It is transitions week at Crawley Town and new manager Kevin Betsy is explaining to his squad before training how he wants them to play. At times this summer, he has shown them clips of Manchester City and Arsenal but here, he shows footage of Crawley’s 2-2 draw away to Hearts from the previous weekend.
He is thrilled at how many problems Crawley caused a team who will be in the Europa League play-off round in late August, and hopes this will only grow the belief in their new direction.
When it comes to the drills themselves, everything is precisely planned and explained. Eight minutes of boxes, eight minutes of plyometrics, then a 12-minute pressing exercise, 25 minutes of “intensive games” and then one 20-minute “transition game” to finish.
Each drill is taken by a different member of staff, including Betsy’s former colleague at the FA and Arsenal Dan Micciche, and Darren Byfield, a former Jamaica forward who spent most of his playing career in the English second tier. The whole session is filmed by an overhead drone, manned by the club’s analysis intern, so the players can watch it back with their lunch afterwards.
Even if the session takes place at Isthmian Premier Division side Horsham, everything feels professional, purposeful and measured. The players’ hydration levels are checked before the session and those who do not provide a urine sample before the morning meeting will be fined.
Other members of staff confide to The Athletic that they have never seen this forensic attention to detail before. One long-standing employee says that the arrival of Betsy and his team makes him feel like he has started a new job himself. Another says he has never seen a coach as good as Betsy at clearly explaining his ideas about football and how he wants the players to play.
The whole place has an air of newness. Not just for Crawley’s first game of the season (away to Carlisle United on Saturday), but for Betsy’s first game as a senior first-team manager. He had been one of the most highly rated youth coaches in the country at Fulham, England and Arsenal before getting his first senior job last month.
But it does make you wonder, watching the quality of the people here, and the quality of training, how all of this is happening at Crawley Town?
Crawley, for those who do not follow League Two closely, were bought earlier this year by WAGMI United, a group of American investors who had tried and failed to buy Bradford City.
Their promise was to use their expertise in the worlds of crypto and NFTs, with innovative ideas such as selling tokens to fans which gave them input on club policy. This made Crawley English football’s first club owned by crypto investors, but surely not the last. All of this, it should be remembered, was before the collapse of the NFT and crypto markets. Whether the promises of April can survive the collapse of June, well, only time will tell.
When WAGMI bought the club, it inherited John Yems as manager, who was suspended in late April after reports that he had allegedly used racist language to players, which led to his departure in early May. One of the first things Betsy did when he took over was to hold “a really open and honest conversation” about Yems’ departure, and he talks of a “healing period” that has been necessary given how painful it was.
So after Yems left, WAGMI needed a head coach, someone to give the club a fresh start, a more progressive style of play, and who would buy into its novel approach. Not just in using data to sign players, but the whole range of WAGMI ideas, even allowing NFT holders to vote on the club’s priorities in the transfer market. WAGMI started to run the numbers on young coaches who played this way and Betsy’s Arsenal Under-23s side, whom he took over the previous summer, put him in the frame.
“One of the things that the owners were looking for from a manager was to implement a style of play that they wanted, a possession-based game that was attacking. They were very clear with that from the outset of their recruitment process,” Betsy says, speaking to The Athletic just before training starts. “They did their research on certain candidates who would fit that profile. Fortunately for me, my name was one they wanted to speak to.”
So he had a big decision to make.
Betsy had made a big leap the previous year, ending five years of work for the FA, which saw him coach the under-15s, -16s, -17s and -18s, to take charge of Arsenal’s under-23s. Looking back now, he describes that as a “hugely difficult” decision given how much he had enjoyed working at the FA, and in particular his relationships with the technical directors he worked under, Dan Ashworth, Matt Crocker and John McDermott.
But last summer, the chance to move into such a well-supported and well-resourced club environment made Betsy’s mind up for him. Within weeks, he was coaching not just the kids but Gabriel and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when they were with the under-23s too. “I was able to get really good experience working under (head coach) Mikel Arteta, (academy director) Per Mertesacker and the staff there,” Betsy says. “I was really well-supported by the club.”
This move, from Arsenal to Crawley, was a far bigger risk than last year’s, from the FA to Arsenal. But Betsy did his research on the new owners and found a real sense of “alignment”. The chance to manage his own first team, which happens to be at the start of a new project, was too exciting for him to turn down.
But given the fact Betsy has left one of the biggest clubs in the country for a small club in League Two, with new American owners who have no background in football, does he feel at all worried?
“Not anxious, it’s exciting,” Betsy insists. “In life, if you think about the negative connotations too often, you can stay in your comfort zone. I could have stayed at Arsenal for years without doing anything too badly. I work really hard, that’s one of my key values. Everyone knows what they’re going to get when they appoint me to their organisation. But you’ve got to push yourself. You’ve got to take calculated risks. It was a calculated risk.”
It was a risk in both directions, for club and manager. For Crawley, it is a risk handing over the first team to someone with no senior management experience. If things go wrong this season they will be out of the EFL, a long way from where they plan to get to.
The hope for Crawley is that Betsy will be able to follow in the footsteps of Steve Cooper, his old boss at the FA and one of the most exciting young managers in British football. Cooper coached the England Under-17s, won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and got his first chance in senior management at Swansea City in 2019.
After two seasons and two defeats in the play-off at Swansea, Cooper got the Nottingham Forest job and has taken them back to the top flight, without even a full season under his belt. And if Betsy can nail that transition from youth team to men’s football as well as Cooper, then Crawley will have made an inspired appointment.
