Nothing could capture the romance of the FA Cup better than a tie between a non-League side and Manchester United, the 11-times winners of the competition – or so you might think.
But the Red Devils of Crawley Town, who play their nick-namesakes at Old Trafford this evening, are no ordinary non-League club. And some say there is nothing romantic about their story.
When the TV announcer handling the draw for the fifth round mouthed the platitude that a trip to Old Trafford would "fill the coffers" of what he presumed was an impoverished Blue Square Bet Premier club, he was some way off the mark. Crawley, in fact, are backed by a level of investment unknown in the fifth tier of the English game, earning them the unwanted title of "the non-League Manchester City", and a degree of envy and dislike that has made a comparison with United more relevant.
This is no amateur team of plumbers and milkmen. Crawley boast a squad of seasoned professionals such as former Peterborough midfielder Sergio Torres and ex-Brighton goalkeeper Michel Kuipers, as well as Matt Tubbs, the division's top scorer with Salisbury last season. Getting to second place in their league, with games in hand on AFC Wimbledon, the leaders, did not come cheap – York City pocketed a fee for striker Richard Brodie quoted as a non-League record £275,500, although £100,000 less might be nearer the mark.
The new co-owners, Bruce Winfield and Susan Carter, say that they are simply helping their local team. Last summer Winfield, a finance director and long-time supporter, and Carter, who runs an air-freight business at nearby Gatwick Airport in partnership with her husband, paid off debts of £1m to stabilise the club. Previous owners had overseen two administrations in the preceding 11 years along with points deductions and a winding-up order.
More funds were made available to controversial manager Steve Evans after Winfield brought in other investment, some from Hong Kong. The investors have not been named, although owners of shareholdings of 10 per cent or more will have to be identified under Football League rules if promotion is achieved.
Rivals gleefully anticipate a Portsmouth-style misadventure but Carter insists that Crawley's success is based on careful budgeting and rigorous accounting rather than unsustainable borrowing. Transfer fees are paid up front and in full, with no add-ons or accumulating debt.
"There is a lot of mischief made, there is a lot of jealousy, and I think it stems from the bad publicity the club has had in the past, when it was tarnished by the actions of previous owners," Carter said. "But Bruce and I have made business decisions and we want to put the club on a safe footing.
"The figures quoted are way, way exaggerated. We've got a business plan that is working for us, and we're not going to make the mistake of paying silly wages for a short-term dream that is unsustainable. That has caused problems in the past for this club, and it is what causes problems for every club that gets into trouble. The board and shareholders have made an investment and if it doesn't work out it will not lead to financial disaster."
An estimated wage bill of £16,000 per week is thought to be only the third-highest in the division, and although sustaining it might seem tricky on an average gate of 1,800, 6,000 will follow them to Old Trafford today. The West Sussex new town has a population bigger than that of Burnley, and the eventual aim is League One.
Delivering the two promotions required is Evans' task. He ruffled non-League feathers once before when taking Boston United into the Football League in 2002, his critics vindicated when he was given a suspended jail sentence and banned from football for 20 months for his part in the payment of illegal bonuses. But he has put a series of touchline dismissals for abusing officials behind him, his team are unbeaten in 18 league and FA Cup games, and he is as unconcerned by sniping as the United manager he will face tonight.
"Arsenal and Chelsea fans don't like Sir Alex Ferguson because he keeps beating them," Evans said. "If you're not a Manchester United fan or player you tend not to like them. We have tried to create that same mentality here that it's us against the rest. But a lot of it is perception. We tried to sign two players from Luton but couldn't get near their salaries. There are four or five big clubs in the Conference and we're just one of them.
"The perception doesn't bother me. I would rather have Bruce Winfield and Susan Carter backing me over signing a player that I've targeted. They've done that in previous seasons as well as clearing the debts, which has included doing things like taking players and staff in cars to away games because it saved us £700-£800 a trip. In five years' time, as well as hopefully being in League One, we just hope we're run as prudently as we are now. That will mean Bruce and Susan have done a hell of a lot right."
And perceptions will not matter this evening when Evans matches wits with Ferguson, his fellow Glaswegian. They have never met, and Evans plans to introduce himself with a £250 bottle of Ferguson's favourite tipple. "Rothschild red," Evans said. "Expensive. My wife keeps asking me if I've sorted the wine for 'the Great One' – and I've been thinking what I can tell her without getting into her bad books.
"There is a famous wine in Glasgow called Buckfast and I've had texts from one or two people saying: 'Take him a bottle of Buckfast, he would appreciate that and laugh'. But I don't know Sir Alex at all, so that gesture might not get the response I would be hoping for."
If that sounds as though Evans is being too respectful, think again. "At 5.15 we'll be in their faces to win the game," he said. "Last year this league was won by a big, physical side in Stevenage. We want to win it in a different way, by passing and moving. But for us to do a lot of passing and moving on Saturday they're going to have to put two balls on the pitch because we won't see much of the main ball. Instead what we have got to do is make sure we remember we're there to compete and win a match. All we can do is our best and that means 100 per cent effort, commitment, passion. I just want my players to give everything because they may never get an opportunity like this again."
And Evans has an extra incentive for Crawley becoming the first non-League club to reach the sixth round. "Nicole, one of my two girls, is missing the game because she is going to Italy on a school trip she's been waiting a year for. I've been trying to convince that little girl that Manchester United and daddy's big day is bigger, but it's just not on her radar. She said to me this week: 'Dad, if you want me to see you in the FA Cup this year, you have to win at Old Trafford'."
Crawley in numbers
Transfer fee reportedly paid by Crawley for York striker Richard Brodie last summer, a record for non-League football
Estimated weekly wage bill, the third highest in the Blue Square Bet Premier
Debts paid off by Bruce Winfield and Susan Carter last summer
Estimated amount spent on players last summer – more than the total spend of all League Two clubsReuse content