The FA Cup comes to Salisbury City this morning. Its two accompanying, bodyguards will watch nervously as the players, staff and supporters of the lowest-ranked club left in the competition take excited turns to handle the trophy and have their picture taken with that iconic piece of silverware.
Then the Salisbury players will head for Sheffield to prepare for a historic moment for the Blue Square South side; a date tomorrow at Bramall Lane for their first-ever match in the third round of the FA Cup.
It is the day of days for the club, but as a piece of local history it struggles for even a footnote compared with that of the area in which their modest ground, the Raymond McEnhill stadium, known locally as the Ray Mac, stands. Overlooked by the grass banks of the remains of Old Sarum castle, this is land that has been fought over by Romans, Vikings and Normans.
Now the Ray Mac is the fiefdom of Darrell Clarke, the young player-manager tasked with reviving City. The 34-year-old Clarke has done his rounds of the Football League – six years at Mansfield, six at Hartlepool – but 18 months ago he took over as caretaker manager at Salisbury in the wake of the club slipping into administration and being relegated two divisions from the Blue Square Premier for being unable to get their books in proper order.
Last year they took a first step back up, winning promotion from the Southern League via a penalty shoot-out, and now this Cup run into uncharted waters has brought financial rewards that not only ensure an immediate future off the pitch but also help justify Clarke's policy of picking up young players discarded by local League clubs for a second chance.
"For a club this size it's massive," says Clarke, sitting in his office but still in his training gear, having spent the morning overseeing on-field preparations for a game against a side nearly 90 places higher up the ladder. He had started by taking the players through a DVD of Sheffield United's recent games and then sought to translate that into a plan of action. "They are a better team than us," he says of the League One side. "But there are always ways."
Whatever happens on the pitch, in front of a travelling support estimated to be double the 700 or so who watch most home games, the bottom line is that, combined with a good run in the FA Trophy, their seven games in the FA Cup – presuming tomorrow to be the last – will have brought the club £100,000.
"We're trying to get to a stage where we break even," says Clarke, "and because of the Cup run we stand a chance of doing that. We have to make sure that we don't end up in another mess – that we spend what we can afford."
It is an eclectic squad that Clarke has gathered to help make playing and financial ends meet. The players are full-time but wages are largely modest, with a basic of around £200 a week. But it allows some chastened youngsters let go by the likes of Southampton and Bournemouth to chase their dream without having to juggle a job. "This is a million, million miles away from the top level," says Clarke. "Football is a ruthless world. I've been in it since I was 17, and had a couple of knocks myself."
One of them came when he was sold by Hartlepool manager Danny Wilson – now in charge of Sheffield United. "There are no hard feelings – we're still talking!" says Clarke. "I'm dealing with players who have had their hearts broken, but it's giving them a second chance."
Amid the younger players there is a crucial core of experience. There's Marvin Williams, the former Millwall prodigy, and Chris Giles, his captain who took the second part of last season off to go travelling, but none of them are better travelled than Danny Webb (left).
Salisbury is the 16th stop of Webb's peripatetic career. "I made some rash decisions when I was younger," he says. Webb has family history when it comes to the FA Cup: 42 years ago his father, Dave, scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the replayed 1970 final against Leeds. Webb Snr later went into management. While at Southend he signed his son, then a Southampton trainee, and gave him his League debut as a 17-year-old. It was a very nasty introduction to life as a pro.
"I was playing in a team that weren't doing very well," says Webb. "If you are a fan who pays your money and are looking for someone to have a go at, it's going to be the manager's son. There was some hardcore abuse. You don't expect that. After that, anything's easy to take." Bramall Lane tomorrow? Bring it on!Reuse content