Cardiff too polished for Diamonds

Phil Shaw sees a potential FA Cup first-round upset come to naught
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The Independent Online
Wearing a vindicated smile, Kenny Hibbitt addressed the press pack with Bradfordian bluntness. "You're all sick as pigs, aren't you?" the Cardiff City manager said after a 3-1 win at Rushden and Diamonds. "You're only here because you expected them to knock us over."

It was a fair cop. The dozen or so vultures, including your correspondent, could only curse Cardiff's failure to fulfil their allotted role against the Beazer Homes League leaders. We dispersed, envying those who had alighted on one of the upsets of the FA Cup's first round: at Gravesend and Northfleet, where Colchester fell 2-0; Bury, scene of Blyth Spartans' victory by the same score; or Hitchin, who beat Bristol Rovers 2-1.

There is, of course, a glorious lack of logic to it all. None of the trio who overcame full-time opposition on Saturday play in the senior non-League competition, the GM Vauxhall Conference, from which, remarkably, only Telford are definitely through to the second round.

Gravesend are 12 places and 14 points adrift of Rushden and Diamonds, while Colchester stand 16 rungs higher than Cardiff. All of which counted for nothing as "the Fleet" sailed into the second round for the first time in 32 years.

Blyth's last Cup run took them rather further, to the brink of the quarter- finals in 1978. Now in the UniBond League, they produced the display of the day at Gigg Lane. Hitchin, 16th in the Icis League Premier Division, stunned Rovers twice in nine minutes and then restricted the Second Division side to a solitary goal.

The last time Rovers lost to non-League opponents - at Kettering, a few miles from the Irthlingborough base of Rushden and Diamonds - Hibbitt was their assistant manager. The former Wolves midfielder has since been in charge of a Walsall team beaten at home by Yeovil, and he admitted that such experiences informed his pre-match exhortation: "I told them: `Don't get the headlines tomorrow!' "

That dubious privilege was seldom likely to be theirs once Lee Jarman, a 17-year-old Hibbitt likens to Alan Hansen, had added to Carl Dale's opener. The Diamonds sparkled briefly after Al-James Hannigan scored at a time when Cardiff, in their manager's words, were "still having their half-time cuppa". Dale's diving header, a gem denied to a wider audience by the mysterious absence of Match of the Day, finished them off.

As he surveyed the splendour of Nene Park, Hibbitt put his finger on a key factor in Cardiff's managing to avoid a repetition of the embarrassments inflicted by Bath, Hayes and Enfield in recent seasons. Put simply, the Diamonds' futuristic facilities, bankrolled by pounds 10m from the Doc Martens shoemaking empire, may be too welcoming for their own good.

Would-be giantkillers do not need a sloping quagmire to play on, partisan support inches from the touchline, or a damp dressing-room with lukewarm tea for their visitors. But it certainly helps. Despite a day of rain, the surface was perfect. Most of the 4,212 spectators watched from the comfort of a seat, and the Cardiff players could even wind down (or up) in a Jacuzzi.

"I told my lads it would suit us better than them," Hibbitt said. "It's a superb place to play, and that lifts teams when they come here. It was the same when we opened the new ground at Walsall. Everyone wanted to perform on it."

Disappointed as the Diamonds were, their manager Roger Ashby was not merely trotting out a cliche by suggesting that Wednesday's match at VS Rugby was more important. "See you in the Conference next year," a foghorn fan kept shouting at the Welsh contingent. Or even, he might have added, in the Football League the year after.

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