The town of Crawley, in West Sussex, has been in the news over the last few days. Their local football club, Crawley Town FC, hosted Leeds United in the FA Cup Third Round yesterday and won comfortably, 3-0. Leeds are three divisions and 62 league places above yesterday’s opponents, but it didn’t look that way, especially in the second half.
Regular readers of this Blog will know that I have supported Leeds since childhood, and reflections on the team’s exits from previous FA Cups at this stage of the competition can be found here (2018) and here (2019). The first of those pieces (when Newport County ended United’s interest in the cup) also mentioned the previous season’s defeat to non-League Sutton United in 2017 and the 2008-09 loss at non-League Histon. The last of those is still the worst result in the club’s history (and, as you’d expect, the best result in the history of Histon FC).
Newport is in Wales, and I have never set foot there, but I have spent time in the three other places that have hosted the most ignominious defeats for Leeds United so far this century. I have even spent a few nights in Histon (a village outside Cambridge), and a night or two in Crawley. My time in Sutton was restricted to a few days training people at the Eurotunnel offices there back in the late 1980s.
As a family we visited Crawley a few times a year in the mid-1970s, to see a couple called May and Jim. They were friends of my mother’s from Dublin, where she was born and raised. My mother was only 7 when her mother Rose died. May had been Rose’s best friend and was lined up to be my mother’s godmother. Things turned out differently. When my mother was born, she was so poorly that the doctor didn’t think that she would survive the night. A priest was called to baptise her. May’s sister Annie lived in the ground floor flat in the tenement building where my mother’s family lived, and she was called upon to be godmother in case there wasn’t enough time to fetch May.
I’m not sure that I was aware of all this at the time, on those dull afternoons in their maisonette in Crawley, or the one or two Bank Holiday weekends when we stayed over, but May was a strong link for my mother, back to the mother she had lost in childhood. May and Jim spent Christmas with us a few times. I don’t recall too many conversations about family history, but remember very clearly May’s contempt for Ted Heath. She was going deaf, so usually spoke louder than the rest of us, but the volume was always turned up a bit more when the subject was politics.
May and Jim did not have children. I don’t know whether they met and married late in life, or whether they had married young and the children never came. My father might have known, but he died last year, and there’s no one left on my mother’s side of the family who could tell me. My father often mentioned things that had happened on Christmas Day and Boxing Day with May’s husband Jim: their (usually fruitless) attempts to find a pub that was open during the festive season, or football matches they had seen. There wasn’t much else to do on Boxing Day. One year they went to QPR, stood in the bitter cold through nearly 90 minutes of the dullest game they’d ever seen, and left early in search of a pint. When they got home they found that there had been three goals in injury time and they’d missed all the action.
I could have done with missing yesterday’s action, but it was there for the whole of the UK to see, live on BBC1 from 1.30pm. Long before the final whistle, when even a consolation goal seemed unlikely, I was miles away, remembering those Sunday afternoons in Crawley and wondering what happened to May and Jim. Their dog, a spaniel called Beau, went blind. They left the UK to live in Ireland in the late 1970s and I never saw them again. They died in the 1980s, May first and Jim a year or two later. I have had a look through my mum’s old bible and prayer books, hoping to find remembrance cards that could confirm the dates and places but there’s nothing.
Millions of people will remember the day that Leeds lost at Crawley, in the same way that millions of us remember the 3-2 defeat at Colchester United 50 years ago. But only a handful of people left alive have any memories of my grandmother’s best friend.