding of which it’s probably fair to say baffled all but the already initiated when first unveiled!



By June this year they'd gone through five gaffers in the then- fifteen months since the “crypto bros” took ownership in April of 2022. Their fully deciphered moniker/motto of We're All Gonna Make It already sounding optimistic at best, deluded at worst as what they hopefully dubbed the Internet's team promptly threatened to go the way of many an overworked service provider and crashed, the resulting chaos seeing the Alliance actively call for the heads of Johnson, Smith and CEO Chris Galley...



Indeed, it's hard to know just where to start in mapping any kind of timeline of just how low the Reds actually threatened to sink. Former manager John Yems's eventual long-term ban following proven accusations of racism within his own dressing room without doubt the most shocking depth plumbed, even taking into consideration the subsequently short 34 day reign of Matthew Etherington, who had himself replaced Kevin Betsy following a dreadful start to this season. 

 

Etherington walked of his own accord following the sale of Tom Nichols to Gillingham- WAGMI insisting he was made unavailable for selection before his move to the Priestfield with the frankly laughable rationale that he and Dom Telford were “too short” to play up front together!




In light of which it is unsurprising that Telford lasted just one season of a three year deal, having arrived on a free from Newport as the initial marquee signing by the new ownership, after finishing the previous campaign as League Two's top scorer. Immediately post-Etherington, Johnson carried on digging WAGMI into something of a hole by appearing alongside caretaker Darren Byfield in the dugout against Stevenage, a move for which he was widely derided both online and in print, not to mention by the opposition coaching staff according to a Guardian report citing his apparent lack of understanding of the regulations around substitutions.



“I absolutely understand Preston’s perspective on going in the dugout – that he was doing it to support the players – but any decent CEO would have said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s not the right thing to do’.”



So said Sam Jordan of the Supporters Alliance, speaking to FourFourTwo, in one of the kinder reactions to the whole thing after an understandable sudden rise in wider national media interest!



Enter Lindsey at the start of January, as something of a firefighter, as the latest and current man in the Broadfield dugout, a home draw with Walsall ensuring the nightmare scenario never came to pass. And having given their trigger finger a well deserved rest, it seems the decision to stick with him just might pay off for the group, however tenuous their knowledge of exactly what it is they've bought into...



Potentially bags of goals, which Jamie and I had been promised as we were regaled with tales of a previously planned trip which went south thanks to COVID- and indeed we would see at least two more before the full time whistle. The pick without question being Will Wright's flying twenty-five yard strike mere moments after the start of the second half, which seemed to knock the stuffing out of the visitors as a neat prelude to a second from the penalty spot for Orsi sealing the three points, Brad Hills shown a straight red card for the challenge to bring him down. So, we (by Jamie's description) had won, the youngest member of our band in the stands at just seven, soon to be eight, losing himself in the atmosphere in a way I wasn't sure I ever could or would again after so long away.



What better antidote to the often suffocating grip of the Premier League than to simply adopt what presents itself as a community club? 



Although, it remains to be seen which fans they ultimately turn out to serve. Those they claim to, and to their credit appear to have moved at least a few inches closer to abandoning mere lip service towards, which is to say the local match going fans turning up week after week, or the seemingly distant and unknown equivalent out there in cyberspace? Both may well have the final say in how, what still feels like something of an experiment, actually turns out. A further dispatch from football's newest, and as yet least regulated frontier, may arrive some time prior to the end of the season should a return trip materialise.

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