Before I briefly touch on previous encounters with the media darlings that are Wrexham, I want to say how nice it was to bump into another former Red Devil,Andy Taylor, in REDZ bar after Saturday’s match. Andy had made the long journey from East Anglia with his daughter to watch the win over Sutton – and to pick up a shirt from his playing days at Crawley.
Andy joined the Red Devils from Cambridge City in July 1998 and would form a strong central defensive partnership over the season with John Mackie. While researching Andy’s time at Crawley, I did notice an error in my previous Retro Red Devils piece, in which I mentioned that Viv Jeffrey, another Red Devil from the 1990s, left us in the summer of 1997, just prior to our move from Town Meadow to Broadfield.
However, on researching Andy Taylor’s career, I found Viv’s name in the team line-up in a programme from 6th March 1999 for a match against Grantham, a game we won 2-0 in front of a crowd of 865, with goals from centre–back John Mackie and Simon Ullathorne. Viv’s brief return to the club also included most of the remaining games that season, and in fact he played several times with Andy Taylor, including this Grantham game.
Our previous game had been the Sussex Senior Cup semi–final against Worthing, played at Horsham on 3rd March 1999, a horrible wet night, with the pitch like a swamp. The game probably should never have started, and when we went 2-0 down after 21 minutes, we wished it hadn’t! Even after Worthing hadtwo players sent off in the 35th and 40th minutes, we couldn’t beat the remaining nine. Another in a line of defeats to Worthing, a regular occurrence for us in the Senior Cup over the years. Hopefully this season will not be a repeat as,although this competition seems to have fallen way down the club’s priorities,there is surely still some local pride at stake for supporters?
Andy Taylor and Viv did have some cup success to celebrate that season,though, as on 13th April 1999 we would win the Sussex Floodlight Cup, beating Saltdean in the final at Lancing by 2-0 (Dave McEwen and Mark Hawthorne) before a crowd of 452. Perhaps not the biggest of prizes, but we had to beat local rivals Horsham in the semi–final, and Saltdean had overcome Worthing in their semi–final, to show they were anything but an easy touch.
We had an amazing fourth-round game in that competition when we entertained Sidley United at Broadfield on 22nd December 1998. We fielded a strong side including Jon Warden (pictured) and Ben Abbey (Andy Taylor was rested), butwere shocked when Sidley took a 2-1 lead. However, a couple of Abbey goals (including his 24th of the season) gave us a comfortable 4-2 lead, before Sidley managed to level at 4-4. Crawley hit the woodwork four times, Sidley had a late penalty saved by our reserve keeper Daryl Dennehy, and when we went 5-4 up in the 83rd minute, it looked to be all over, but Sidley refused to give up and equalised in added time. In the end, extra time saw us score three times without reply through Simon Ullathorne, Mark Hawthorne and Warden, for a final score of 8-5 and rich entertainment for the 305 in attendance.
Jumping back to the beginning of that 1998-99 season, I found an interesting cutting from the Crawley Observer, reporting on our first pre–season friendly on 11th July against Crystal Palace. As happened this season, Palace sent down a very strong squad, so the 5-1 defeat wasn’t really that surprising. I have added a picture featured in the Observer of Andy Taylor trying to close down one of the Palace “hot prospects”, Matt Jansen, and you may notice both players wearing Palace kit. Due to their contract, they had to wear red, and due to a late sponsor change, our kit wasn’t ready, so we ended up wearing the Palace yellow kit for our home game.
Andy really had a baptism of fire as he had met his team mates for the very first time that morning, to replace Marc Pullan, who had left at short notice. Mind you, Andy had plenty of time before the season began to get to know the others as we played an incredible 11 pre–season matches, including games against Gillingham, Brighton, Barnet and Brentford, finishing on 18th August with a local derby at home to Horsham, before our first league game away to Halesowen on 22nd August 1998. All that preparation didn’t help, though, as we lost that game 3-2 and took six games to achieve our first win, 2-1 at home to Dorchester on 8th September.
