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The Ben Smith column: Crawley on the right track

Ben Smith was one of the most popular men in Crawley last season when his late winner secured Crawley Town a famous FA Cup victory against Swindon Town.

Smith and his Crawley team-mates went on to play Manchester United at Old Trafford in the fifth round, before their FA Cup dream came to an end in a 1-0 defeat.

He starts his new Total Football column with a look back at how Crawley Town have progressed since he joined them in 2009 - and looks back at last season's magnificent FA Cup run.

Crawley Town – A club moving forward

When I joined Crawley Town two years ago after leaving Hereford United I thought there was very little chance of getting back into the Football League. My first season at Crawley was a solid one where we finished seventh in the Blue Square Premier (BSP), at the time the clubs highest ever finish. I then renewed my contract for another year, unbeknown to me at the time that was one of the best decisions I had ever made.

After signing the new contract my initial thoughts were that we were going to do well to emulate our achievements of the previous season, how wrong could I be! The week leading up to the start of pre season for the 2010/11 season I started to hear rumours that the club had signed Matt Tubbs who the previous season had been the joint top scorer in the BSP.

I wondered how we had managed to sign such a highly rated player but was delighted to get the chance to play with him. As pre season wore on the club made more and more eye catching signings. It turned out that the club had been taken over by new owners and they had decided to put significant investment into the club to attempt to enter the Football League.

As an experienced player you become very sceptical when you hear this sort of thing. I thought that even if we did get the right players to the club it would still take a year or two for the team to gel. Again I was wrong! One of our manager Steve Evans' biggest strengths is his ability to not only identify good players but to also identify those that will fit into the framework of our team. Not all of the signings he made last season were stellar names at our level of football.

Fantastic players

For every Sergio Torres, Pablo Mills and Dannie Bulman there were lesser known younger players such as Kyle Mcfadzean and Charlie Wassmer, who incidentally are going to be fantastic players that will go on in my opinion to play in the Championship at least. Another example of finding players that have been underused at other clubs was Dean Howell. He had just finished an unproductive injury plagued spell at Aldershot but came into our team and fitted us instantly. He gave us a marauding presence from left back that fitted perfectly into our style of play.

As the season wore on all the promises we were told were honoured and the team gelled a lot quicker than anyone could have imagined. By the end of the season we had won the league at a canter recording a Conference record of one hundred and five points, a new record for the amount of games unbeaten in a season and embarked on a fantastic FA cup run which saw us beat Swindon, Derby, Torquay and Narrowly lose 1-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford in front of over seventy thousand people including over nine thousand of our own supporters. Not bad for a team that in my first season had regularly played in front of eight hundred people at home.

As a reward for our amazing season the club took us on a seven night trip to Las Vegas and Los Angeles which gave us an opportunity to ‘unwind’ and reflect on a wonderful season. In my opinion the key to our success was the team spirit within the group. We had an eclectic mix of personalities and ages but they all seemed to compliment each other. Whether this was by luck or design I don’t know although I would guess it was a bit of both. At the end of the season I was again offered a new one year contract which I was delighted to accept.

From a personal perspective I was delighted that at the age of thirty two I had managed to get myself in a position where I had the opportunity to play again in the Football League. My career has seemed to straddle the BSP and the lower echelons of the Football League so to get a chance to play in a team that I was confident would be challenging for promotion was a great bonus.

An infrastructure that will support and help to build the club

We started back for pre season for the 2011/12 season on the 29th of June, it seems to be getting earlier and earlier each year! What was notable from the outset is that after spending the first year building a good team the owners and management staff were now busily creating an infrastructure that will support and help to build the club for years to come.

The club has moved into a superb training ground. The facilities are tremendous and while the pitches are not up to the standard we would like I am sure once Ben our groundsman has an off season to work on them they will be up to the quality of our superb home pitch. My former team mate Simon Rusk is now head of the newly formed youth department and is busily putting structures in place that will hopefully produce some home grown players for the supporters to look up to in the next five years.

We have also added a development coach to the management team. Craig Brewster is a highly qualified and experienced coach who has managed in the SPL and carried on playing well into his late thirties. He is a very enthusiastic coach and someone I have instantly liked working with. There is also an abundance of small things which all put together will make a big difference in the coming seasons.

Pre season is a tortuous time, however it has changed a lot since I started my career and you do now do a lot more work with the ball rather than a week of running which was the norm in the late nineties. After a week of working at the new training ground we then went to Portugal for a weeks training. This was intensive stuff but we also had some fun and was a great way to incorporate the new signings into the group.

New additions 

As you would expect our manager has made several new additions including Tyrone Barnett, John Akinde, Scott Davies and Jamie Day to name a few. All have experience of the level we are going into which I think is a key part of the managers thought process when recruiting, ensuring the players know the level they are going into. We had one game in Portugal which we lost 2-1 to SC Olhanense a Portuguese premier league team.

