Two boisterous black Labradors were charging around the car park of The Haven Centre, home of Crawley Down Gatwick writes Ian Townsend.
They are barking joyously and without any sign of an owner. Just behind them a gentleman in football regalia held a border collie on a bit of rope.
“Is there anyone looking for a dog? This one was on the pitch.”
Non League problems are often rather different from those found at a higher level. In a week where the back pages have been filled with images of an incandescent Jose Mourinho ranting about the pitch in Rostov, he should think himself lucky. You can bet he’s never needed to clean dog shit from the penalty area.
Crawley Down, for those who have never visited, is a rural village close to- guess where? Yes, you’re right. East Grinstead. A place so quiet that the road sign greeting you on the way could claim that it is twinned with Dingly Dell and Sleepy Hollow. An unlikely setting for a side in the Ryman League, as CDG once were and as the sign in the car park still reminds you; and even slightly unlikely for a side in the Sussex County League, or the Southern Combination Football League as the County F.A. decided to rename it, on the premise that they were about to admit sides from outside of Sussex.
How many non-Sussex sides have they admitted since it was renamed? You know the answer to that one, don’t you?
The football ground isn’t visible when you arrive. You know it’s there, a noticeboard by the entrance to the car park announces its presence, but it is very well hidden behind The Haven Centre itself- a community centre so big you’d probably have room for every resident of the village even if they were on the chubby side, and which boasts- according to its website- a large hall with a stage, a bar, a badminton court, and a snooker club. Not that the casual football spectator gets to experience any of these delights, and why would you need to, when you have access to two portacabins, one of which sells food, the other being the toilet facilities? Who needs a bar and indoor plumbing anyway?
That shouldn’t sound like a moan. The ground is perfectly adequate, indeed, rather well looked after. It has a stand that next to nobody chooses to sit in, and a small covered terrace that was undoubtedly insisted upon by the fine folk at the Ryman League but nobody wants to use. It also houses some fine Sussex football folk; from the gateman who welcomed spectators as if they were the nicest people he’d ever met, to the lovely couple serving refreshments, CDG should be commended for its bonhomie. Even the players were remarkably polite. It was a joy.
It was also, by the way, fully enclosed and seemingly dog proof. There was no evidence of any weaknesses, which is conclusive evidence that William Holden would have escaped from Stalag 17 much sooner had he only been armed with a border collie.
The spectators on this gloriously sunny March afternoon were there to see the SCFL’s Match of the Day, the visitors being second placed Haywards Heath Town. Given that the home side were eleventh in the table that statement doesn’t necessarily compute until it is explained that, in the form table, CDG were a top four outfit; having won five of their previous six and indeed lost only two matches in almost four months. The previous weekend, however, that run had rather badly unravelled, as Down had been hammered 5-1 by league leaders Shoreham at Middle Road- a victory which had maintained the Musselmen’s two point lead at the top of the table despite Heath winning their sixth match in a row.
Today Shoreham were away at relegation threatened Wick and expecting a walkover, so it was critical that Heath picked up three points, but that was unlikely to be easy. Down had managed 48 home goals so far this season- second only to Shoreham. Heath had conceded only seven goals away. The two matches between the sides so far this season had ended with an aggregate score of 2-2, and a victory each. This was too close to call.
Heath had brought a sizeable collection of supporters, and before the match their concerns could easily be divided into three; would the change of goalkeeper impact on their normally sturdy defence, would the ground upgrades which Shoreham require for promotion be ready in time (Heath have almost finished theirs), and would many of the supporters at the cup final against Pagham on May 1st wear the red wigs the club have purchased in honour of striker Trevor McCreadie and new signing Josh James.
To which the answers seemed to be “hopefully not but it’s a gamble,” “probably but they don’t seem to have started yet,” and “not in a million years.” James, until this week, had been keeping goal at Burgess Hill Town in the Ryman Premier League. It had been a surprise when he’d signed for Heath and seemed a little harsh on usual keeper James Shaw, particularly as the side had conceded only sixteen league goals all season, but in a peculiar twist of fate Shaw had replaced James in goal at Hill, and was between the posts at ‘ten grand a week’ Billericay Town this very afternoon. Heath had also signed former Sutton Utd, Tonbridge Angels and Hastings Utd striker Billy Medlock, but he wasn’t in the squad at all. Given Heath were his fourth club this season perhaps he’d gone to the wrong ground.
Down started the stronger, and took the lead after only four minutes. A free kick needlessly conceded gave Dan Sullivan the chance to curl a dangerous ball into the box, and centre back Marc Pelling, having lost his marker completely, was able to rise and head the ball perfectly into the bottom corner, beyond James’ outstretched fingers. The home players chased after the goalscorer, before spending most of the next forty-one minutes chasing the ball.
Heath dominated the remainder of the first half almost entirely. McCreadie had a header cleared off the line in the 9th minute, a cross from Max Miller was narrowly missed by three attacking players a moment later, Nathan Cooper sent a header wide when he looked more likely to score, and then Karl Akehurst was exasperated when his shot from the edge of the box was expertly saved by Andy Greaves in the Crawley goal.
Further chances came and went, with the Down defence unable to clear their lines for a sustained period, and the biggest surprise was that it took until the 31st minute for the equaliser to come. McCreadie, who worked tirelessly the entire afternoon albeit without reward, chased after a loose ball- as did keeper Greaves. Neither got it, but they managed to collide with each other as the ball ran to right back Luc Doherty at the right hand side of the box. The net was empty, the angle tight, But Doherty didn’t panic and hit a perfect strike into the top corner to bring his side level.
