Football: Gallagher hopes the roof will fall in on rich and famous

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Stevenage Borough's veteran goalkeeper, Des Gallagher, has enjoyed a colourful career - he was once apprehended dribbling down the wing naked. Tomorrow he faces Newcastle United - and perhaps Alan Shearer. Mike Rowbottom reports.

Freshly showered after their midweek victory over Hereford United, the players and staff of Stevenage Borough decamped to the clubhouse for their customary post-match meal and drink.

As the men who have taken this GM Vauxhall Conference side to the FA Cup fourth round for the first time in the club's history tucked into their spaghetti bolognaise and sipped cautiously at their lager, the television in the corner burst into aggressive promotional mode.

It was Sky TV, trumpeting tomorrow's live broadcast of "the big one" - Stevenage versus Newcastle United. A roar - part recognition, part celebration, part disbelief - went through the clubhouse. And now the highlights were running of Newcastle's victory at Derby, inspired by the return of the man whom the England manager, Glenn Hoddle, has identified as his most important player in this summer's World Cup challenge, Alan Shearer. "He's back," the commentator bellowed.

Looking up from his spag bol, the footballer to whom this news was perhaps more immediately relevant than any other - Stevenage's goalkeeper, Des Gallagher - raised his eyebrows momentarily before restoring his attention to the plate in front of him.

"When the draw was made, I didn't expect him to be back because of his injury," Gallagher said. "But when they brought him on against Derby, I suddenly thought: `Crikey. You are going to play against Alan Shearer.'

"It's in the back of my mind all the time. In years to come, it would be nice to say that I've done that. Obviously, if he does play, it will make things hard for us - but we'll put `Smudger' on him."

Smudger, alias the Stevenage centre-back Mark Smith, is a highly effective operator whose efforts were instrumental in achieving the victories over Cambridge United and then Swindon Town in the two previous rounds. Whether he will be able to quell the England centre-forward if Kenny Dalglish decides to risk him in the charged atmosphere of Stevenage's Broadhall Way ground remains to be seen.

Gallagher ruefully acknowledged that he was likely to be significantly more busy tomorrow than on the freezing evening of Hereford's visit. Stevenage, the sole non-League survivors in the competition, are not entitled to hold out any realistic hope of progressing to the fifth round - but there was a piquant coincidence in the fact that their last match before "the big one" should have been against the side that so famously dumped Newcastle out of the FA Cup in 1972.

"The manager will have us all in a positive frame of mind," said Gallagher, who was chosen for England's semi-professional international with the Netherlands two seasons ago. "We don't want them to score an early goal to get on top, but the longer the game goes on we are convinced we can sneak a goal. Anything can happen and we are quietly confident."

Regardless of tomorrow's result, the occasion will rank as the highlight of this affable keeper's career. At 35, Gallagher is the senior professional at Stevenage, having played more than 300 games for a club with whom he has been for 14 of the last 18 years.

Rejected by Watford, where he played briefly as a schoolboy alongside Kenny Jackett, Steve Terry and Nigel Callaghan, he arrived at Broadhall Way in 1985 after a number of seasons spent in the South Midlands League with teams near his home in Luton.

At that time Stevenage were down in the Isthmian League Second Division and just starting a phenomenal rise through the ranks which has been guided in recent years by the current manager, Paul Fairclough. The interlude in Gallagher's Stevenage career came between 1988 and 1992, when he turned out for Dunstable Town and also spent one season playing in Perth, Australia. He earned a name for himself as a penalty-taker at Dunstable, making the headlines in a match against Erith when he scored twice from the spot and saved a penalty himself. That season he finished as joint top scorer with eight goals.

Outfield activity of a more ambitious nature had earned him another little place in non-League history during the 1987-88 season when he received an eight-match ban for bringing the game into disrepute after streaking while watching a Bank Holiday match.

"I'd been on the drink," said Gallagher with disarming directness. "Stevenage didn't have a game so I watched Vauxhall against Clacton in the Isthmian League because some of my mates were playing.

"There was a bit of banter and some of the lads I was with dared me to do a streak. So I ran on and started kicking the ball and all the players just collapsed laughing."

The naked custodian was eventually apprehended while dribbling down the wing - one of the clubs' chairmen had to drag him from the field of play. "It didn't go down too well with my manager at the time," Gallagher said, with a grin. "But I've mellowed with age. I still like a night out with the lads, but I'm a family man now."

His wife, Denise, and sons Calum and Reuben, will be present tomorrow in a crowd expected to number more than 8,000 thanks to the additional seating which has been specially constructed behind one end of the ground. Gallagher's brother, Sean, an actor who has made regular TV appearances in EastEnders and The Bill, is also hoping to watch.

Gallagher readily admits that he, and most of his team-mates, would have preferred to play the tie at St James' Park. "The nearest I have been to the ground was seeing it from the train when we go up to play Gateshead," he said. "It looked pretty awesome." A week today the Stevenage players will have another tantalising railway glimpse of Newcastle's stadium, when they play Gateshead in the FA Trophy.

The hasty construction of extra seating at Broadhall Way has attracted more than a passing interest from Gallagher, who was a scaffolder for many years before taking up his present full-time job as a surveyor for a roof insulation company.

When work began during last Saturday's home match against Halifax, Gallagher was unable to resist using quiet moments to cast a professional eye over the progress of the project going on behind his goal on what one local wit has termed the Dalglish Stand.

En route for the clubhouse meal in midweek, he paused in front of the half finished infrastructure and gave his cautious approval. "It looks like it should be done in time," he said. "There'll probably be a penalty clause if it's not."

Gallagher's FA Cup preparation will involve measuring cavity walls in a series of north London lofts - he is working until Saturday. But, busy as he is, there is still plenty of time for him to be pestered for tickets - on Monday night, he and the other Stevenage players scuttled out of the changing- room like thieves clutching booty after receiving their allocations.

Gallagher has even been pressed for tickets by parents at the school where he drops off his children in the mornings. It makes the FA Cup run of last year, which ended with a 2-0 defeat at Birmingham City, appear relatively low-key. "Birmingham just felt like a day out, but the hype and attention for this match is amazing," he said.

The news has long since carried to Gallagher's friends back in Australia via screenings of BBC TV's Match of the Day. "One rang up and told me he had seen something on television about Stevenage playing Newcastle United in the FA Cup, and he said: `That's not the real FA Cup, is it? I thought it might be another cup?' So I told him: `There's only one FA Cup'."

True - and, just for the moment at least, its spirit lives on in Stevenage.

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