The prospect of Leeds pitching up at Crawley and Marcelo Bielsa, one of the game’s most revered brains, squatting beside his now-cushioned and commercialised blue bucket in modest but smart surroundings is a match-up made for the FA Cup.
For Crawley, Sunday’s third-round meeting represents the biggest home game in their 125-year history. Throw in a 62-place chasm between the teams and that the League Two club boast the country’s sharpest shooter and there are the ingredients for an upset.
There are plenty of subplots. There is El Loco v the straight-talking and chiselled John Yems, who in October confessed: “Donald Trump is a little bit more diplomatic than me”; the 41-year-old Crawley player-coach Dannie Bulman – the oldest player in the Football League – featuring in the Cup 10 years on from a slender defeat at Old Trafford, in the season when Crawley went on to gain promotion to the Football League; and then there is the 21-year-old striker Max Watters, whose numbers are astounding.
Since joining from Maidstone in October, Watters has scored 16 goals in 18 matches across all competitions, including 13 in the league. He averages a league goal every 79 minutes, the best goals-to-minutes ratio in the top four divisions among players who are regular starters.
Watters’ rapid rise is an uplifting tale amid the nationwide gloom. After being released by Doncaster – a victim of the League One side shelving their under-23s team owing to the financial strain of the pandemic – he had unsuccessful trials at Dagenham & Redbridge and Bromley of the National League and so returned to Maidstone, for whom he made four appearances for on loan at the end of last season, to keep fit. In September the sixth-tier club overcame Crawley in a friendly; Watters impressed, Yems invited him on a week’s trial and, 13 weeks on, the rest is history.
“Two and a half months ago, if someone told me I’d be playing against Leeds, I would have just laughed,” says Watters, fit again after a brief hamstring injury. “Everybody looks at Jamie Vardy’s story, especially in non-league, for inspiration. I hope I can follow in his steps, or at least somewhere close to it. There are a lot of friends of mine, who were also released by Doncaster at the same age as me, who have struggled to get back into football. Even now some of them still don’t have clubs.”
Before signing for Doncaster, for whom he made six substitute appearances, on his 18th birthday, Watters, who grew up in London, was juggling playing part-time for Ashford – predominantly as a marauding right-wing back – with working for his father, Terry, in removals and storage. “I was moving furniture in the day and playing football at night,” he says. “There were some long days and it was tough but I had to make a living.
“When I was 16 I played men’s football for Barking in the Essex Senior League, playing against 34-year-olds on a Tuesday night. I think that matured me a lot and showed me where I don’t want to be, and where I need to be. I learned the hard way. He always says to me now: ‘In the summer, you’ll be back on the road in the van,’ so that keeps my feet on the ground.”
His father always kept him hungry. “He’s the reason I’m still playing, really,” says Watters. “He’s always pushed me, from training as a young kid to taking me to games. Everything he has done, from making me go down to his work at 6am and getting back at 6pm … he knew what he was doing, keeping my feet on the ground and making me mature quickly. Even when I got released, he was always saying: ‘Look, it might not happen in a month or even a year, but keep your head down and if you keep working hard, it will happen.’”
Can Watters continue to deliver? Cups can catapult careers overnight – a goal on Sunday would inevitably inflate Crawley’s asking price, which is thought to be in excess of £1m – but he is already the subject of firm interest. The Peterborough manager, Darren Ferguson, who took Watters to Doncaster, is keen on reuniting with the striker, and Crawley, aware of watching Premier League eyes, have rejected a bid from Swansea of the Championship. “I’ve never seen so many scouts here,” says Erdem Konyar, the West Sussex side’s technical director.
Crawley, who rent a 4G training facility in Horsham, and Leeds, who put five goals past West Brom on their last away trip, may orbit different spheres but three years ago Leeds were embarrassed by Newport in round three. A Crawley team unbeaten in nine matches represent another hazard. The route to hosting Leeds began when Watters helped edge out Torquay in a preposterous 11-goal first-round thriller, featuring three stoppage-time goals and another five in extra time.
Watters’ whirlwind story, from free agent to one of the hottest properties this January, could soon take another twist but first Bielsa and his bucket are coming to town. “They can bring one for Yemsy as well,” says Konyar, laughing. “He [Bielsa] is a god. Don’t get me wrong, we are not Leeds but we are not hoofball merchants – we don’t just lump it up from back to front. Yemsy has unified us, we are in a good place and anything can happen.”