When FA Cup fifth round balls one and seven were drawn late Sunday afternoon it realised one manager’s dream and will allow his part-time players the trip of a lifetime to Old Trafford. For the other, the weekend of 19 February will afford Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team a well-earned rest.
While Crawley Town’s visit to Old Trafford in just over a fortnight should be the cup’s most romantic tie, it’ll be little more than a training exercise for United. Indeed, few will blame Ferguson if he selects a team made entirely from fringe and reserve players – and Darron Gibson – for the tie against the Conference high flyers.
Much like United’s matches against Burton Albion and Exeter City in recent seasons, the match will almost certainly – perhaps even after a replay – play out as a win for United’s much changed side, with the plucky non-leaguers winning the nation’s hearts.
Meanwhile, the Glazer family will rejoice, no doubt, in more than 50,000 fans arriving at Old Trafford and paying full price to watch a team of stiffs. Crawley Town won’t be much cop either.
So much for the romance of the cup.
Despite that ultra-cynical view the tie still means everything to Glasgow-born Crawley’s manager Steve Evans, who celebrated the draw as an Auld Firm derby south of the border.
“The man from Govan against the man from Cambuslang,” said Evans of facing his managerial idol.
“One’s a Celtic fan, one’s a Rangers fan. It was just a surreal moment.
“We got the tie that everyone in the country wants. I suppose if you are Arsène Wenger or Alex McLeish you don’t want that draw, but we did.
“This is going to be the biggest day in our lives, but we will give them the respect that Real Madrid gave them… the utmost respect.”
Crawley lie second in the conference behind supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon but with four games in hand and a very real chance of promotion to the football league for the first time in the club’s history. And with victories over Football League sides Swindon Town, Derby County and then Torquay United already in this season’s FA Cup it is no wonder Evans is bullish about his side’s chances.
“We will approach the tie in a really positive nature,” added Evans.
“The only non-League club capable of beating Manchester United is Crawley Town as we stand today. Miracles do happen.
“It sounds stupid as the manager of a non-League side, but we’ll go and try to win. We played three up front against Torquay. We might get smashed out of Manchester, but we’ll try and play the right way, get the ball down and pass it.”
It’s a long way up for the club that almost ceased to exist just five years ago after Crawley entered administration in 2006 with more than £1.8 million in debts. Indeed, the club was only days from extinction, with HMRC issuing a winding up petition. Only an emergency meeting of creditors saved the club, while former director Azwar Majeed was later jailed for tax fraud.
Much like the team he now manages, Evans has a chequered financial history. As a coach there are few with the Scot’s pedigree in non-league football. The 48-year-old took Boston United from the Southern League to the Conference in 2000 and then into the League two years later.
Yet, the rapid ascent up the football pyramid has since been overshadowed by an FA investigation into ‘contract irregularities’ that led to a 20-month ban for Evans. The club had lodged false documents with the game’s governing body that – according to the FA – hid illegal payments to players.
Time served, Evans will now take his side of semi-pros and League hopefuls more than 200 miles north, facing a fixture congestion crisis that would send Ferguson into a tizzy.
“We’ve got some fixture congestion ahead,” adds Evans.
“We’ll lose the game against York City, and if we’re selected for TV, we could lose two games. The owners are saying we’ve got the squad we’ve got to cover that.
“But if I feel we’re short in one or two areas, they’ll listen. We may be doing some business before the transfer window closes.”
And while Evans’ side is unlikely to face United stars Wayne Rooney, Nani, Rio Ferdinand or Paul Scholes at Old Trafford – nor any first team regulars – Gibson will surely play. Unlikely perhaps but few United fans would shed a tear if the Irishman were on the opposition benches instead.
Now that really would be the magic of the cup!