FEB 18 — This weekend’s FA Cup fifth round ties give a rare and welcome opportunity for some lower profile names to step into the spotlight as they compete amongst the last 16.
In particular, lower league sides Crawley Town and Stevenage will hope to make history when they take on English Premier League opposition tomorrow afternoon — and there are some interesting parallels between the two would-be giant-killers.
Crawley and Stevenage, both located around 30 miles from London, have enjoyed extremely impressive success since climbing into the Football League in the last couple of seasons, but in recent weeks have had their continuing ascent threatened by key departures.
The early game (8pm kick off Malaysian time) will see League Two side Crawley — the lowest-ranked team remaining in the competition — host last season’s beaten finalists, Stoke City.
Crawley (located near Gatwick Airport in southern England) are certainly a club on the rise. They overcame financial dire straits to win last season’s Conference title and climb into the Football League for the first time in their history, and are now in the frame for back-to-back promotions near the top of a very congested League Two table.
They also have plenty of recent pedigree in the FA Cup: they reached the same stage of last season’s competition before suffering a hard-fought 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford against Manchester United, and they haven’t conceded a single goal in the four matches that have taken them into this year’s fifth round.
Third and fourth round victories against Championship sides Bristol City and Hull provided further proof that Crawley are capable of competing with the big boys, and Stoke certainly won’t have an easy ride at the 5,000 capacity Broadfield Stadium.
However, Crawley’s hopes have been diminished by the recent loss of their leading scorer, Matt Tubbs, who was snapped up by AFC Bournemouth in the January transfer window. Tubbs scored an impressive 37 goals in 41 games during last season’s title campaign, and netted the winners against both Bristol City and Hull in the previous rounds.
Without Tubbs, a lot of the responsibility for the home team’s attacking efforts will fall on the shoulders of on-loan Arsenal winger Sanchez Watt, who has already scored twice for his new club since joining Crawley at the end of January.
As you would expect from a graduate of Arsenal’s Academy, 21 year-old Watt is a skilful, technically strong and creative player who mainly operates in wide positions but also likes to drift inside to shoot with his left foot.
Watt is already reasonably experienced, having played in the Arsenal first team on three occasions and spent time on loan at Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, and his presence could be the key to Crawley’s hopes of causing another upset.
A little later on Sunday afternoon, Harry Redknapp will have to put his club-versus-country dilemma to one side for a few hours as he attempts to navigate Tottenham through a tricky tie at Stevenage.
Like Crawley, Stevenage have made waves during their short stint in the Football League — they won the Conference title in 2010 and immediately secured another promotion by winning the League Two play-offs at the end of last season. They’re now riding high in League One, hoping to complete the unlikely rise from fifth tier to second tier in the space of just three years.
Towards the end of January, Stevenage were rocked by the departure of their long-standing and highly-regarded manager Graham Westley, who decided to fill the vacant hotseat at Preston North End.
It would have been fair to expect Westley’s departure to cause a swift downturn in fortunes, but the club acted swiftly to appoint Gary Smith — who had previously enjoyed great success in the United States by winning the 2010 Major League Soccer Cup with Colorado Rapids — and the transition has so far been smooth with Smith enjoying victory in his first two games in charge.
Again in common with Crawley is the fact that Stevenage haven’t conceded a single goal in their four FA Cup victories so far this season, and there will certainly be plenty of personal motivation for new manager Smith: his father, Roger, spent five years as a player with Spurs in the 1960s.
In reality, Stoke and Spurs should have more than enough class to overcome their lowly opposition — and I’d be particularly surprised if Harry Redknapp’s team are sent packing.
But cup football can be a funny thing, so the two lower league clubs will enter their fixtures in form and with plenty of optimism. And in Sanchez Watt, Crawley just might possess a matchwinner.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.