Crawley Town v MK Dons
Broadfield Stadium / League One / 10th January 2015
The replica football shirt is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re a 26-year-old man it’s not particularly cool to wear your club’s replica kit – but I do. It’s even less cool to get your favourite player’s name on the back – but “SIGURDSSON 23” is emblazoned proudly on the back of my Swansea City shirt. Me and my brother – and co Lost Boyo – have always been fans of football shirts and I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at how many we have between us. My wardrobe ranges from my team Swansea to giants such as Barcelona and Juventus, as well as less obvious ones such as a 2006 Rapid Vienna away shirt and an Army United (Thai League) away shirt – a Christmas present from my brother’s travels around South-East Asia. It was through football shirts that I came across Crawley fan Craig Bratt. Craig has set himself the awesome challenge of trying to get a football shirt for all 92 league clubs. I loved the idea and informed Craig that if I ever did encounter him that I would donate a Swansea shirt to his collection (obviously the one from the rather bland Paulo Sousa era though – not an important one.)
Eventually, on a trip to Notts County towards the end of last season, I met up with Craig and gave him the promised Swans shirt to add to his collection and promised him that I would visit his beloved Crawley on my travels in the near future, having never been there before.
9 months later: I found myself at Manchester Piccadilly with train tickets to Crawley in hand.
I regularly praise the efficiency of Virgin Trains, but today a power cut on the train, as we tried to leave Stoke (dark carriage in Stoke – very scary) meant that I arrived into London half hour later than planned. A bit of tube-hopping saw me get from London Euston to London Victoria and then it was onwards to Crawley.
By 11.30am I was stepping out into Crawley and to be honest, it wasn’t exactly the most eye-catching welcome with a concrete jungle ahead of me.
For those unfamiliar with the town of Crawley, you can find it located just south of London and 18 miles north of Brighton. Perhaps most will have come across the town when travelling to Gatwick Airport, which can be found on the edge of the town.
Moments after my arrival, Craig came strolling around the corner to meet me; he would be my Crawley chaperone for the day.
All week Craig had repeatedly warned me that Crawley is not exactly the most beguiling of places, although I thought the town centre was tidy enough, if a little bit on the small side. Craig showed off his connections in the town by walking into Pret A Manger and then subsequently leaving with a free coffee, before then taking me to one of Crawley’s biggest claims to fame: the largest Poundland in the UK – awe-inspiring.
Having gaped at the colossus Poundland, we decided to move on and towards the town’s Wetherspoons, the Jubilee Oak. All very nice, but really just a standard Spoons pub with added MK Dons fans lurking in the back – never a good thing.
I liked the look of the Brewery Shades pub across the road from Wetherspoons and so that was to be our next port of call. The place was a traditional old place with a range of real ales, but having had a pint of lager already, I opted to be boring and stick to Fosters, whilst Craig declared his love for Neil Diamond. Good pub with a spot of character about it, but we didn’t hang around for too long.
We then decided to make the walk to the New Moon pub, located just minutes away from Crawley Town’s home, the Broadfied Stadium. Apparently, the Broadfield area of Crawley has a bit of a shady reputation and from my brief stroll through the place it didn’t exactly contradict these perceptions. Craig had derided the town fairly frequently throughout the day, but he tried to make the place sound more glamorous by reeling off some of the celebrities who were reared there: Gareth Southgate, Chico from X-Factor and…well he run out after those two (I can tell you now that he forgot to mention pop-rockers The Feeling too and strangely 2D, the fictional singer of the cartoon band Gorillaz).
We arrived at the New Moon with the ground in sight down the road, and were greeted by a small gathering of Crawley fans. Whilst I bought a drink, Craig went over to chat to them, before then introducing me to them.
“I used to play for Swansea you know?” declared one of the party. Of course, this immediately got my attention and so I quizzed this gentleman on his career with the Swans. It turned out he (Alan Harper) was with the Swans in the early 70s under Tony Bentley’s management. What are the chances of meeting a former Swan in a pub in Crawley of all places? One pint consumed here and then it was onwards down the hill to the ground – but not before one last stop.