Those first six games actually saw two of our total of three home league defeats in what was a steady season for manager Billy Smith, although inconsistent away form would see us finish the season in 11th place. Smith resigned near the season’s end, when the club’s parlous finances were starting to cause real concern. Chairman and former player and manager, John Maggs, announced in the press that Crawley couldn’t afford to continue playing at Broadfield, and crisis talks were underway, trying to find a way to cut the costs of playing at the council–owned stadium. At the time, I believe we were only renting the stadium for matches, rather than running and managing the whole facility. That would eventually change, but our financial problems did see the club come close to extinction in the run–up to the 1999-2000 season.
On his resignation, Smith not only highlighted the financial constraints but also the lack of proper training facilities, even going so far as to state in the press,“It’s like a pub team – you turn up for a game Tuesday, then after it, say, ‘See you Saturday’.” Many players came out in support of Smith, saying they were at the club purely because he was manager. They gave him the perfect farewell in our last home game of the season, beating Atherstone 3-0 on 24th April 1999, a win which included two goals from centre–back Andy Taylor, who was telling everybody after the game about his prowess as a striker!
In the close season, there was considerable pressure for a change at the top, with John Maggs under increasing pressure to hand over the reins. Supporters’ club chairman Steve Leake hoped somebody with strong financial credentials would be appointed to run the club. Steve commented that he thought the situation was “the worst I can remember the club being in”.
That summer, under Maggs, the club slashed the playing budget, something incoming manager and ex player Cliff Cant must have realised would make his job almost impossible, as it saw star players such as John Mackie and Taylorfollow Billy Smith out of the door.
Our threadbare squad got off to our worst–ever start, which included a run of four games in a row when we conceded four goals, culminating in a shocking 4-1 loss at Bromley in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round. One of the other defeats in this run was a 4-0 thrashing at Weymouth, when we had three players sent off!
The club would enter administration in August and Maggs would be ousted from his chief executive role by the administrators in September (ending a 36–year association with the club), ahead of a battle to take over the club between consortiums led by John Duly and Bruce Winfield (as shown in the Observerheadline on 20th October 1999). The battle was eventually won in October 1999 by Duly, who would reinstall Billy Smith as manager, handing him the task of trying to avoid relegation and building a new team – both successfully achieved!
This rebuild would include the return of Andy Taylor (who would stay with the club until the end of the next season) after a short spell under Steve Evans at Boston, as well as new arrivals such as Francis Vines, a future club legend who would lead us as manager into the Conference in 2004.
It would be while in the Conference in season 2008-09 that we first met Wrexham, and ironically, at a time of significant financial and ownership issues for both clubs. Thankfully for Crawley, John Duly was again at the forefront of a last–ditch rescue when, in the spring of 2008, the club were just hours away from extinction, although Wrexham would endure several more years ofturmoil.
Our season had started so well under the new ownership, and with Steve Evans at the helm, we had led the league into October, with more than one opposing manager saying we were the best footballing side in the Conference at the time. However, a loss at eventual winners Burton Albion led to a decline in our fortunes. This decline, along with our previous ownership issues, had fractured our support, and when Wrexham arrived on 3rd March 2009, only 737 fans braved the wet and windy conditions, with 121 of those supporting Wrexham, a far cry from the current frenzy around that club!
As for the game itself, Crawley ran out 1-0 winners, with a goal from Simon Weatherstone. Even more impressively, we would visit Wrexham for the return match on 21st March and gain a fine 2-0 win, with goals from Isaiah Rankin and Rob Matthews. Wrexham managed at the time by our future manager, Dean Saunders, included in their side ex Red Devil (and pretty much every other club!) Jefferson Louis, while just signed for the club was one Matt Jansen, who features for Crystal Palace in the Observer photo with Andy Taylor at the beginning of this article, neatly taking us full circle!
Any items useful for these articles, such as programmes, photos, etc., please let me know.
Mick Fox – firstname.lastname@example.org