Crawley, the town that's so easy to leave

Ahead of his home town's historic clash with Man Utd, Simon Calder offers a guided tour

Leaving Crawley has always been mercifully easy.

I was born in a house beside the A23 in Crawley, exactly halfway between Gatwick airport and the current Crawley Town FC ground, and soon discovered that the planners of the post-war New Town "fit for heroes" had done hitch-hikers a favour by installing what was then the UK's finest collection of roundabouts, maximising the lift prospects for any teenager keen to escape.

Today, Crawley assists anyone longing to be elsewhere. Within the boundaries of the West Sussex town lies Gatwick, the world's busiest single-runway airport. It is the UK arrival point of choice for popes and presidents, and the main hub for Britain's biggest airline, easyJet. The world's first integrated airport terminal, "The Beehive", was opened at Gatwick in 1936 (though it has since been converted to an office). And the hub of the UK travel industry resides in the Crawley Business Centre, corporate home for the world's leading leisure travel company, Tui, as well as Virgin Atlantic.

As the departure screens in Gatwick's North Terminal testify, wherever you want to go – from St Lucia to Sri Lanka – Crawley is the best place to start. The town of 80,000 may not resemble a sun-kissed tropical idyll, but it is a gateway to many of them.

Today, though, one in nine of the townspeople will head north through the rain to Old Trafford. Crawley Town FC, which was on the brink of bankruptcy only a year ago, are the first non-league team this century to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup.

After beating League opposition in the shape of Swindon Town, Derby County and Torquay United, they were drawn against the Premier League leaders, Manchester United. Nine thousand tickets at the most famous club ground in the world have been allocated to supporters of a team whose home venue holds barely half as many.

Crawley Luxury, the ambitiously named local coach company, is sending most of its fleet up the M23 and M6. "It's the busiest winter weekend we've ever had," said co-owner Darren Brown, who will drive one of the buses.

The High Street is the cultural artery, though progress has taken its toll on Crawley's heritage. The Starlight Ballroom, where Jimi Hendrix played at the height of his career in 1967, has been flattened (along with the original Virgin Atlantic HQ), and is now a car-park. The High Street formed part of the old highway between London and Brighton, though the old coaching inn, The George, has been rebranded as the Gatwick George Hotel because of changing transport habits, and the lack of comprehension in the wider world that there is a town called Crawley.

Indeed, a constant challenge for Crawley folk heading abroad is the town's lack of visibility. It has rarely been troubled by cults of celebrity in the same way as, say, Stratford-upon-Avon or Liverpool: the five "Famous Faces" in the latest Crawley Observer begins with footballer Gareth Southgate and ends with Eugene Sully, a former Big Brother contestant. But as fantasy home-town splashes go, "Manchester United drawn at home against Crawley Town in the FA Cup fifth round" ranks along headlines such as "Crawley twinned with Las Vegas" or "Bruce Springsteen and Madonna to settle in Crawley".

Steve Evans, Crawley Town's manager, said: "It's going to be the most difficult thing ever, but we're going to try." The extra challenge of meeting the world's most famous football team away from home will be mitigated by the estimated £1m that the club will earn.

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