The chill from the air conditioning hit Crawley Town supporters the instant they stepped out of the grey morning drizzle on to the coach bound for Manchester and a possible FA Cup mauling. For those who believe in such things, the cold was an omen of what was to come: a sign that wild dreams of glory had begun to founder on the granite hardness of the reality that is Premier League football.
Nothing was on their side: not the overcast day; not the ban on booze during the journey; not the faintness of hope against the crushing mass of expectation; and not the driver, who would not hear their pleas to turn off the cold blower.
Another 25 busloads of supporters were being herded by wild-eyed stewards who were doing their level best to cope with the bumper turnout for one of the most anticipated matches in the club's history. Their spirits were insulated by the thought that they were the first non-league club for 17 years to make it into the last 16 of the cup.
Yesterday's tie marks the renaissance of a club that not so long ago seemed doomed. Crawley Town were £1m in debt until they were saved in 2008. Yesterday's match was thought to be worth about £1m to the club in shared tickets and television revenues. The Crawley faithful did their bit, rushing to buy last-minute scarves and snacks for the journey north.
And as the buses eventually approached Old Trafford, the chanting and the gestures out of the window to Manchester United fans grew louder and more energetic.
Crawley Town are the richest club in the Blue Square Bet Premier. They took around 9,000 supporters from their base near Gatwick Airport.
Before them lay the road from a corner of Sussex to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, home of the Premier League leaders, Manchester United. Somewhere on the chilly, subdued drive into the heart of premiership darkness, the Crawley fans began to feel the weight of the inevitable, seeking solace in gallows humour as their 26-coach convoy rolled north.
All travelled in hope. Chef Andrew Tester, 30, from Crawley, was typical. "I think we will win – and it will be 2-1." The turnout augured well, he said: "I've been following the club for 26 years. It's good to see more fans coming along now. Let's hope they will come along to see all the games."
Phil Bamsey, 43, groundsman and caretaker, was equally optimistic. "I think we will do ourselves proud. It's their ground, but I think the stadium and the crowd will suit our style of football. Tubbs is the main man. If anyone is going to score for Crawley it will definitely be him."
As Old Trafford appeared on the horizon, the coach became mystifyingly hot. The blower kicked back in as banter turned back to happier times and the previous round's win against Torquay in Football League Two.
Manchester laid on entertainment as the coaches slowed to a crawl, bumper to bumper. A roar went up as a local dropped his match ticket after stumbling out of the bookies. He kissed his retrieved strip of paper and waved to his audience on the coach.
For Roger and Jon Cole, father and son, the journey brought mixed emotions. Roger, 64, a travel company admin clerk, admitted he'd been a United fan since he was six. "I've told my boss at work that if Crawley win I won't be at work on Monday. I won't live down the shame of it. I think United will win. I hope it's not too big a gap, but I'd say 3-1 to United."
Roger said his son got him to start supporting Crawley. Jon claims it was the other way round.
"When Jon comes home I go along with him. It's a nice reason to bond and get together, and we've got a common interest. It's a fantastic game."
Jon Cole 36, a regional bank manager, Crawley-born but now living in Hastings, often makes it a family affair by bringing his daughters along.
"Today's game rates as 10 times bigger than any sporting event I've been to," he said. "It's going to be an immense day. Really looking forward to it. I've been supporting them since I was a kid. I didn't go for about 10 years, but I have been to most games for the last three or four seasons."
"We've got a chance, but we've got to be realistic. There's going to be some great players on the pitch, but we've got some good players ourselves. To get a goal would be great, particularly if it was in the 92nd minute at nil-nil – yeah. That would be great. It's the FA Cup, so anything could happen."
Debbie Bew, 44, a teaching assistant, and her daughter, Elana, 15, go to the matches together: "I am just so excited," Elana said. "I think it's going to be 1-0 to Crawley. I reckon we will bag it just after half time and that will be it. We always go together and we're loving it – the banter, walking up to the ground. That's what it's all about."
"We are incredibly excited," said her mother. "We went to Torquay and we didn't expect to go through. When we got the draw the next day, it was just a dream come true. I reckon it will be 1-0 Crawley with Sergio Torres to score."
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