Dovecote primed for Cup coup

FA CUP COUNTDOWN : Phil Shaw visits Shepshed, home to O'Kane's giant-killing gang - bar Bah
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In the grand tradition of the provincial evening paper which once gained notoriety for headlines like "Town not to move for Royle" and "Toshack not set to sign for Town", The Independent can exclusively reveal that Ibrahim Bah will not be in the Shepshed Dynamo side at Carlisle United on Saturday.

Now that may not seem like hold-the-back-page material, especially since the player re-christened "Brian" at Shepshed has still to make so much as a substitute's appearance for the mid-table minnows from the Midland Division of the Dr Martens (Southern) League. Yet Bah has been creating headlines of his own in the build-up to the first-round tie, and not solely on account of the obliging brevity of his surname.

Bah is a midfield player whose 30 caps for Sierre Leone include tangles with Tony Yeboah and George Weah and an appearance in the African Nations' Cup finals last January. He fell into Shepshed's lap early this season after turning up to enroll at the university in neighbouring Loughborough. The FA has accepted the transfer of his registration from Port Authority FC, only for the Department of Employment to argue that he is an "entertainer" who would be preventing a British player from earning a living.

His degree course does not start until next September, so Shepshed needed to confirm a work permit for Bah by midnight last Friday in order for him to be eligible to play at Brunton Park. Unfortunately, the wheels of bureaucracy ground too slowly.

Mark O'Kane, whose predecessors as manager include Martin O'Neill and Ian Storey-Moore, was already resigned to being without him as he watched his squad (minus Bah) work out in a downpour at Shepshed's tiny Dovecote ground. "It would have given me a problem about who to leave out, and he might not have been match fit, but decisions like that are my job. He played in a practice match the other week and scored from 40 yards. The keeper couldn't move before it hit the net. I've seen the videos, I've watched him training, and he's class."

Carlisle would be advised to resist feeling smug about Bah's absence from the 450-mile round trip from Leicestershire. Shepshed's pedigree may be a modest one, with financial crises and changes of identity and status peppering their 106 years, but O'Kane is steadfast in his insistence on "real quality".

To that end he has secured the services of Paul Bancroft and Jon Clark, both of whom had full-time experience with Derby County. Bancroft later played at Wembley for Kidderminster while Tommy Docherty brought Clark to the Baseball Ground from Manchester United, though, according to O'Kane, they play for love rather than money at Shepshed.

"We haven't got a big budget like in the days when the club was called Shepshed Charterhouse and then Albion in the 1980s. I've seen the figures and they're frightening. I also heard that Stafford Rangers (in the same division) have a weekly wage bill of pounds 2,500. Ours isn't a fifth of that, and not one of my players is on contract."

In the words of Ku Akeredolu, the captain, "We are not Rushden & Diamonds, you know", a reference to the mega-rich Vauxhall Conference club. Instead, Shepshed find O'Kane's reputation in semi-pro circles for playing "proper football" helps Shepshed to bridge the gap in resources. When Bancroft was between League clubs he persuaded him to play for Carriage & Wagon, a works team he ran, and the midfielder renewed the acquaintance in the face of more lucrative offers last summer.

The spirit within the squad is epitomised by Pete Hall. Although his van chugged into the car park 10 minutes late for training, there was no rollicking from the gaffer. Hall travels from Stoke-on-Trent, 75 miles away, and yet he is not currently in the team and there is no reserve side.

Shepshed are arguably the smallest club left in the competition, regularly drawing gates of fewer than 200. In the spring they won promotion from the Interlink Midland Alliance, and O'Kane admitted he was "pleasantly surprised" with the way they have adjusted to the higher level.

Their Third Division hosts should also be warned that they are the only team in the country with three trophies on the sideboard already this season. "We won the Interlink President's Cup, the charity shield for the league and a memorial trophy for a past secretary of ours who died, all before the start of the real season. I said to the chairman: 'Well, you can't sack me this week'."

Their run to the first round proper, for only the second time in the history of the various Shepshed outfits, began before 125 spectators at Stratford-upon-Avon back when the county's cricket club had still to clinch the Championship. Counting replays, they have already played seven games in the Cup, dispatching the might of Sandwell, Solihull and Knypersley Victoria before a 2-0 victory over Bromsgrove of the Conference a fortnight ago.

Nearly a thousand were at the Dovecote that day, packing the clubhouse to the extent that O'Kane could not get near the television to hear the draw. "I just heard this roar go up," he recalled. "But we couldn't have done much better. Preston or Burnley away would have been a bigger crowd, but Carlisle are hoping for about 6,000. We could make about pounds 15,000, which would be a fortune to us."

As the players pounded round the pitch, the club secretary, Peter Bull, was in the bar supervising the brisk sale of tickets for the trek to Cumbria. November is hardly T-shirt time, but Shepshed's "Road to Wembley" design, complete with Moscow Dynamo-style "D" motif, is also going well. The back lists their victims, with Carlisle on the penultimate line followed by an optimistic "TBA" for the second round.

And who knows, if they do make it through, then Shepshed may be able to summon the clout of Africa in the next round. But why the nickname? O'Kane explained: "The players just said: 'Ibrahim? Oh bugger that, we'll call you Brian'. He liked it, so it stuck."