By David Lintott
Five years is a long time in football, or so the cliché goes. For fans of Crawley Town, though, the period of 2006-2011 has witnessed the club transform from an outfit close to extinction following the onset of administration to a free-spending, upwardly-mobile giant of the lower leagues.
Traditionally a non-league club with modest ambitions, in 2006 Crawley were an hour away from being wound-up due to financial complications under owners Chas and Mohammed Azwar Majeed, leading to the latter’s subsequent conviction for tax fraud. Local businessman John Duly saved the club from extinction.
In 2010 co-owner Bruce Winfield announced the club’s £1 million pound debt had been cleared and that there would be a cash injection to provide Crawley with the funds to challenge for a place in the Football League, to the delight of the club’s fans and to the disgust of rival clubs.
Due to the unprecedented influx of money that has been pumped into a regional team like Crawley, the club has filled column inches in national newspapers over the past year. Crawley Town’s rapid ascent to the Football League has seen the club dubbed ‘the Manchester City of the conference’ following the relatively large transfer fees and wages spent on players, as the club won 2010/11 Blue Square Premier at a canter.
The impact of sudden wealth combined with success on the pitch has had a huge effect off the field, creating more jobs at the club. Bruce Talbot, Crawley Town media manager, said: “Two years ago the club operated with an office staff of four. We now have a backroom team which is four times as big. This has been done to cope with the extra demands of being a Football League club.”
Ken Blackmore, of the Crawley Town Supporters Alliance, is cautiously optimistic about the club’s ambitions. He said: “For any club of Crawley’s size, [the unclear ownership issue] is a worry. Clubs bigger than us have lost their funding, like Rushden & Diamonds a few years ago. We seem to be very well run financially, and the owners have a vision. The main thing our fans care about is that we appear to have owners who are putting money into the club rather than taking it out.”
The club is 40% owned by unknown Far East investors. The lack of transparency over the identity of the co-owners and their reasons for funding Crawley Town’s ambitious plans is as yet unclear. There are major concerns amongst fans and pundits that a club with few revenue-generating streams can sustain a free-spending approach, particularly as Football League clubs voted in June to impose UEFA’s financial fair play rules, which state that clubs are only able to spend what they earn. Salary caps have been mooted, potentially halting Crawley’s plan to continue to spend their way to success.
Amidst the excitement as new money has swelled the club’s coffers, stark warnings from history of the collapse of bigger clubs with stronger financial resources, such as Leeds United and Portsmouth, are still fresh in the memory to Crawley’s more measured fans. During 2010/2011 the club spent more money on wages than the entire League Two and Blue Square Premier combined. With a salary cap and Financial Fair Play regulations looming, the club is at the mercy of the unknown investors and in danger of disappearing for good if the funding dries up. Cautious forecasters have questioned the business model, suggesting that Crawley Town is an empire built on sand.
Talbot insists the club is spending within its means. He said: “The club fully adheres to the Financial Fair Play regulations which restrict clubs to spending only 55% of their revenue on players. All spending is very carefully monitored and we always balance the books to ensure the FFP regulations are met. There is a perception that our spending on players is unlimited which is totally false.”
In 2006, with the club teetering on the verge of oblivion, administrators accepted a proposal to pay creditors half of the £1.375m owed. This issue has been particularly contentious since the huge investment of 2010, with Crawley spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on new players. All the while, the club’s creditors, many of whom are based locally, have suffered financial hardship as the club is not obliged to pay out the additional £687,500 initially owed. This has contributed to the club’s struggle to broaden their appeal within the local area, as resentment towards Crawley’s wealth is not limited to gripes from rival clubs.
Crawley Town has a small fanbase, and has played at the 4,996-capacity Broadfield Stadium since 1997. Like many of the smaller towns and counties around the country without a significant league club presence, the majority of local football fans support big clubs with vast histories that sit at the high end of the Premier League and frequent the Champions League, located nowhere near the area – namely Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Talbot revealed the club are looking to extend Broadfield Stadium’s capacity by over 2,000 seats. He said: “We are currently in the process of applying to build a new East Stand seating 2151 spectators which would take the capacity to more than 7,000.”
In response to its struggle to fill Broadfield Stadium during the 2010/2011 title-winning campaign, the club launched a scheme allowing fans of bigger clubs to watch Crawley play selected matches for £10.
Chairman Vic Marley said: “We are delighted to announce this scheme to adopt Crawley Town FC as your second team.” The club hope to widen its potential fanbase and reach out to those disillusioned fans who are expected to pay big money if they wish to watch Premier League matches during tough financial times.
A BBC survey in August found that it costs up to £100 to watch Arsenal in the Premier League. Incidentally, the same survey discovered that the cheapest cup of tea at a football match in the country is just 50p – at Crawley. For a tenth of the price of a premium Premier League match, as well as the country’s cheapest half-time refreshments, loyal fans who supported the club through its struggles can take comfort they are not being priced out of watching the team play, yet.