Asked whether he can follow in Cooper’s footsteps, Betsy points out that Cooper was on the FA panel that interviewed him when he joined in 2016 (along with Ashworth, Crocker, Dave Redding and Gareth Southgate). Cooper was then Betsy’s line manager as he started out with the under-15s and the two men developed a “really good relationship”. And now Betsy hopes to emulate his success in the senior game.
“Steve had never worked in first-team football before he got the Swansea job,” Betsy says. “A club needs to be ready to think outside the box in terms of their recruitment, which they did with Steve. His data, when Swansea analysed him, was on youth football. But they were smart enough to know that was able to be transferred into first-team football. The rest is history. His expertise in his field is exceptional. It’s no surprise that he’s doing what he’s doing, he’s an amazing coach. The risk for the owners was big because he’d never managed first-team players. But he had managed people. That’s a big thing.”
Of course, there is a big difference from development football to League Two, but he knows the barriers and challenges that exist in implementing his style at this level: “There is huge finance on the line for people, and people in the offices, and jobs, at this level.
“There are very streetwise senior players that play in League Two. Crowd noise is a big thing as well, intimidating grounds. The facilities that different clubs provide aren’t always the spaceships you get at academy grounds. The number of aerial duels you’re having to face in League Two (is high). And the minutes the ball is in play will be really low compared to what it would be in academy football.”
Playing possession football in League Two is going to be difficult, but there is no question Betsy is committed. The players say that they respect how Betsy will take responsibility himself if playing out from the back goes wrong, rather than compromising on his principles at the first sign of trouble. This is borne out by the session as well, given how Betsy reacts when his players play out from the back, and when they do not.
But although there is jeopardy for Crawley here, there is surely an even bigger risk for Betsy. He is leaving a job at a huge club to come and work for a new ownership group with no experience in English football. He refers to the old dictum that managers should “choose their owners well”, which only raises the question: given all the growing scepticism about the NFT and crypto market, and their collapse in value this year, does Betsy at all worry about what that means for Crawley?
On this point, as on others, Betsy is nothing but positive and enthusiastic about his employers.
“What we know about the world in general is that when people don’t know what they don’t know, that’s when anxiety happens,” he says. “People didn’t know about Apple or Microsoft back in the day, they weren’t aware of it. Not many people had as advanced thinking as some really bright minds around the world.
“These guys (WAGMI) have been making vast sums of money in their journey, through ways that other people haven’t thought about. This is way ahead of certain people’s capabilities to understand. It’s a bit new, sure, that’s where the anxiety comes from. I’m sure in time that many people will be very familiar with NFTs and crypto.”
Eyebrows were raised when Crawley’s owners promised that NFT holders would be able to vote on the club’s transfer policy. It sounds like a gimmick but Betsy again is positive about it and puts it down to the innovative and collaborative approach WAGMI wants at Crawley.
“If you’re a conventional coach or manager, that’s OK. But if you’re a manager or coach who thinks outside the box, is open-minded, that embraces new ideas, it opens up a whole new level. Fortunately for us, myself and the owner, we’re aligned in our thinking. If we’re not aligned, then it wouldn’t have worked in the first place. That idea that they have is a unique one, and that’s part of what we do here. It’s just different from what everyone else does. That’s part of the beauty of it.”
A dollop of scepticism about all this is understandable. Especially given what is happening in the wider NFT market. That all said, WAGMI deserves to be judged on what it has done so far at Crawley.
And right now, the owners are providing everything that the team needs to go for their target of promotion. Betsy has assembled a good backroom staff around him, the coaches who take training: Micciche, Byfield and David Powderly, who has arrived from Brighton’s academy. They have been able to sign good players: Dom Telford was the top scorer in League Two last season with Newport County and Dion Conroy was captain of Swindon Town.
Telford concludes the training session with a brilliant left-footed volley and then says that he is enjoying just how intense the sessions are at Crawley from Monday to Friday, compared to other clubs where the coaches are more relaxed until the players get to Saturday.
“You’re asking me before the season’s kicked off,” Betsy says of the owners, “but in the short time we’ve worked together, the last two months, they’ve been amazing. Articulate, bright, innovative thinkers about problems. They always have solutions. They think outside the box. They want to be creative about everything that we’re trying to do. They’ve backed us on and off the pitch in the short and long term with things we wanted to implement.”
There is no time for WAGMI to build any new facilities yet but it has invested in new scouting and analysis software for the staff, bought medical, fitness and training equipment, and taken the 35 players and staff on Crawley’s first summer tour, to Pinatar in Spain. They have set up a new B team (taken by former Crawley right-back Lewis Young, brother of ex-England international Ashley) and cut ticket prices by 30 per cent.
It is easy to be optimistic about a new season, era and set of ideas on a hot sunny day in July, when the players look like they are enjoying themselves, and when everything seems to click. There is a long trip to Brunton Park this Saturday and then 45 more games. It will take an awful lot of football before we can learn whether any of this — Betsy, WAGMI, this new modern era of Crawley Town — will work. And no one knows this more than Betsy.
“The proof is on the grass. We’ve had five pre-season games and we’re unbeaten. We’ve played amazing football so the signs, when you watch them, are extremely good, with and without the ball. If you ask about buy-in, it seems that way, but we haven’t kicked a ball yet. We’ll play at Carlisle and then we’ll see.”
(Top photo: Roddy Scott/SNS via Getty Images/Jack Pitt-Brooke)