Flynn feeds off the fruits of forward planning

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Wrexham seek a second upset at Old Trafford on Saturday. Phil Shaw reports
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For all their giant-killing exploits under Brian Flynn, Wrexham have never come close to winning the FA Cup. Yet there it was, only days ago, gleaming regally between the Flintshire Leader Challenge Cup and Programme of the Year award in their trophy cabinet.

Flynn, the North Wales club's 39-year-old manager and occasional reserve-team midfielder, was thrilled to house the Cup, albeit briefly, in a sponsors' ceremony to honour Wrexham's defeat of Ipswich this month. Actually touching it was a different matter. Despite pleas from TV crews and photographers, he avoided any contact with its coveted curves.

This reticence owed less to superstition than to Flynn's feeling that he would prefer to earn the right to lift the trophy. Wrexham, in fact, have the opportunity to relieve Manchester United of the prize for real in Saturday's fourth-round tie at the home of the Double winners, where victory would be as great an upset as any in the competition's 114 seasons.

"Realistically, we've got a very slim chance, but sometimes fate and luck go your way," Flynn said. "For instance, our results sequence in this season's Cup has been identical to when we knocked Arsenal out in '91-92. In both years we won 5-2 and 1-0 in the first two rounds, beat Premier opposition 2-1 at home in the third and then drew another away.

"We brought West Ham back before losing, so maybe we'll have United here for a replay," he added, rubbing his hands in anticipation. Arsenal were, after all, champions when they succumbed to the wiles of the veteran Mickey Thomas. And the Wrexham who sithalf-way up the Second Division are vastly superior to the version who finished last in the League months before blowing away the Gunners.

"The big difference this time is that we're away," Flynn cautioned before the enthusiast in him prevailed. "Old Trafford can be a daunting ground with a full house, but it can also be an inspiring place. Young players tend not to fear things, and ours isbasically a youthful team."

When Flynn took over in late 1989 - a natural progression after gaining 66 Welsh caps with Burnley and Leeds - producing their own players was Wrexham's only option. "The club were skint, £500,000 in debt, with no assets. The season before we'd lost in the play-off final, after which our best players were sold and not replaced. We had to start from scratch."

His first match was a 3-0 humbling at Hartlepool, which was not promising, where he blooded an 18-year-old who was. These days Chris Armstrong is with Crystal Palace and touted as a £6m striker. At the Racecourse Ground, he was the first product of a youth policy and scouting network which proved the club's salvation.

It was modelled on the scheme at Burnley run by his mentor, Jimmy Adamson, who sustained top-flight football for years with home-grown talent. When, at the start of Flynn's first full campaign, the League ruled there would be no relegation to the Vauxhall Conference, he decided to throw "five or six kids" into the Fourth Division fray to gain experience.

"My one regret is that as a result, the club have the stigma of having finished bottom. We could have stuck with the same squad and come mid-table, whereas now we're seeing the fruits of forward planning. Those lads form the nucleus of the side, and there's money in the bank."

The player who poses the biggest threat to United does not fit the Wrexham profile. Gary Bennett earned notoriety early in his career with a challenge that left a Sheffield Wednesday defender with a double compound fracture of the leg. Now 31 and recruited without cost from Chester, the Liverpudlian once nicknamed "Psycho" has developed into a serial scorer.

In two and a half years at Wrexham, Bennett has amassed 66 goals in the League alone. His 32 in all competitions this season make him Britain's most prolific marksman, and Flynn describes him as "a positive influence on and off the field". What about hisreputation? "That was one tackle when he was 20. Holding it against him is unkind.

"I can only say I've found him brilliant. Training-wise, Gary's the worst pro I've ever dealt with. He keeps everything for matches and needs that competitive edge. He's so unpredictable, he'll get goals at any level with the right service."

That is where Flynn's signing from Napoli - the Merseyside Sunday Business League club rather than Diego Maradona's former employers - comes in. Karl Connolly, a winger, is tipped for great things, though Wrexham do not need to sell and indeed harbour ambitions of rising through the ranks, Wimbledon-style.

Talking of whom, Flynn was in the Burnley side, high in the top division, who lost 1-0 at home to the Dons, then of the Southern League, in the third round 20 years ago. "The worst feeling in the world," he recalled. "They sent Womble shampoos into our dressing-room afterwards, which didn't go down well."

Measured in League places, the gap Wrexham must bridge at United is much narrower. The numbers game obscures the truth; Flynn believes the likes of Cantona, Ince, Giggs and Keane present as formidable an obstacle as his players will ever encounter.

"I'll tell the boys to keep everything simple, which is the basis for success in football. I could ring Premier managers for advice, but we know these are high-quality players. World-class in some cases." Wrexham do not have to face Andy Cole or Mark Hughes, but as Flynn put it: "Look at the replacements they've got."

There is a difference, however, between realism and defeatism. Mention of United's £7m man brings out the bravado that is a pre-requisite for all Cup shocks. "You'll notice they bought Cole straight after drawing us," Flynn the grin said. "I reckon Alex Ferguson panicked and forgot he was cup-tied."