Football: Bring on the aristocrats

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THE first round of the FA Cup barely stirs the conscience of the clubs who traditionally renew acquaintance with its robust brand of democracy on the first Saturday of the New Year. But nothing enthuses a community quite like a bandwagon cup run. If Leigh RMI journey to Craven Cottage next Sunday to meet the aristocrats of the lower estates expecting their final, nothing in the history of the Cup suggests that they should be so absurdly realistic. If the path of the UniBond League side has been liberally sprinkled with stardust, neither the deep pockets of Mohammed al Fayed nor the inspiration of Kevin Keegan will be enough to halt Leigh's inevitable march to further glory.

Lancastrians will identify Leigh RMI as the club formerly known as Horwich. The initials stand for Railway Mechanics Institute and date back to the days when Horwich was the main locomotive-building works for the Lancs and Yorks Railway. The works were originally at Newton Heath where there were once two clubs. At Leigh, they often wonder what happened to Manchester United.

Horwich's traumatic move to Leigh involved a far greater leap than a mere six-mile journey south west. Unsigned boundaries were crossed. Horwich is Bolton Wanderers and football; Leigh is Wigan and rugby league. As if to emphasise the sense of dispossession, the newly-formed Leigh RMI arrived at Hilton Park, home of Leigh Rugby League Club, in March 1995 and lost their first match 4-0 to Boston United. They lost all their remaining five home matches that season and were relegated. As a welcome, it was rather less than Eccles cakes and hot cocoa. Crowds, initially intrigued by the aliens, slumped from 700 to 150, roughly where the interest had left off on the draughty slopes of Grundy Hill, the idiosyncratic ground on the side of Rivington Pike which had been home for almost 100 years.

Many of the old Horwich fans have yet to be seduced into the new territory. Grundy Hill sloped 16 feet from top diagonal to bottom diagonal and had the contours of corrugated iron, but until the new footballing nanny state prohibited such extreme drops, the ground was Horwich's prime asset. Weymouth once turned up for the final of the Bob Lord Trophy with Sean Teale, who moved on to Bournemouth and Aston Villa, in their ranks and froze at the prospect of mountaineering. "They lost the match when they saw the slope," chuckles Chris Healey, the chairman of Leigh RMI and architect of the move. "But I always reckoned there were more goals scored up the hill than down it. I was almost tarred and feathered when we left. They draped a coffin with the colours of Horwich and paraded it round the ground, but really we had no option. Crowds were down, we had to level out the slope but had no money and people had no enthusiasm for fund- raising. We wouldn't have been in existence if we'd have stayed." Grundy Hill is a housing estate now. The vice-chairman's daughter lives over the penalty spot. "Sometimes progress has a price," says Healey.

A poor first full season at Leigh did not endear the side to the locals, who already had to contend with a struggling rugby league side. Promotion back to the First Division of the Unibond League and third place last season attracted belated interest, but Healey admits he underestimated the strength of traditional barriers. "The local press is starting to take us seriously and the supporters' club now has 150 members. This match against Fulham is beginning to open their eyes."

Inspired by their captain and goalkeeper, Dave Felgate, Leigh have beaten Winsford, Worksop and Droylsden, all by the same scoreline, 2-1, to reach the first round of the Cup for the first time since 1982. Steve Waywell, the manager, was in the side that lost 3-0 at Blackpool. He was also a member of the Burnley side which won the FA Youth Cup. Nine of the team went on to play in the first team, he was one of the two who didn't.

Most of the players have scuffed around the fringes of the league, never quite finding the breaks. Micky Wallace, the full-back, played in the same England Under-18 side as Alan Shearer; Felgate was on the verge of joining Liverpool until Lincoln trebled the asking price. Mike Hooper was bought instead. "I'd driven down with the wife to have a look around and everything. I can remember it to this day." He has a Welsh cap to his name, just the one, a 5-0 victory over Romania, a tally which would have doubled his tally had not the Bobby Sands hunger strike forced the cancellation of an international against Northern Ireland.

His patrol of the north west - Chester, Bury, Bolton (three times) and Wigan - was punctuated by spells in Lincoln and Grimsby. More than 700 league games in all and too many saves to remember, except one. "Bolton v Burnley. A long kick went over my head, I was fooled by the bounce. So I turned and bicycle-kicked it off the line. All I can remember is the look on the faces of the people in the crowd."

When Wigan gave him a free transfer a couple of years ago, Felgate finally became disillusioned. "I'd been in the game 19 years, knew all the tricks and suddenly I fell out of love with it." A friend at Winsford persuaded him to go training again, Leigh stepped in with a tempting offer and Felgate is enjoying a final twitch. "Someone like Dave Beasant is a good yardstick for me. He's still playing in the Premier League and he's nearly 40. The crosses look a bit further away these days and on Sunday mornings I walk like Robocop, but if I ever thought I couldn't play to my best, I'd pack it in."

He fancies one last shot at the big time, against an expensively assembled Fulham forward line. "I thought days like this had passed me by." Too late to make a name for himself. But not for Leigh RMI, who hope to take 1,500 supporters with them on the day trip. pounds 20 all-in, now that Asda have sponsored the coaches. "With luck, some might come and watch us every home game," says Healey. Giant-killing would be a readily identifiable trade, even in the land of rugby league.