“You have to get your photo with it,” declared Craig. The ‘it’ he was referring to was the huge red and white football in the middle of the roundabout just in front of the ground. According to Craig, it was only placed there as a temporary sight when the stadium opened, but it has just stayed there ever since. I diced with traffic and got my photo kicking the imposing ball (sadly, it was made of steel and not synthetic like a regular football), before heading into the car park of the stadium.
Craig showed off his VIP status with the club by being greeted and greeting all the staff working there – well, it was either his VIP status or maybe just the fact that he works there too, selling away travel to fans. We went to one of the many portacabins in the car park to get my ticket for the game; Craig tried the “does a groundhopper get a discount?” trick for me and I promised to say nice things about the club in my blog, but ultimately I was forced to pay the full £18 to stand on the standing terrace. Craig then proceeded to introduce me to various Crawley folk including the club secretary Sue, who had kindly tried to sort me out a meeting with new Crawley manager and former Wales and Swansea striker Dean Saunders, but unfortunately the Welshman was to prove elusive. With Crawley sitting 23rd in League One, I think he had bigger fish to fry than have a thumbs up photo with me anyway.
Craig led me into a few other portacabins – one rammed full of old programmes and another with random crap, including the sweets for the away fan buses – before we then went into the ‘Redz Bar’ – please note the rather ‘hip’ use of the letter ‘z’ instead of ‘s’. The club bar was very nice indeed and had clearly been spruced up fairly recently. Drink in hand, I went to join Craig and some of his pals on the fancy sofas in the corner of the bar. It was also here that I noticed that away from the main bar, there was also a bottle bar. I was given the lowdown on Crawley FC and in the nutshell the message I was getting was: ‘Crawley are shit’. However, Crawley fan Ben was confident as he forecasted a 5-0 victory for the Red Devils today.
“If Crawley score 5, I’ll get naked in the stand,” replied Craig, only for Ben to agree that that would be an appropriate reaction and then shaking on it that if Crawley did indeed net 5 goals that they would get naked in the stand (although, thankfully, they did add a disclaimer of they’d keep their boxers on).
Kick-off was fast approaching and so we headed out of the bar and headed for the turnstiles and into the ground.
The Broadfield Stadium – or the Checkatrade.com Stadium if you really wish to use the sponsor-influenced name – has been the home of football in Crawley since 1997. Before that the club had largely been an amateur outfit playing in the likes of the West Sussex League, the Mid-Sussex League and the Metropolitan League. The club, which was formed in 1896, played its home matches at Town Mead from 1949 until the move to their current home in 1997. Interestingly, in a fact he was very proud of, the Broadfield Stadium opened the same day Craig was born, so it was almost fate that he would be subjected to becoming a Crawley fan.
Since the move to the Broadfield Stadium, which holds 6,000, Crawley have propelled themselves up the leagues – but this wasn’t without its problems too. At the start of the 21st century, Crawley plied their trade in the Southern League and were peppered with financial problems. The Red Devils clambered up into the Conference in 2004, although there were still monetary issues within the club. Those worries would disappear in 2008 as Prospect Estate Holdings Limited took over the club and helped pump more funds into the club to prepare them for another ascendancy. 2010 saw more finances come in from major shareholders Bruce Winfield and Susan Carter to fund signings such as Sergio Torres and Matt Tubbs and in the same season the club secured the Conference title; sadly co-owner and lifelong fan Winfield would die 19 days before Crawley would win the title and move into the Football League for the first time. The next season the club would continue their surge by securing promotion to League One and it was in the relegation zone of this league where I found Crawley playing on this early January afternoon.
Whilst Craig got some food from the food vendor located just the other side of the turnstiles, I went pitchside to take some photos of the ground pre-kick-off. We would be in the Bruce Winfield Stand, the standing terrace behind one of the goals, for today’s game; you just can’t beat a standing terrace for a Football League game. Located opposite behind the other goals is an almost identical stand and it is here where the away fans are placed. Down one side of the pitch is the East Stand, a sheltered seating stand made up of 12 rows of seating. Finally, the main stand in the ground is the West Stand – a quite decent-looking seating stand, which is raised above pitch level meaning supporters have to walk up some steps to get into the seating area. Despite many berating the ground to me beforehand, I found myself quite liking the ground – it is a bit basic, but it is certainly pleasant enough. Perhaps I was just relieved not to be at properly bland ground like Doncaster’s Keepmoat, where I had spent the previous Saturday.
