Crawley’s ‘crypto bros’ find their feet and focus on brighter future

<span>Crawley’s manager, Scott Lindsey (centre), celebrates with players and staff in front of the fans after winning the League Two playoff semi-final against MK Dons.</span><span>Photograph: Harriet Lander/Getty Images</span>
Crawley’s manager, Scott Lindsey (centre), celebrates with players and staff in front of the fans after winning the League Two playoff semi-final against MK Dons.Photograph: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Preston Johnson has been to Wembley before. “I saw Coldplay in concert once,” the American says. But the former professional gambler and NFT (non-fungible token) enthusiast will be attending in a new capacity on Sunday as Crawley, the club he co-owns, attempt to seal promotion to League One.

“I have some family and friends that are flying over and I’m going to spend some time with them Saturday,” he says. “On Sunday, the schedule is pretty much set. We have a meal before the game. Sky Sports asked me to do an interview at midday. So if I wasn’t already really nervous, now I get to do a TV hit. But it’s part of the experience. I will not complain.”

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We will return to the subject of Johnson’s match-day nerves, but suffice to say that not so long ago the prospect of Crawley playing in a League Two playoff final was an unlikely one. Less than 18 months ago the club were something of a national laughing stock. Johnson and his partner Eben Smith were the “crypto bros” who had promised to build an international fanbase through digital tokens, but, instead, shed three managers in six months to send Crawley into a relegation battle. In December 2022, Johnson even made an appearance in the Crawley dugout during a match against Stevenage, a decision that caused a furore.

“Obviously people didn’t enjoy that,” he says, “but that situation was unique. Matthew Etherington and his staff, they quit on 28 December [two days before the game]. There was one coach left, Darren Byfield, a video analyst and that was it.

“How would you be feeling right now? I got on a plane from LA because I wanted the players to know that as an ownership group, we believe in them. We trust them, we’re here for you, and I’m going to be here the entire way along with Darren, and the video analyst, at Stevenage.”

Johnson denies some of the more colourful rumours about his day in the dugout, such as the claim he had to ask the assistant referee how substitutes work. “If I actually didn’t know, I wouldn’t be asking in public,” he says. But he also felt ashamed by the failure. “I was really hurt by how poor a job I was doing. I felt like it was my fault. I was letting everyone down and I started seeing a therapist for the first time.”

Two weeks after the Stevenage game, Scott Lindsey joined as manager from Swindon. “It was the change that really initiated everything,” Johnson says. “Scott said it took 28 days after he took over for every player to show up on time to a training session. That’s crazy. That should not be how it is. But he brought that culture change and the accountability within the dressing room leaped to another level.”

After six straight defeats in February and March 2023, Lindsey steadied the ship and Crawley scraped their way to safety, finishing one place above relegation to the National League. This season, they kicked on, with a similarly strong end to the season – with eight wins from 11 matches from February to April – to finish seventh and earn a first appearance in the playoffs. They beat MK Dons 8-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals.

“We have always gotten along really well. He’s very confident. He believes in his football knowledge,” Johnson says of Lindsey. “But what’s important is how open-minded he’s been to listening to what we say. And when I say we, I really just mean what the data says.”

Alongside talk of becoming “the internet’s team”, Johnson’s and Smith’s vision for Crawley emphasised a focus on recruitment through data. Despite the disappointments of the first year it was a principle to which Johnson remained committed and last summer he doubled down.

Smith and Johnson acting as de facto sport directors performed a data-driven dredge of lower and non-league talent. He brought in 17 players and, alongside Lindsey’s coaching, the mission was successful. Players such as Danilo Orsi, Will Wright and Klaidi Lolos became key figures in the squad. Johnson may yet resume his role again this summer.

Success has meant vindication for Johnson and Smith, but they accept they have had to change, too. The social media feed of WAGMI United, the name given to Crawley’s proposed digital fanbase, has been dormant for a year. Johnson is vague as to his plans for reanimating this scheme – “Just let the season play out and then we can decide things” – but is certain that any future direction for Crawley must closely involve those fans who visit the ground.

“If you’re talking about learnings, that’s one,” he says. “You can’t have an international audience that wants to be engaged … if the local fanbase isn’t happy and excited and growing itself too. So that’s one of the things we focused on as a priority this year, lowering ticket pricing and investing in a fan zone. We’ve seen the average attendance go from 2,300 per game when we took over to something pushing 3,700.”

Another of Johnson’s and Smith’s original moves was a vote that would allow all season-ticket holders and NFT owners to decide whether the pair should continue as directors after their first two years. That commitment still stands and the vote will go ahead this summer.

Back to the playoff final and the prospect of Crawley playing in the third tier for the second time in their 128-year history. Johnson says the past two years means there will be no uproarious fist-pumping from him should they achieve victory against Crewe.

“What I underestimated more than anything was the emotional stakes for the fans of this club and how much it means to them,” he says. “A lot of them work so that they can eat, sleep and support the club and [a year ago] I felt I was taking joy and happiness away from them. So when the final whistle goes, if we have won this thing, I will not be going crazy. There’s a much better chance I will be crying tears and finding a way to hide.”