Fans disenchanted by poor performances and sceptical of shady benefactors
8 February ~ Over the last decade supporters of Crawley Town have lived in a constant state of flux. Two promotions and two runs to the FA Cup fifth round have contrasted with administration, points deductions, nine managerial changes, enormous secrecy around ownership and investment, relegation, and a regularly rocky relationship between club and community.
This relationship was put under further strain this week when the chief executive, Michael Dunford, accused stay-away fans of letting the club down. All of that is before you even mention the club’s role in the rehabilitation of Steve Evans from tax fraud to current saviour of Leeds United.
Dunford’s comments in the local press came on the coat tails of an announcement of impending regime change at the club. The initial lack of clarity about these arrangements led to wide ranging speculation among supporters and the local press, but the club have now taken the rather unprecedented step of stating that the prospective new owners are in fact of “Turkish nationality with experience in European football”. They go on to add that if the takeover deal doesn't complete, “another British consortium are keen to do a deal and are waiting in the wings”. Three years waiting for new owners and two turn up at once.
Ownership uncertainty is nothing new at Crawley Town. In recent history the club have gone from being bankrolled – and almost destroyed – by an undischarged bankrupt and his brother (the latter a man who ended up serving a custodial sentence for tax fraud, adding another for sending a doppelganger to carry out community service on his behalf) to being run by the shadowy Prospect Estates, saved by the late Bruce Winfield and then allowed to decline by the current board, under the auspices of the until recently anonymous “benefactor" Paul Hayward.
Hayward, apparently based in Thailand, although for many years mistakenly spoken of by supporters – and occasionally the club – as “Hong Kong Paul”, only made himself known to the public last autumn after a number of supporters called into question his reputation based on scurrilous internet claims about his business background. He holds no shares in the club, although it has long been believed that the actual majority shareholders, Pottinger and local businessman Matt Turner, are simply a front for his interests. Certainly it is not thought that they have any control over the decision-making process, and it is an association which perhaps unfairly diminishes Turner, a local businessman who even the club’s most vocal critics believe has their best interests at heart.
Crawley supporters seem finally to have developed a dose of scepticism. There have been a number of occasions in the past when many die-hards have supported obviously flawed regimes, but while there is a general view that change is both welcome and necessary, there is a distinct lack of trust this time around.
The new owners, whoever they may be – and indeed, if they actually exist and don’t simply turn out to be Hayward in a new coat – will have the unenviable task of building links between the club and its supporters, many of whom have drifted away, disenchanted by the quality of football on offer and by the behaviour of the current incumbents. It’s a task that won’t be easy; the 10,000 who went to Old Trafford five years ago were undoubtedly augmented by 7,000 day trippers, but the figure of 1,800 home supporters at the last match tells its own story.
Whatever their identities, and whatever their motives in taking on a League Two club in decline, their first task will be to stabilise the club and reawaken – or perhaps, just awaken – the interest of the 98 per cent of the community who currently seem more taken with the news that the local branch of Greggs has reopened than with the goings on at Crawley Town FC. It’ll be a big job; and you have to worry just who would want to do it – and why? Ian Townsend @Townsendaround
Photo by Tony Davis for WSC Photography