By Tony Dewhurst

It is reassuring in the often loony world of professional football, to find someone like Dave Francis, Crawley Town's Community Manager, with his feet planted firmly on Terra Firma.

"I've enjoyed every minute of the job so far - I've hardly had time to draw breath," he said, nodding across the ground to the town.

"The last year has felt like a mad, roller-coaster ride, so much has happened.

"It has been a bit difficult to keep up at times - everything has happened so fast."

So quickly, in fact, Crawley can look forward to a local joust with 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth next season, when a couple of years ago it was a sprint down the A23 to play in front of a few hundred at Eastbourne Borough.

Two promotions in a year - winning the Blue Square Premier title and then securing the final automatic promotion place to League 1 with a last day victory at Accrington Stanley - has propelled the West Sussex side into the football headlines.

Attendances, too, have reflected that remarkable rise from the foothills of non-league - from 1,000 in 2010 to a respectable average of 3,211 last term.

"I'll never forget my first day as Community Manager," he said.

"I drove down from Birmingham, dropped my stuff at the hotel, and went straight to the ground to meet everybody.

"Crawley were playing Derby County in the third round of the FA Cup.

"Then, Sergio Torres scored a last-minute winner and all the fans were running on the pitch, and it was like, 'Blimey……this is something special here' and it hasn't stopped since.

"The quarter-final tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford raised the profile of the club massively.

"At the time, nobody seemed to know that we were top of the Blue Square Premier - it was all about the Manchester United game.

"We ran a community course the following week and overnight the kids were wearing Crawley Town shirts, instead of Arsenal and Chelsea.

"We got huge feedback from the schools and the kids were going, 'I'm a Crawley fan now', which was great.

"It has been a bit difficult to keep up at times, everything has happened so fast, but it has helped push us that extra mile in the community."

He welcomes the challenge ahead and added: "In terms of the club wanting to grow, the two have to go hand-in-hand, but already the community is a big part of Crawley Town.

"The Chairman, Vic Marley, is very pro-community - he has given us tremendous encouragement and from a community point of view I think we can be very proud of our first year in The Football League, because the community scheme has brought a new generation into contact with Crawley Town."

When Crawley were on their way to becoming Conference champions during the 2010/11 campaign, the club made a commitment to engage with Crawley and the wider Sussex community through the delivery of football training sessions in local schools and youth groups.

"We were virtually starting from scratch in terms of the football club working in the community, and for the first full season we stuck with what we knew best - football - and it has delivered.

"We offered free after-school clubs and spoke to all the primary schools in Crawley, suggesting we ran the schools seven-a-side league for the 9-11 year-olds.

"Before, the maximum games they played in a school year was four, but now we've got that up to a dozen.

"The two winners of each division played a final at the Broadfield Stadium, with a cup presented by a first-team player.

"It proved a huge success, from the first game to the last.

"The children enjoyed getting involved with Crawley Town and when we talked to the teachers we were able to explain all the other things we were doing in the community."

Francis has an unquenchable optimism and his experience, coaching in America for several years, has served him well and with Stuart Duff, Crawley's Senior Community Coach and the scheme's only other full-time staff member, they can look forward with confidence to life in League 1.

"We want to be there from the start, so we are introducing a pre-school, nursery course for three to four year-olds, getting them used to kicking a ball around, and of course establishing that early link with Crawley," said Dave.

"We hope to appoint a mid-Sussex development officer too, so we can spread our net out to places like Horsham.

"Also, we have teamed up with Southern Water, to deliver education workshops in schools.

"We will be talking to kids about how they can save and use water in every day life. There will be a free football session and hopefully we'll be taking on some apprentices later this year.

"It is proving a massive learning curve, but we are getting the message out to Crawley's community."