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Crypto chaos: how Crawley crumbled under owners’ reckless leadership


The word “shambles” comes up a lot when you ask people about Crawley Town. They sit 20th in League Two, are looking for their third permanent manager of the season after Matthew Etherington’s exit following 32 days in charge and have cast aside three of their senior players.

When Wagmi United, a cryptocurrency sports company, bought the club in April its co-founder, Preston Johnson, said: “We think the club can do better and our fans deserve better.”

They finished in 12th last season, so clearly Wagmi United’s plans are not working out. There were moves to interact with fans, take on their opinions and potentially implement their ideas. The “crypto bros” Johnson and Eben Smith wanted to do things differently and build a “tight-knit community” of fans “stretching from West Sussex to anywhere in the world with an internet connection”. There was interest and excitement for fans in a new project starting in the fourth tier.

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    The highly respected Kevin Betsy was brought in from Arsenal to be the head coach in this exciting new era. He lasted four months. Lewis Young was put in charge for an interim period and thought he had done enough to secure the job but he too was replaced with Peterborough’s under-18s coach Matthew Etherington.

    Johnson discussed how Etherington was a good fit with Wagmi because of his “appetite for risk” that he rather crassly associated with the former Stoke winger’s historic gambling problems. Etherington was then deemed too much of a risk and sacked after only three games in charge. “It has become clear to all involved parties that this partnership is not the right fit to carry the club forward and achieve our goals,” the club’s director of football and interim chief executive, Chris Galley, said.

    Even though Etherington managed 32 days at Crawley, his time in charge was not without incident. He claimed he was not allowed to play striker Tom Nichols after the club agreed a fee with relegation rivals Gillingham. “I got told after training they had accepted an offer for me from another club and I couldn’t play any more,” Nichols said. His exit after his last game for the club on 22 November caused an outcry from fans.

    Crawley co-owner Preston Johnson and interim manager Darren Byfield watch the warm-up before Stevenage v Crawley Town in League Two
    Crawley co-owner Preston Johnson (centre) and interim manager Darren Byfield (right) watch the warm-up before Stevenage v Crawley Town in League Two. Photograph: James Boardman/Shutterstock

    The summer was busy in the transfer market for Crawley as they tried to implement a stats-based recruitment policy. Last season’s top scorer in League Two, Dominic Telford, arrived from Newport in a coup for the owners. It was an attractive offer for the striker who is now earning more than double what he was on at Newport, before bonuses. One financial incentive for Telford is to win the ball back in the opposition half, a bonus that is unusual in professional football.

    Then there was the case of trying to sign a centre-back this summer who was offered a bonus per header as part of a proposed contract. Considering the stats show the player in question makes between 20 and 30 a game, it would have been a lucrative deal in the fourth tier but he opted to go elsewhere.

    Recruitment also took a strange turn when the club announced it would scout a celebrity match taking place at the Valley, home of League One Charlton. Three YouTubers from Sidemen FC, who have a partnership with Wagmi, were granted trials at the club. “All three players will be further evaluated by coaches and staff during the session for possible inclusion in the team for the Red Devils’ upcoming FA Cup match against Accrington Stanley on 5 November,” Crawley said. None of them were signed.

    Since Etherington’s final game in charge on Boxing Day, a 2-1 defeat to Sutton, experienced players George Francomb, who is club captain, Tony Craig and Jake Hessenthaler have been left out of the squad. Francomb gave an honest assessment after the loss to Sutton, saying: “We have got to be stronger as a squad. The squad is light and the squad is not good enough and we need some help in January in my opinion. I feel sorry for the gaffer and Si [Simon Davies]. I feel sorry for the fans with the situation we are in.” He has not played since.

    Matthew Etherington takes a first of what would turn out to be only a few training sessions at Crawley’s training ground in Southwater
    Matthew Etherington takes a first of what would turn out to be only a few training sessions at Crawley’s training ground in Southwater. Photograph: James Boardman/Alamy

    Etherington was replaced by the caretaker Darren Byfield, who was joined in the dugout for the away defeat to Stevenage by the co-chairman Johnson. The opposition match announcer tweeted: “Tonight’s highlight was Johnson asking the fourth official at half-time how subs work. Whilst sat on the bench. Good luck, Crawley fans.” Johnson did not attend the next match at Newport.

    The club’s supporters’ association has requested a meeting with the owners but Johnson replied in a statement that they cannot do so immediately while the club go through the process of “getting to the bottom of sensitive legal issues”. “A conventional approach to ownership hasn’t worked,” it was announced when Wagmi bought the club. An unconventional approach is not working either.



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