Heath played with a front three, Miller to the left, Callum Saunders to the right and McCreadie through the centre. As the game went on this formation, threatening as it was, seemed a little difficult to understand. Whilst McCreadie played his part to perfection, holding up the ball and moving intelligently, it seemed as if his wide counterparts were each playing on the wrong side of the pitch. Miller was entirely right footed, and as such kept cutting inside his full back rather than going around him. Saunders seemed two footed but had a tendency to cut inside onto his left despite this. It was a wonder that nobody decided to swap them over. That said, it was the tenacious work of Miller that led to his side taking the lead six minutes before the break, as he robbed Anvils skipper Blair Cooney, crossed to the near post, as saw the ball deflected into the net by Pelling, who now had the dubious honour of having scored at both ends.
Down started the second half with new purpose and could have been level two minutes after the restart, as a free kick from Sullivan was met by the head of Lee Thomas in a move which was almost a carbon copy of their opening goal. Well, apart from the fact that the ball cleared the bar, obviously. Heath, stung by this, went straight up the other end and made it 1-3, and once more it was full back Doherty who did the damage, latching on to a beautiful through ball and, from the right hand side of the box, curling a gorgeous shot across Greaves into the top corner of the net. “That’s that then,” said a rather pessimistic home supporter to the right of the dugout. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Heath had a habit of giving away silly free kicks in dangerous positions, and did it again just after taking the lead. Sullivan once again stepped up, took a look at the four man wall, and then lifted the ball over them. On target, keeper James managed to get both hands to it, but it almost seemed as if both of his wrists had given way and he watched, aghast, as the ball dropped into the back of his net. Dan Sullivan, seemingly the Peter Lorimer of Crawley Down, wheeled away in celebration.
Down then took the game to Heath. In an attempt to capitalise on this, manager Paul Cooper took off defender Josh Martin and threw on twenty goal striker Oli Leslie. “Oli, Oli, Oli, Oi, Oi, Oi,” sang the Crawley Max Boyce on the far touchline. Unfortunately, and in keeping with the Welsh theme, the home goal soon sprung another leek.
With around twenty minutes to go Crawley pressure led to a foul on the edge of the Heath box, a decision which enraged one particular away supporter with a broad Scottish brogue. “Referee, that’s f****** embarrassing man,” he yelled. His voice seemed rather familiar. “My God, it’s Doctor Who,” exclaimed a home fan by the corner flag. But it wasn’t Doctor Who. However it may well have been Malcolm Tucker, perhaps employed in the new role of Haywards Heath Town Director of Communications. He played a prominent part in what was to come.
The free kick was quickly cleared, and the ball was gathered by Michael Belli, who was then eased off the ball- perhaps unfairly- allowing Miller to launch a shot from twenty yards which beat Greaves all ends up. The finish was sublime, but the home bench were less enamoured with the challenge which preceded it, and had left Belli bleeding from the nose. “How can that not be a foul ref? How do you think he did that to his nose? Do you think he picked it?” But Crawley weren’t done. With ten minutes to go Saunders had the ball by his own corner flag, and somehow he managed to slip under pressure- to the annoyance of the away bench- and concede a corner. This was fired to the back post and Pelling, once more, was first to react, sending a powerful header just under the bar to reduce the gap to one goal, and getting clattered for his trouble. It took him almost three minutes to recover.
Down continued to press, and Heath began to look more and more nervous, and to give away silly fouls. News had perhaps reached them that Shoreham were four goals up at Wick. They couldn’t afford to let this match slip away. James managed to hold yet another Sullivan free kick, and then a foul by Saunders on Sonny Barton brought almost half the Heath team to surround the referee to protest the innocence of their forward. Malcolm Tucker was having none of it. “Referee stop getting excited and manage the game. Do your job properly. You’re f****** embarrassing.”
As the match moved into added time and Down piled forward, Leslie came close to goal 21, James managing to first save and then hold his shot. Heath attempted to hold the ball in the corner but it kept coming back, and there was terror in an away defence who had already conceded as many league goals in this match as they had in total since the start of the year. The panic was spreading to their supporters, particularly Malcolm- who, lets be fair, needed no encouragement. “Referee, where’s this injury time coming from? Do your job. You’re F****** embarrassing.“ He was nothing if not predictable. To be fair to the official, there had been two significant stoppages and four substitutions. The five minutes extra he eventually played seemed, if anything, slightly short.
Still, at least nobody described him as an omnishambles.
The match ended 3-4, and Heath were delighted, Down despondent. You could understand the away side’s delight; this was a critical match for them, and with an away match at Shoreham scheduled for April Fools Day they remain authors of their own destiny. Crawley Down, however, also deserve much credit despite the result.
Relegation from Ryman South in 2013/14 was then followed by a catastrophic first season back in the County League; a season which left they and Selsey vying for the title of worst team in the country before a late flourish left them second bottom on 13 points. The work done by manager Paul Cooper and his team since then deserves real recognition; immediate promotion and, despite a shaky start to this season, progress which has made them one of the division’s most entertaining sides- especially at home, where they’ve now scored fifty one goals.
They deserve a bigger audience. An attendance of 97, with around half of those from Heath, does them no justice. Perhaps it’s about time that Sleepy Hollow woke up and began supporting its football team?
Article and Images: Ian Townsend (@townsendaround)