Football: A giant and his giant-killers

Buster Bloodvessel and the seaside club he keeps afloat have caught Cup fever. Kevin Keegan, be warned; Andrew Baker meets an ageing pop star whose largesse is feeding the dream of minnows
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The Independent Online
The people of Margate are getting used to strange visitations. Last week six UFOs were seen flying over the Kent town: two bright white lights hovering in formation with red, blue and green lights pulsing on and off. Unusual lights were also seen at the football ground at Hartsdown Road on Tuesday evening, together with weird figures from the Sky in shiny outfits toting hi-tech equipment. Here, though, there was an earthly explanation, although a few weeks ago it would not have been believed: satellite television technicians were setting up cameras that a week today will broadcast Margate FC's FA Cup tie against Fulham to the watching millions.

More camera crews - from local BBC and ITV stations, roamed the damp terraces, buttonholing regular fans and newcomers, interviewing players, coaches and Margate's manager, Chris Kinnear, who was enjoying a crash course in celebrity. No one wanted to know about last Tuesday's opponents, Erith and Belvedere, visiting for a Dr Marten's League fixture. Everyone wanted to talk about Fulham, about Al Fayed's millions, Kevin Keegan, Butch Wilkins and all. There was a persistent rumour that the celebrated UFO was in fact a top- secret Harrods-liveried surveillance craft sent to check out Margate's forward line.

"I don't have a problem with all the attention," Kinnear said over a cup of tea in the club's cosy boardroom, where a gas fire flickered under a modestly stocked trophy cabinet. "It's water off a duck's back to me. The only thing that matters is that we play well. We mean business as a club. Last season we were fifth in the league, our best performance for more than 10 years. But I want to take them further. We've bought one or two players, and there may be more to come."

There is little chance of Kinnear embarking on a Keeganesque spending spree. But just as Fulham's funds have been augmented by the interest of the exotic Al Fayed, so Margate's coffers have benefited from the largesse of another unusual figure, the club's main sponsor, Buster Bloodvessel.

Mr Bloodvessel ("Just call me Buster, mate, it's easier") was on hand on Tuesday night to watch his local heroes dismantle Erith and Belvedere 3-1. No cups of tea in the boardroom for Buster: he was on the terraces, joining the fans for a chorus of "We love you Margate, we do," and getting a shower of beer for his pains. "Very refreshing, that," he said, wiping down the Margate shirt draped like a marquee around his mountainous gut. Somewhere down there, out of sight, was a pair of blue-and-white striped Margate shorts.

Buster achieved brief national fame many years ago as the rubber-mouthed front man of the pop group Bad Manners. They persist as a successful touring act on the student circuit, and it is their name that is emblazoned on Margate's shirts. Buster's other business interests include Fatty Towers, a Margate hotel where the proprietor is often on hand to make sure that the guests are enjoying themselves. "Basically, I make sure that everyone gets drunk," he admitted.

This generosity extends to the players and staff of Margate FC, who held their Christmas party at Fatty Towers last year. But while Buster has a generous hand when it comes to pouring the drinks, there is a limit to the funding that he can pour into the club's coffers. "Mohamed Al Fayed has got a bit more money than Margate," Buster reckoned. "Our most expensive player here cost pounds 10,000, and even then people said we'd got too much money. Mind you, we'll make some money back on the Fulham game. We're certainly hoping to sell plenty of hot dogs - I'll eat most of them."

While Buster contemplated the sausage dividend, Kinnear and the players had more serious matters in mind. The night after defeating Erith, they gathered at their usual training base at Strood Leisure Centre for a work- out. The forward pairing of Martin "Bugsy" Buglione (who in his St Johnstone days played in front of 50,000 at Ibrox) and Paul "Psycho" Sykes pounded up and down the Astroturf while fireworks burst around them in the evening drizzle. But Lee Spiller, who normally plays in behind them, stood on the sidelines, gingerly flexing a knee he had damaged the night before.

"I'm worried," he confessed. "Scared, really, that this might keep me out of the Fulham game. That would be such a nightmare, to miss the biggest game of my life." A local physiotherapist will do all he can to get Spiller fit for Sunday, and the 19-year-old bricklayer's employee is also helping out. "No ladders for me this week," Spiller said. "The boss has been really good about it - like everyone in the area, really getting behind the team."

The midfielder Andy Blondrage trotted over to change his training shoes for football boots. Before he could get the left boot on, however, he had first to extract a sachet of Alka-Seltzer from the toe - further evidence that Margate are a club who know how to celebrate the good times.

There have been other big games in Margate's 101-year history. A quarter of a century ago, they entertained Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup, a game watched by 14,000 people at Hartsdown Park. That was before the hurricane put paid to the main grandstand, but the surviving facilities will still accommodate 6,000 or so on Sunday.

Throughout the Erith match a monumental queue snaked along the front of the clubhouse as punters waited patiently to buy tickets for the big game. Diehard fans taunted newcomers with chants of "If you ain't got tickets, clap your hands", but there was no malice, nothing to contradict the often-expressed view that Margate is a friendly little club determined to enjoy its moment of fame. "The facilities will be absolutely up to scratch," Buster said with pride. "And anyone who comes along will have a lovely time. Mind you," he mused, "I can't see Mr Al Fayed fitting into our gents' at the same time as his bodyguards...".