As the FA Cup's annual slay ride begins in earnest at the third round stage, Phil Shaw examines the prospects for the great and the small and those in between.
Twenty-four hours and as many Underground stops apart, London stages two ties this weekend which epitomise in vastly different ways the charisma of the FA Cup. And no one personifies the competition's enduring appeal better than a pair of strikers from opposite ends of the football spectrum.
Glynn Hurst is a 21-year-old postman who has spent the past month dreaming of delivering the upset of the third round, and arguably of all time, when the Yorkshire village people of Emley descend on West Ham today. A failed Tottenham apprentice who was also freed by Barnsley, he claims to owe his acceleration to dodging dogs with a full sack on his back.
Mark Hughes did not fulfil his boyhood ambition either, but then four FA Cup winners' medals probably compensate for never having played for Wrexham. Tomorrow, in his first match since being named an MBE, he will be striving to help the holders, Chelsea, take the new year's honours against the favourites, his former club Manchester United.
The size of the task facing Emley's firemen, brickies and salesmen can be gauged from the fact that they lie 11th in the UniBond League, below such hallowed names as Guiseley and Winsford, whereas West Ham stand eighth in the Premiership. Still, they will have a following of 3,000 - from a population of 1,800 - and where better than Upton Park for a G Hurst to demonstrate his scoring prowess?
The battle of Stamford Bridge, like tomorrow's meeting of Everton and Newcastle, matches two clubs who have won the coveted old pot 11 times between them. Those elitists who advocate seeding in the Cup would away with such draws at this early juncture. Yet the thought that either Chelsea or United will be left to the time-honoured pursuit of concentrating on the League while lesser lights edge closer to Wembley encapsulates the beauty of the competition.
Hughes, whose team-mates have been bowing in mock obeisance and calling him "Sir" since his gong was announced, said: "It's a shame one of us has to go out so soon, but if we can beat United we'll have put out the best team in the country. It's a lot like last year when we played Liverpool, and hopefully we can get the same result."
The tie, in which Denis Irwin makes his long-awaited return for the champions, is one of five where a Premiership side must go out. However, a spot of unintentional seeding has ensured that 13 of the 20 teams from the top division are at home. Equally, while the Vauxhall Conference survivors did not receive the money-spinning trip to Old Trafford or Anfield they craved, all three have a realistic chance of going further.
Hereford, whose manager Graham Turner reckons one big draw could wipe out their debts "overnight", would doubtless be more confident of seeing off Tranmere tomorrow if the on-loan Richard Leadbeater were available. He scored a hat-trick at Kidderminster on Thursday, but Wolves do not want him cup-tied. The veteran Tony Agana stands by after a long absence through injury.
Cheltenham receive Reading just 48 hours after their 25-match unbeaten run was ruined at Yeovil, but should draw sufficient inspiration from their first appearance at this stage since 1934 to run their First Division opponents close.
Stevenage have the hardest task, away to Swindon in a contest which pits two managerial Merseysiders, Steve McMahon and Paul Fairclough, against each other. The part-timers will be buoyed by the memory of how they scared Birmingham City 12 months ago. The occasion is also tailor-made for Ryan Kirby, who played with David Beckham in Chingford Under-9s football, to redeem himself after two dismissals in December.
Darlington's Darren Roberts was also sent off last month, for allegedly kicking the Hednesford keeper after scoring the Third Division club's penalty winner in the second round. Suspension would have prevented him facing his former club Wolves, only for the ban to be rescinded after a refereeing rethink.
Feethams will be an even greater culture shock for Mark McGhee's men than if they were visiting non-League territory. The players change in cabins and the showers are cold, while the demolition of the main stand means there are spectators on only three sides - not unlike Molineux before its magnificent facelift.
Any complaints Port Vale have after taking on Arsenal are unlikely to concern the facilities. Vale, who list Spurs, Southampton, Derby and Everton among their Cup victims over the past decade, go to Highbury on the back of six consecutive First Division defeats and with a solitary goal to show for 672 minutes' play.
"I've also had a lot of injuries," said their manager, John Rudge, "but somehow I think they'll all declare themselves fit for this one."
Premiership outfits at greater risk may include Aston Villa at Portsmouth, whose Cup-fighting tradition belies their current parlous position, and Sheffield Wednesday at Watford. Graham Taylor and Ron Atkinson, with half a century of accumulated experience in management between them, ought to know how to put on a cracking tie.
Nor can Leeds, having succumbed at Elland Road to both Portsmouth and Reading in knock-out football last year, feel entirely confident of overcoming Oxford, who won a replay there four years ago. Crystal Palace's wretched home record should also give Scunthorpe hope, while the derby atmosphere could inspire Northampton at Leicester.
Meanwhile, Newcastle face the first of two games in four days which could make or break their season - and with it Kenny Dalglish's reputation on Tyneside. After five defeats and no wins in their last seven Premiership fixtures - and 11 of the remaining 18 away - their visit to Goodison and the ensuing Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final against Liverpool could be the prelude to an unthinkable relegation fight.
Manchester City, too, may be playing for more than simply a place in tomorrow's fourth-round draw. They take on Bradford with pressure mounting on the manager, Frank Clark.
Finally, something has to give between five-times Cup-winners West Brom and Stoke. Not only have the sides drawn twice this season - extending Albion's run without a victory against their Staffordshire rivals to 17 matches - but Albion have failed to win in the Cup for five years. Stoke, moreover, have not knocked out League opposition since 1989 and have beaten only Bath away since reaching the semi- finals in 1972.
Adding spice to the occasion, the new manager at The Hawthorns, Denis Smith, is more Potteries than Wedgewood and proved it by fracturing no fewer than 18 bones in Stoke's service.
The breakages this weekend are, one suspects, more likely to involve hearts and dreams.Reuse content