Issue Here comes Crawley Town

As told by Jason Mckeown

Wes Thomas’ 18 goals for League Two Cheltenham Town last season understandably made him a man in demand. But rather than moving up the football pyramid, the 24-year-old has joined the league’s newest and most inexperienced club.

Crawley Town, promoted from the Blue Square Premier last season, have beaten off interest from other clubs – not to mention Cheltenham’s own hopes of retaining a striker they had rescued from non-league after a less than impressive time at Dagenham – to land Thomas. And while this may be largely considered unremarkable, the comments from Cheltenham chairman Paul Baker should be of concern to the other 22 clubs in next season’s League Two:

I’ve heard the package he’s on and he wouldn’t get that at a lot of clubs in League One, it’s staggering. It shows the money someone is putting in at Crawley to sustain the wage bill. They’re not doing it on gates.”

The rise of Crawley was well publicised last season during their extraordinary FA Cup run which was only ended in the fifth round, following a commendable performance in losing 1-0 at Manchester United. They earned promotion with a stunning 105 points – only losing three games all season, the last of which was on the 16th October 2010 – and in the FA Cup defeated League One Swindon, Championship Derby and League Two Torquay on route to Old Trafford.

More notable, however, is their financial strength that led to such remarkable results. Some £600k was apparently spent on transfer fees alone last season – astonishing for the Conference, and last season was a higher spend than all of the League Two clubs combined – while the aftermath of Derby’s 2-1 FA Cup defeat saw Rams manager Nigel Clough reveal some of his players were on lower wages than some of the Crawley players. True, Derby’s efforts to trim their sizeable wage bill will have caused them to pay very low wages for new signings, but it is still a startling fact that a club then-three divisions lower had greater financial capability.

For next season’s League Two campaign, the consequences of Crawley’s continuing high spending are becoming clear. Crawley are not just widely considered favourites for promotion, but in one bookie’s eyes ODDS ON favourites to climb straight into League One. Over the last few years, recently promoted teams into the Football League – with nothing like the resources Crawley enjoy – have had little trouble ascending into England’s third tier. It would seem the type of forwards momentum exhibited by the likes of Exeter and Stevenage will be replicated at the Broadfield Stadium next season.

The big question is how fair that is on the rest of League Two – just as whether Crawley’s spending was fair on Conference clubs last season. As Cheltenham’s Baker said, it’s not being achieved on their gates (average 2,535 last season, while the Robins’ – who couldn’t match the wages Town offered for Thomas – averaged 2,980).

The actual source of Crawley’s financial support has not been disclosed to date, with the financial backers brought to the club by late chairman Bruce Winfield wishing to remain anonymous. Before these backers arrived Crawley, who had suffered significant financial problems for many seasons, were said to be losing £400,000 a year. To go from this to suddenly spending £600k on players such as City’s Scott Neilson – not to mention the wages being paid for persuading talented players like Sergio Torres to step down to non-league – should be considered troubling.

Crawley’s owners may have perfectly good reasons for remaining anonymous, and there is no evidence to suggest the club or their backers are acting illegally, but the mystery surrounding the ownership issue is not good for the wider game.

And it makes for an interesting test for the Football League. The comparisons between Crawley’s financial might next season and Notts County in 2009/10 are obvious. County, bought by the enigmatic Munto Finance, spent unprecedented sums of money at this level to build a squad that eventually won the division at a canter. In County’s case, however, it was all part of an epic swindle that almost ended with the club collapsing.

The validity of the promotion they achieved is still hugely questionable, and for the rest of League Two the distorting affects it had on that season are still felt today. Fourth-placed Morecambe, for example, might feel a sense of injustice that they missed out on promotion to a club who were bending the rules. The 5-0 defeat City suffered on the opening day immediately put Stuart McCall under pressure and set the mood for a difficult season.

Yet the Football League failed to get to grips with County at all. The fit and proper rules in place were easily bypassed by County’s owners, and their inaction almost saw the world’s oldest professional football club go out of business. Like with Crawley, the FA claimed they had seen the necessary documents from Notts County that apparently proved the fit and propeness of Munto. Equally poor has been the Football League’s failure to establish the true owners of Leeds United, and the situation was only cleared up when the Elland Road club looked to be on the brink of the Premier League but were warned they might not be allowed in it if the ownership matter remained unresolved.

As a supporter of a club entering League Two next season I want to know that there is a level playing field. After Notts County, the Football Authorities have lost the trust that they can be left to ensure that publicly hidden ownership is for the good of the game. Fair play must not only be the case, it must be seen to be the case.

There is nothing to suggest the owners of Crawley Town are as crooked as Munto Finance or acting as dubiously as Leeds chairman Ken Bates, but in the interests of fair and honest competition they surely cannot be allowed to remain annoymous while the rest of the Football League must follow the rules. If Crawley’s owners are whiter than white – and let’s hope they are – they should have nothing to fear in revealing themselves to the authorities and their own supporters.

But beyond that, this ongoing situation of football clubs living beyond their means is not one to be encouraged. Crawley, like many other clubs in England, most notably Chelsea, apparently do not operate in a self-sustainable way; meaning they are at the whims of the investors and will be left in an almighty mess should they withdraw their backing. If it is wrong to compare Crawley to Notts County, the lessons of Gretna’s rise up the Scottish leagues and subsequent demise should be noted by all.

Crawley’s summer spending isn’t going to end with Thomas, and come August it looks likely they will have built a squad good enough to romp League Two. It doesn’t seem fair and, as long as the sources of their financial capabilities remains anonymous, there will be those crying foul over their approach and many others hoping it all comes tumbling down for probably the least welcome Football League newcomers of all time.