Often the lower league sides will pray to be drawn away to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, and fate duly delivered for Crawley.
It is hard to understate the financial impact that a trip to Manchester United can have for a non-league team. The added TV exposure, with the game being played on ITV, will give it further financial impact. Some estimate that it could be as much as £1 million in TV revenue and takings at the turnstiles; and if they could pull off a draw to bring United back to Crawley in a replay as Exeter did some years ago, then it will be an even more lucrative tie. Yet a victory would see the players pocket £150 each, a relative pittance.
But the story of the non-league side is not wholly romantic. The flip side of the financial fillip of the trip to Old Trafford is that of all the teams in the Blue Square Premier Division, Crawley needed the luck of a trip to the Premier League leaders less than anyone else in the league. Or League Two for that matter, and most of League One too. So whilst for the football romantic, the appearance of a non league outfit at this stage of the competition is a reminder of an idyllic time in years gone past, this won’t be the case if you happen to be involved in football below the league ladder. In the Blue Square Premier Division, they are known as the Manchester City of the league.
A look at the club’s players will reveal that the entire first team which knocked out League Two Torquay earn more than their opponents’ first eleven put together. They also spend more than the entirety of League Two put together each year on average. The club’s assets in total make them worth more than almost every club in Leagues One and Two. Added to that is the fact that their manager, Steve Evans, was convicted of tax evasion whilst manager at Boston United.
The story of the literal rags to riches tale of a club who were on the brink of extinction owes much to fan and businessman Bruce Winfield, who led a group of investors who took over the club at literally the last minute (ok, not literally – the last hour). The club had been on the brink of folding, had there not been the intervention minutes before the deadline for their liquidation arrived.
The new owners subsequently invested heavily in the squad, and they won promotion from the Southern Counties league at the same time as AFC Wimbledon, embarking on their own journey of renewal, and the two clubs have climbed the non-league pyramid in unison, though the difference in approach is stark. They are the Arsenal and the Manchester City of the non-league world.
Matt Tubs and Richard Brodie were the top two scorers in the Blue Square Premier last season. Crawley decided to sign them both. Sergio Torres was an impressive acquisition from Peterborough, and has been the jewel in Crawley’s crown this year. There is no doubt that this is a team who have managed to force their way up the ladder thanks to their wealthy owners. Chief Executive Alan Williams insists that the financial incentive of beating United does not give added motivation. For a team of Crawley’s wealth that is perhaps understandable. Either way, a trip to Manchester United may be another huge boost to the club’s coffers, but the rich kids landing on free parking will do nothing for their popularity.