After 139 years, the FA Cup still has an ability to encapsulate the nation. Slightly more commercialised than it was in its maiden 1871-72 season, the tournament still provides moments of pure genius.
The late, great Sir Bobby Robson once described it as “The greatest single match outside the World Cup Final – and it’s ours”. It is a competition that produces headlines one can scarcely believe.
However, this is one FA Cup weekend that sits slightly different with the average fan. On Saturday, non-league Crawley Town travel to Old Trafford to face Premier League leaders Manchester United.
Normally the neutrals would be on the side of the underdog, baying for a headline-grabbing scalp. Yet this fixture is somewhat different.
There is no doubt that Crawley have stirred controversy amongst lower and fellow non-league fans.
Blighted by administration and winding up orders in recent years, the club announced this summer that all debt had been cleared and that funds were available for manager Steve Evans to build a squad worthy of promotion. This just six months after being summoned to the High Court facing another winding-up order (which was later dismissed by the courts).
All in all over £1million worth of debt has been paid off which has allowed the club to heavily invest in its squad this season; most notably the high profile signing of Richard Brodie from York City, reported to be in the region of £275,000.
Evans isn’t the most popular character in the game either. The Glaswegian was suspended from football by the FA for impeding an investigation into contractual irregularities and has also been prosecuted for tax evasion. Add to that the numerous touchline bans, one of which lasted for 13 games in September 2009.
Fellow non-league supporters haven’t exactly warmed to the idea of the thoughtfully renamed “project promotion” campaign, thinking it an arrogant slur on the season’s outcome.
However, despite any reason against them, it cannot be denied how impressive Crawley have been this season. Striker Matt Tubbs, a £70,000 acquisition from Salisbury, has blitzed the goal scoring charts with 25 for the season so far – eighteen of them in the league. They currently sit second in the BSP, three points behind AFC Wimbledon with four games in hand.
Add to this the fact they’ve already beaten three Football League teams, including Championship side Derby, to set up their glamour tie with United. That is some feat for any lower league club.
They are the first non-league team to reach the last sixteen of the FA Cup since Kidderminster Harriers achieved the same in the 1993-94 competition, a remarkable achievement on reflection.
Perhaps then it is a success long overdue for a club that has fought many demons as of late. Fans and players are often the ones that suffer most when a club is battling backroom difficulties; it would be wrong to chastise either party ahead of their big day out. For many, this could be the only chance they’ll have to savour a place on the big stage, even if it is for one day. Not even the most blinkered football fans can deny them that one chance to shine.
That is why this weekend is slightly different. Because for every little strain in me wanting to see the underdogs defy the odds, there will be another part of me thinking that, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t actually feel like underdogs at all.
By Robert Bartlett – Grimsby Town fan