Gary Andrews bids farewell to some contentious champions and their suitably controversial manager
Even after cantering to the Conference title, Crawley’s manager Steve Evans was still taking potshots at his nearest rivals. “I did expect the players of Luton Town to give my players a guard of honour onto the pitch at the start of a wonderful night, but obviously they were told not to do that,” he complained following their first game after securing the title. This minor spat over a bigger occasion sums up Crawley’s championship triumph neatly.
The Sussex club won the Conference by 15 points, secured the title with five games left to go and went unbeaten since mid-October, yet their achievement is unlikely to receive anything other than extremely grudging congratulations from fans of other teams in the league.
The antipathy towards Crawley involves several different strands. Previously notorious for two administrations and regular points deductions, the arrival of anonymous new investors saw the club splash eye-watering sums as part of the rather crassly named “Project Promotion”.
Matt Tubbs arrived from Salisbury for £75,000, along with reported six-figure deals for York striker Richard Brodie and Peterborough’s Sergio Torres, as well as several other signings for undisclosed fees. If a League Two club had spent the estimated £600,000 Crawley have, they would have been expected to have been promoted. A significant number of League One clubs couldn’t even compete with this budget.
It would be easy to dismiss this as jealousy on the part of other clubs in the division, but the lack of transparency around exactly where the money is coming from makes many uneasy. There’s no suggestion of any wrongdoing over the funds for Project Promotion, and all transfer fees have been paid up front. Crawley have repeatedly said that the investors, brought to the club by late chairman Bruce Winfield (who died midway through the season), wish to remain anonymous.
To seasoned watchers of non-League, anonymous backers who throw vast sums of cash at previously unheralded clubs normally seem to good to be true. That may not be the case in Crawley’s instance, but it raises suspicions that could be answered by a simple statement.
Tying it all together is the aforementioned Steve Evans, their volatile manager. There are many who feel he shouldn’t be in football at all. In November 2006, Evans received a 12-month jail sentence, suspended for two years, for failing to pay tax on players’ wages while he was manager of Boston United. The Pilgrims won promotion from the Conference by the narrowest of margins and Evans was held to be one of those responsible for some creative accounting of contracts, with the official paperwork saying some players were on a fraction of what they were actually being paid.
Evans has often apologised for his role in the fraud, saying he would not make the same mistake again, but his appointment at the Broadfield was not a popular one within the game. Evans and his supporters argue the man deserves a second chance; his detractors say, given the crime, his punishment should have been a life ban. And Evans has given his critics plenty of ammunition. In 2008-09, he was forced to serve a 12-match touchline ban and a year later he was hit with a further 13-match suspension, including three where he wasn’t even allowed inside the stadium.
This season, he’s limited himself to just the one sending off but has still got involved in assorted spats. At AFC Wimbledon he refused to shake the hand of Terry Brown, his opposite number, before appearing to shout at several Wimbledon employees. Evans later said this was down to a polite disagreement about towels and insisted there were no cross words involved.
Evans has also clashed with the Non-League Paper and Torquay United’s staff, among others, although was on his best behaviour when Crawley travelled to Manchester United in the FA Cup. Tellingly, though, Crawley got very little goodwill from the rest of the non-League community. In a division where the amateur spirit still prevails, despite the increasing number of full-time clubs, there’s a feeling Crawley have disrespected the spirit of what non-League is about. Supporters Direct have also spoken out against the club’s large outlay and their anonymous investors.
Even if their on-the-pitch season has been impressive, Crawley have won few friends in their march to the title. Quite what bigger clubs such as Bradford and Plymouth will make of the Red Devils next season remains to be seen. Although, given how long it took the Football League to find out who exactly owns Leeds or, last season, Notts County, Crawley will feel right at home in that regard.
From WSC 292 June 2011