We then came back to England and prepared for our Carling Cup Preliminary game against our old foes AFC Wimbledon at the end of July. Personally I am not a big fan of pre season games. I find them very hard to get motivated for and often frustrating as you are not up to the level that you know you are capable of. However we got through them with some decent results.

We overcame AFC Wimbledon in the Carling Cup 3-2. As always with the games we play with Wimbledon it was a really exciting game full of good football. I personally think Wimbledon are a really well run club and I like what they stand for both off the pitch and the style of expansive football they play on it. However our resident goal machine Matt Tubbs broke their hearts with the winner.

The season started a week later in earnest away to Port Vale, a tough start. As for most away games we travelled up on Friday in preparation for the game. I was delighted to be starting in the clubs first game in the football league, although maybe a little fortunate after an indifferent personal pre season. We drew 2-2 and felt a little aggrieved not to have won the game. The game turned on a controversial sending off for John Dempster. On first viewing it looked harsh, on second viewing this was confirmed.

Three wins in a row 

However an away point is never a bad point. We went on to win our next three games beating Macclesfield, Southend and Torquay. We were especially impressive against Torquay winning 3-1 and dominating pretty much from the outset. Unfortunately I missed Josh Simpson’s goal as after being left out of the squad I was enjoying Torquay’s Half time hospitality. He tells me it was a great header but I’d be very surprised if it was better than the Victoria sponge cake I was eating!

When everything seems to be going so well football has a habit of biting you on the backside and Crawley is no exception to that rule! Our next game was away to Crystal Palace in the carling cup which we lost 2-0 and this was where we learnt our first harsh lesson. When you play against higher ranked opposition you must take your opportunities. We dominated play for long spells in the first half but didn’t take our chances.

In the second half Palace got chances and Wilfred Zaha took them. I was on the bench for this game but was luckily enough to enjoy the wonderful half time entertainment, if you have been to Selhurst Park recently you will know what I mean!

Our next game was away to Cheltenham Town again we lost, 3-1 this time. We were once more punished for not taking a couple of early chances and Cheltenham had a twenty minute spell where they blew us away scoring three goals. At half time we re-grouped improved and managed to pull a goal back but unfortunately the damage was done. I was impressed with Cheltenham and think they could be a good outside bet for the play offs.

We knew we would find things tougher

This was the first real adversity we had faced in the last year or so but we knew moving up a level that we were going to find things tougher and this had proved to be the case. We then lost again to Southend in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. However the 1-0 scoreline was a little deceiving as this was a game we dominated for large periods so even though we lost we took real heart from the performance and felt we had started to move on from our little blip.

This feeling was re-enforced when we went on to beat Bristol Rovers 4-1 in our next game. I even managed to get myself on the scoresheet! This was a particularly pleasing result as Bristol Rovers were, along with us, one of the favourites for promotion. How wrong could we be……

Going in to our next game away at Morecambe we were top of the league and although we had two of our regular back four out injured went into the game with real confidence. Unfortunately we got a hiding. Morecambe destroyed us 6-0 and put in a performance that was as good as ours was bad.

Strange as it may seem but we actually enjoyed a lot of possession but time and again Morecambe hit us on the counter attack and as we were learning players at our new level are a lot more clinical when they get chances.

We wanted to put things right 

Morecambe impressed me and I think they will definitely be challenging for the promotion places at the end of the season. After the game there was a lot of disappointment in the dressing room. When you suffer a result like that you want another game as soon as possible to put things right. We had that with a game on the Tuesday against Swindon.

Except we didn’t put it right, we lost our first home game since October of last year 3-0. Swindon scored in the first half and then hit us with two sucker punches in the last ten minutes. The score line flattered them slightly as we were throwing caution to the wind near the end but this didn’t make the defeat any less painful.

The advantage of being a financially strong club is that if you are suffering a lot of injuries and on a poor run of form the manager has license to strengthen the squad. Our manager went out and signed some real quality to help the players who are already here.

He bought in Andy Drury from Ipswich who was the stand out performer for Luton last year and Claude Davis who was unattached but has played for some very big Championship clubs. These new additions helped steady the ship and we have now won the last two games against Bradford and Aldershot and are sitting nicely in fourth place in League 2.

Fight for my place 

Unfortunately for me the strength of the squad has made my opportunities to play limited. The manager and I sat down and had a chat and decided that the best thing for me would be to go out on loan. It was a totally mutual decision and one we are both happy with. I have subsequently joined Kettering for an initial month to get some games which will hopefully enable me to come back to Crawley in the future and fight for my place once again.

I am a big fan of Futsal as a tool to help develop young players. In Essex where I am based I help run a company called Essex Futsal. We run coaching courses for children and are about to start running leagues and tournaments for both children and adults. If you would be interested in us coming to run a course at your school or football club please get in touch via our website or through essexfutsal on facebook or @essexfutsal on twitter.

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