We headed around to our standing spot and it was here I found Jack ‘Talk Norwich City’ Reeve, Ellis and Fake Gibbo, who was already wearing a Crawley Town scarf. I always let Jack know where I’m heading these days and these days, more often than not, he seems to be up for joining me too with today being him and lads’ third Lost Boyos appearance – I’m becoming quite a bad influence on them I feel. Ellis was also recording for his groundhopping YouTube channel Away Days and the link to his video of the day can be found at the bottom of this blog, so make sure to check that out.
The Crawley fans were in good voice as the teams came out onto the pitch, although it was perhaps telling of Crawley’s current plight that they were chanting the theme to The Great Escape. There was a nice Swansea link in Crawley’s starting eleven today too with former Swans youngsters Joe Walsh and Gwion Edwards both wearing the red of Crawley and also not forgetting Dean Saunders on the touchline.
As the players got ready to kick-off, I had no idea that I was about to witness the most entertaining and unusual 90 minutes of football I have witnessed in a long time.
There wasn’t too much to report in the first 15 minutes until Crawley’s Izale McLeod cut into the box and found himself brought down by former Crawley player Kyle McFadzean. McLeod dusted himself down to take the penalty himself and confidently converted in front of us to make it 1-0 to the home team. A great start for the team 20 places behind their opponents.
MK were having more of the ball, but not really doing too much with it. In fact, the next chance of note fell to Crawley again, but Gavin Tomlin fired his effort into the side-netting. Craig and his pals had derided Tomlin for being ‘shit’ repeatedly before kick-off, but I actually thought he played alright today.
With 5 minutes to go until half-time, there was a major turning point in the game. The legendary Brian ‘The Beast’ Jenson in goal for Crawley came out to successfully claim the ball on the ground, but remained on the floor following his grab at the feet of Samir Carruthers. It transpired that Jenson had dislocated his finger and had to be subbed. However, Crawley had no second goalie on the bench and after much discussion on the touchline, it was decided that striker Matt Harrold would come off the bench and go in goals for the home team.
Despite the obvious worries, the noise of the home support went up a notch to show their backing for the makeshift keeper. Confidence in Harrold would raise as he came and confidently claimed a high ball moments after going in net.
Crawley held out comfortably and got in at half-time 1-0 up.
Half-time: Crawley Town 1 – 0 MK Dons.
I had my usual of array thumbs up photos, including a compulsory one with the club mascot, and then it was time for the second half as Matt Harrold jogged out on the pitch by himself to rapturous applause from the home end. After Harrold’s spot of catching practice, the rest of the team came out shortly after him and it was time to get an action-packed second half underway.
Once again, Harrold claimed a few high balls comfortably and if you didn’t know any different, you would have thought he was the real deal as a goalkeeper. The Crawley fans clearly agreed as choruses of “England’s number one!” resonated from the stands, as well as a personal favourite of “Ginger Manuel Neuer!”
Then, things got more comfortable for Crawley as just three minutes after the interval, McLeod scored again. McLeod won the ball off the MK defence inside their box (probably a hint of offside), before cutting in and rolling the ball past David Martin. 2-0 and the home end went mental. The Great Escape blasted out once again.
There was little sign from MK that they were going to get anything and it began to look more and more likely that Crawley would hang on for a famous and most unlikely of victories with 11 outfield players on the pitch.
MK did engineer a great chance for Ben Reeves, but his low shot was amazingly thwarted by Harrold, who stuck his legs out to stop his shot. A roar boomed around the ground followed by a huge sigh of relief. I was just laughing hysterically at what was going on.
By now, injured keeper Brian Jenson was now at the front of the Crawley standing terrace coaching Harrold – something I’ve never seen on my football travels or am likely to see again. You would think that Harrold’s main trait as a keeper would be his kicking, but he almost gifted MK a goal by kicking the ball into the onrushing Will Grigg, only for the makeshift keeper to rush back and catch the ball, just before it crossed the line.
MK Dons’ pressure was getting too much for the home team and inevitably they eventually grabbed a goal in the 76th minute. A high ball into the box was met by the head of Grigg, who placed it in the far corner. Game on.
