I ended my first RRD looking at a programme from the first league game at our new ground at Town Meadow in 1949, and before I move on to other topics in future articles, I thought I should carry on where we left off and revisit the early years at Town Meadow through a few more photos.
Town Meadow was fairly rudimentary with regards to facilities – and Ifield Avenue, which served the ground, was still under construction when we moved in. Of course all this development was related to the building of Crawley New Town, with West Green one of the first neighbourhoods to be built.
As you can see from an action shot from a Sussex County League game against Eastbourne United (drew 3-3) taken in September 1951, some of the scaffolding is still up on the Town Mead homes on the other side of Ifield Avenue. Also note the sparse crowd and lack of proper fencing.
While the Supporters’ Club had managed to acquire a building to use as changing rooms and club room (see advert for this on team sheet), the pitch itself wasn’t much changed from the farmer’s field it had previously been. In fact, those first three or four years saw the players do constant battle against a sea of mud in the winter and a bone-hard bumpy pitch the rest of the year.
To illustrate some of the problems, I have included one of my favourite old action shots, from Boxing Day 1952, and what should have been an attractive local derby versus East Grinstead. However, it ended up resembling a cross between mud-wrestling and a World War One battlefield. Contemporary press reports suggest that all was not well in the Crawley FC camp at the time, as despite having 60 (amateur) players ‘on the books’, we started this East Grinstead game with nine men! It was only after a hurried dash to drag a couple of local reserves out of bed (Mick Emery was one, making his first team debut) that we were able to complete the game with eleven players.
As can be seen from the photo showing Jim Elliott, our goalkeeper (resplendent in polo-neck jumper and spectacles!), in full flight, the pitch could be more accurately described as a bog, and all was made worse when we lost 6-0. Merry Christmas, everyone!
The aforementioned team problems were apparent even before that Boxing Day fixture, as up until that match we had won only a single league game (2-1 over Lewes Rangers) alongside a single drawn game (1-1 against Brighton Old Grammarians). In fact, after the thrashing by East Grinsted, we would gain only one more point for the whole of that 1952/53 season, that being from a 1-1 draw away to Arundel on 17th January, which was made all the more amazing considering we had already lost at home to them, 11-2!
However, in the next few months the club committee did act to try and improve the playing surface, with some fairly major renovation work being planned and advice taken from a leading sports pitch specialist. This and the building of a grandstand (pictured with Norman Longley overseeing the work) would see the club vacate Town Meadow for the 1953/54 season and play home matches at Ifield Green.
I have included a photo from a game at Ifield, coincidentally also against Eastbourne United and also ending 3-3. This was a Sussex Senior Cup replay after we drew 2-2 in the first game (we lost the second replay down in Eastbourne 3-0). You can see in the background of the Ifield photo the distinctive shape of the Ifield Steam Mill, which I believe is still in place as a private residence. Also hopefully visible are the crowds of spectators lining the touchline, a far cry from the sparse following at Town Meadow two or three years previously.
We managed a significant improvement in results that season at Ifield – not that it would be difficult to improve on one win and two draws all season! We would finish with a respectable 11 victories, although Lewes Rangers beat us 10-4 in our opening game at Ifield on 29th August 1953 to gain some revenge for our only victory the previous season.
We would move back to Town Meadow for the 1954/55 season, with a new grandstand, PA system and – we hoped! – an improved playing surface. (The latter didn’t last!) To celebrate the re-opening of Town Meadow, we played a friendly against Brighton and Hove Albion at the beginning of September, a game we would win 1-0 thanks to a Tony Blake goal.
As can be seen in the photo of our new grandstand, there was significant interest in this game and occasion, which was officially opened by Norman Longley, our club President. His speech was relayed by our newly installed PA system, which, from memory, was beset by almost as many problems over the coming years as our more recent systems!
Rather than continue chronologically, I am going to take a jump forward in time to reference this week’s opponents, starting in August 1972. After a period of relative success on a shoestring budget, we had started the season poorly, with just a victory against Andover to our name. After a disastrous 6-1 defeat at Metropolitan Police in the Southern League Cup on 22nd August, there was much discussion and debate in the local press over the way some younger fans had expressed their anger at players and officials. (From memory, it was an awful performance, and I was a younger fan but am hazy on the details of the night.) Our next match after this would take us to the future hometown of one of this week’s opponents, Milton Keynes Dons, when we met Bletchley Town for the first time in a Southern League match on 26th August 1972.
I am not sure how much – if any – lineage between the two clubs there is, apart from Bletchley being one of the constituent towns absorbed into Milton Keynes New Town (now a city), but I believe Ron Noades, who was owner of Wimbledon, did at some time in the late 1970s have ownership of Bletchley, who by then had changed their name to Milton Keynes City. I also understand this ownership was not a longstanding affair, although as many are aware, the relationship between Milton Keynes and Wimbledon was to rear its head again in the early 2000s and remains a contentious subject to this day with some!
Anyway, back to safer waters, and having suffered through the game at Met Police on the Tuesday, my memories are of an equally grim Saturday afternoon being thrashed 4-0 by Bletchley. Our team, according to the programme, was Maggs, Brown, Tharme, McMullen, Leedham, Bragg, Douglas, Munn, Whitington, Cosham, Haining and sub Frost. Looking at that line-up, I cannot understand the problems we faced, although we had lost fan favourite, leading goal-scorer Phil Basey, to Maidstone United in the summer, which probably fuelled the fans’ anger. We still had my favourite player in Eric Whitington, but Basey’s replacement, Steve Cosham, never fully replaced Basey, scoring 11 league goals.
After the Bletchley hammering, we did improve considerably for a time, only losing one of the next ten league games. But once we had been knocked out of the FA Cup in the fourth qualifying round by Chelmsford City (2-0 at Town Meadow) in November, our form tailed off, and with the sale of Whitington to Folkestone soon after, we went on to finish a disappointing 14th in the league.
That would signal the start of a grim three seasons for Crawley, most of which, both home and away, I unfortunately witnessed first-hand. We finished bottom in 1973/4 and in 1974/5 before the relative comfort of third bottom in 1975/6 (only on goal average though!).
I will end with Gillingham, our second opponents this week, so they don’t feel left out. My final scan is of team line-ups for an LDV Vans Trophy first round tie at Priestfield on 18th October 2005 when we were still a Conference side and Gillingham were in League One.
Unfortunately, after a battling performance against a strong Gills side, we lost 2-0 after extra time in front of 1,988 fans, with goals from Jackman and Collin. Interestingly, you may notice in Gillingham’s line-up Neil Harris (who laid on the first goal) and Andy Hessenthaler, both heavily involved with the club today.
Once again, if anybody has any photos, ephemera, or programmes to share which may be used in future articles, please let me know.
Finally many thanks to the Bastable and Kennard families for the loan of various old photos used in these articles.