Davies out to rattle the Reds

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Gay Meadow's Merseysiders would love to collar Collymore and Co. Phil Shaw reports
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Football managers are truly a breed apart. Anyone who doubts it should have heard Fred Davies deliver what he describes as "a rattle" at his Shrewsbury team before an Auto Windscreens Shield match against Hereford. This one, he warned them, was far more important than a forthcoming attraction that had become a distraction: the visit of Liverpool.

Davies' logic was that "the Auto" offers a more realistic route to Wembley. Shrewsbury's subsequent victory, which took them to the brink of the final, suggests it was not lost on the players. But that was then and this is now. No one at Gay Meadow, least of all Davies, is peddling the old nonsense about Sunday's long-awaited fourth-round FA Cup tie being just another match.

As if there were not drama enough in the prospect of the Second Division's 10th-placed side emulating Port Vale's triumph over Everton by beating a Liverpool team third in the Premiership, the occasion is replete with fascinating sub-plots. For a start, Davies' football education began on his father's shoulders the other side of Stanley Park. He still proudly declares himself an Evertonian.

His squad contains four other Merseysiders. Chris Withe, brother of the England striker, Peter, shared his dismay at the Cup holders' exit on Wednesday. The other three will be bursting to embarrass the club whose successes they normally savour.

Then there is the fact that Davies was coach at Norwich when the playing staff included Doug Livermore, now No 2 to the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans. Not to mention the link between one of Shrewsbury's strikers, Steve Anthrobus, and Liverpool's back three; he played with Phil Babb and Neil Ruddock at Millwall and John Scales at Wimbledon.

Even Shrewsbury's coach, Kevin Summerfield, has a Liverpool connection, having scored before a disbelieving Kop when Walsall held the then champions in the first leg of a League Cup semi-final in 1984.

He returned recently to spy on Evans' resurgent side. "It was the day they hammered Leeds 5-0," Davies said. "I asked Kevin if he'd found any weaknesses. 'Oh yes,' he says. 'They put too much milk in the half-time cuppa'.

"No one gives us a chance and you can see why. Aston Villa don't concede many, yet Liverpool went there the other week and won 2-0. Paul McGrath reckoned that as a pair, Collymore and Fowler were the best strikers he'd played against. They're flying, and if we beat them it would be the shock of the century."

Davies, 56, was a young goalkeeper when his manager at Wolves, the legendary Stan Cullis, said something that will inform his own approach against Liverpool. "He used to tell us that it's not your fault if you aren't good enough. But if you don't give everything you've got, then that is your fault."

Later, at Bournemouth, Davies began a partnership with John Bond that would take him to Norwich, Swansea and Birmingham before they reunited in Shropshire. When the axe fell on Bond three years ago, he assumed his head would roll too.

"The new chairman said he wanted to see me in his office and I thought: 'Oh dear'. He started off: 'They're bad times, Fred, when people leave a club', and I'm thinking: 'It's coming'. But then he asked me to take over and I thought: 'Why not? The worst he can do is sack me'.

"As the manager's report went round at my first board meeting, I remember scribbling: 'Stability breeds development'. By that I meant you must have time to work with players and then, all of a sudden, they flourish. That's what's happened. About half my team is 22 or under."

Davies was a late starter in management, yet in his first season Shrewsbury won the Third Division. They are now two points from the play-off zone for promotion to the First, a level at which they survived seven years on small gates in the 1980s.

Waiting for Liverpool - a fixture twice snowed off - has made it hard to focus on that objective, let alone a possible fifth-round tie at home to Charlton. Davies is not complaining. "A lot of people in football don't enjoy their jobs," he said. "I love mine. You can create stress but playing one of the best teams in the country is exciting, not worrying."

The thought of his cheaply assembled outfit testing their progress against the likes of Stan Collymore is especially appealing. Britain's first pounds 8.5m player did the rounds of West Midlands clubs when he was a teenager, eventually turning up at a Birmingham trial run by Davies.

"Collymore scored a great goal and even then he had a certain strut," he recalled. "I was looking for YTS lads whereas I think he was after a pro deal, but I never got a chance to talk to him anyway because he didn't hang around at the end. He was off with his mates.

"He'd be the first to admit he had a problem in those days. But when a pal who managed Alvechurch - a club not even going any more - rang saying he could get Collymore from Stafford for pounds 2,000, I told him to go for it. Before he knew it he went to Crystal Palace for 100 grand. He's gone from strength to strength."

Davies gives Evans "great credit" for harnessing the wild child to Liverpool's team ethic without diminishing his singular talent. The mutual respect between the rival camps is strong, and sure to be reinforced by a desire to honour the memory of Bob Paisley, though it will not be the only thing flowing on Sunday.

"I've had a few drinks in the famous Boot Room," Davies explained, a twinkle in his eye. "They'll get the same in our little medical room."