How little Crawley Town set Barca king Lionel Messi on the path to greatness

Where are they now AI

Crystal Palace right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a wanted man. Anytime soon he will swap his role at Selhurst Park for the big time with a remarkable, mega-dosh switch to moneybags Manchester United.

The prospect of the transfer of the 21-year-old former striker being courted by one of the world’s biggest clubs would have been laughed at just a couple of years ago. Back then Wan-Bissaka was on the verge of a loan spell at Cambridge United and all he had to do was prove to the then boss Shaun Derry that he had what it takes to compete in League Two.

Alas, he didn’t and was sent back to Selhurst Park. The rest, as they say, is history and the defender’s career has flourished. So much so, as mentioned, he stands on the brink of joining United.

But this rise to fame isn’t the first time a world class player has been snubbed by a lower league team. Lost in the annals off history is the loan spell Lionel Messi had at Crawley Town for instance. Messi, who was 16 at the time, was struggling for form in the Nou Camp youth ranks and had only managed 54 goals in the first three league games of the season. Youth boss Manuel El Man-Well knew he had to farm the young Argentinian out to get him more experience and develop his goal-scoring skills.

And so it was that he arrived at Broadfield Stadium on a wet Tuesday morning in December and Bill Dablox, reserve team manager at the Red Devils, decided to thrust him into the action that night in a friendly against Burgess Hill Town. He remembers:

“Lionel looked sheepish at first but as the game wore on he showed his class. He hit a hat-trick in each half as we drew 6-6 that night and we knew we had someone special.

“The next Saturday the first team had a trip to Hartlepool United on the cards and young Messi was keen to play and we were ready to take him, but considered maybe a subs’ role for him. But that morning, very early, we had a call from an excitable chap representing the Nou Camp hierarchy demanding we put little Lionel on a plane back to the Catalan capital.

“They were short of a forward and wanted him to play that night against Real Madrid, one of the fiercest matches in world football. So, we obliged and we rushed him off to nearby Gatwick Airport and got him on a plane. He played against the old enemy that night and scored a late winner in a 3-2 victory. He hasn’t done too bad since.”

It is indeed the case as Messi has gone on to be perhaps the most admired exponent of his craft ever in the game. But what of Crawley’s trip to Victoria Road that day without their explosive starlet? Dablox puts us out of our considerable misery:

“We drew 0-0. Lionel called to see how we got on but, funnily enough, we haven’t heard from him since.”