The game had been very strange already, but things were somehow to get stranger again. MK were rushing to get the ball forward for a vital equaliser and in his haste Dons’ Carl Baker pushed Lewis Young, brother of Ashley, into the stand. Next thing you know, all hell was breaking loose following some sort of altercation between Baker and a fan in the main stand. MK Dons manager Karl Robinson even run down the touchline to drag Baker away. We all took to Twitter to work out what the hell had happened and it soon became clear that a home fan had thrown tea (supposedly lukewarm) over Baker, as he felt his push on Young had almost sent the Crawley player flying over the stand and into his disabled father-in-law (that’s what seemed to be the gist of it anyway). Scenes.
Not long after, Grigg seemed to be mouthing off the entire Crawley terrace and it is fair to say that the animosity levels in the ground rocketed up.
The last ten minutes was just one long relentless attack by MK Dons to score an equaliser with Crawley on the ropes. Poor Craig had just taken to holding my shoulder, as it was all getting too much for him. “Not since October,” he kept repeating to himself, referring to the last time his club won 3 points. He seemed to be turning a little bit insane as the 3 points got closer.
As the clock struck 90, the guy on the PA announced that today’s Man of the Match was Matt Harrold to a huge cheer from the home fans. Dare I say, it was probably deserved for his bravery alone. The keeper still had a lot to do though in the added time.
Fair to say the final few minutes were mental, as somehow Crawley kept the ball out with a whole host of heroic blocks and clearances off the line. To be honest, I felt that some of the clearances were so heroic that it was almost a certainty that the home team would hold on, but, sadly, this story was to have a sad ending.
96th minute: a high ball into the box pinballed around the 6 yard box, until it fell to Dons midfielder Dele Alli who tapped in with virtually the last kick of the game. The MK players and fans went suitably crazy. I went to look at Craig only to find him pale-faced on the floor. I was worried that the goal may have actually killed him.
Full-time: Crawley Town 2 – 2 MK Dons. Best game of my 2014/15 football travels so far.
I told Jack, Ellis and Ben to head to the club bar, as I felt we all needed to reflect on the game we had just witnessed. Ashen-faced Craig was still not really talking.
I have to say I was gutted that Crawley couldn’t hold on for the win, but I was still buzzing after such a pulsating game. I drank my beer heartily, whilst trying to restore life back into Craig. The Norfolk lads had made a 4 hour train journey, but were clearly delighted that they had witnessed such a fun game of football and so they departed the club bar and headed back home happy.
I stayed in the bar until they started shouting last orders at around 6pm and so I thought this was as good a time as any to leave and call an end to my day in West Sussex. Craig had sort of raised his spirits slightly, but with him still looking a bit glum, I did give him a Blanc/Barthez-esque drunken kiss on the forehead as I said goodbye and departed. I’m sure a drunk(ish) Welshman kissing him on the head cheered him up.
Following a football chat with Bognor Regis FC fans on the Crawley to London train, a visit to the Wetherspoons in London Victoria station and the usual tradition of a pint in the Doric Arch pub next to Euston station and I was finally back on the train back north to Manchester.
Many people had warned me not to expect much from Crawley Town and, admittedly, there isn’t too much to the town, the football team are not that exciting and the ground isn’t that mindblowing. Yet, I found myself having one of the most enjoyable days of my football travels in a long while: I drank lots of beer – and in fairly decent pubs; the Crawley fans were very friendly and more than welcoming; there was a (surprisingly) good atmosphere in the ground; I witnessed a striker keep a clean sheet for almost half a match; I saw a player get doused in tea; and I just generally had very good fun with good company – which I am sure is what football is supposed to be about.
Some Crawley fans have asked me to join them in the away end at Rochdale on Saturday and do you know what, I’m actually considering it.
Highlights: decent pubs, friendly fans, kicking a giant steel football, nice club bar, THE GAME! – strikers in goal, tea being thrown over a player and a 96th minute equaliser – everything you want from a game.
Low Points: the fact that the 96th minute equaliser was scored by MK Dons, quite a basic ground.
See all my photos from my day at Crawley here.
Also, check out Ellis’ Away Days video of the day at Crawley here.