Boston the sleeping giant-killers

Rupert Metcalf on the FA Cup second round challenge awaiting Chester City
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The Independent Online
Greg Fee, Boston United's player-manager, has a long way to go if he is to match the achievements of some of his illustrious predecessors in the York Street hot seat.

Both Howard Wilkinson and Jim Smith served apprenticeships in their profession by managing Boston United, who were one of the country's leading non-League clubs in the 1970s - they won the Northern Premier League on four occasions before the formation of what is now the GM Vauxhall Conference.

Fee's main target is to take the club, known as the Pilgrims, back into the Conference, from which they were relegated in 1993 after an unbroken 14-year stay since its formation. He believes, though, that success in the FA Cup, in which they travel to Chester City for a second-round tie tomorrow, will be a help rather than a hindrance to their League campaign.

"The Cup is a bonus," Fee said yesterday. "It won't last forever, but it gets people motivated. Everyone is enthusiastic and looking forward to our day out in Chester, but the League is what really matters."

Fee feels the confidence generated by FA Cup success can boost the Pilgrims' progress in the UniBond (Northern Premier) League, in which they occupy fifth place in the Premier Division, seven points behind the leaders, Hyde United, with three games in hand. Boston are desperate to go up this season because of what happened last term, when they finished as runners- up to Bamber Bridge, whose ground was deemed not good enough for the Conference.

Boston would have been promoted - but for the fact that they missed the deadline for submitting their accounts to the Conference. John Blackwell, the club's secretary, admits the responsibility for the administrative error, but in every other way he has served the club admirably since being brought to Boston as trainer by Jim Smith in the early 70s.

Blackwell has been secretary since 1978 and is now also the full-time general manager, safety officer and programme editor. He has taken charge of off-field preparations for the trip to Chester and said yesterday that the atmosphere at the club is "as good as Wembley in 1985", when Boston were beaten by Wealdstone in the FA Trophy final.

Smith - the "Bald Eagle" - is now the manager of Derby County, who provided the opposition for the Lincolnshire club's two best FA Cup results. In 1955, when Derby were in the Third Division North, Boston won 6-1 at the Baseball Ground, which still stands as the record win by a non-League team against a League side in the Cup.

Derby were a First Division club when Boston next arrived at the Baseball Ground, for a third-round tie in 1974. Dave Mackay, who was to shepherd the Rams to their second League title of the decade the following season, was aghast to see his star-studded team held to a 0-0 draw on their own turf. Reality returned in the replay, however, when an Archie Gemmill hat-trick helped Derby to a 6-1 win at York Street.

Since then, Boston have beaten only one League club in the Cup - Crewe in 1982 - so Chester will be aware that another prize for the Pilgrims is perhaps overdue. One player keen to do well against Kevin Ratcliffe's side is Leroy Chambers, scorer of two goals in Boston's fine 3-0 win over the Conference team Morecambe in the first round, who was released by Chester in the summer.

Boston's two most experienced former League players are Chris Withe, the 33-year-old brother of the former England centre-forward Peter Withe, who played over 400 games for Newcastle, Bradford City, Notts County, Bury, Mansfield and Shrewsbury, and the player-manager himself.

Fee began his career with Bradford City but dropped down in to the non- League game with Kettering and then, in 1987, Boston. Sheffield Wednesday paid pounds 25,000 to give him a second chance of League football a year later, and he went on to make almost 100 appearances for the Hillsborough club. After a spell with Mansfield, he returned to Boston in 1993 and replaced another former Wednesday defender, Mel Sterland, as manager last summer.

"This is a big job in non-League circles," Fee, who is also employed by BP as a marketing executive, said. He knows that he can launch his reputation as a manager with success against Chester, but he is not changing his normal routine. "We'll play our normal game" he said. "We've got some good players - we've had lots of scouts watching us - and I just hope the players with potential don't under-perform. We're not going there to be rolled over."

With talk like that, Messrs Wilkinson and Smith are probably proud of him already.