Football: Bury enjoy the party mood

The financially impaired First Division club are celebrating even before tonight's Old Trafford visit.
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The Independent Online
AS THE Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters baited the opposition coach as it arrived at Molineux last month they were surprised by the reaction. No anxious determination to look elsewhere, no cheeky grins back, no sense of sanity for that matter.

Instead the Bury party appeared to be having just that - a party. The manager, Neil Warnock, was locked in a bearhug with the chairman, Terry Robinson, while the players were thumping the air with delight. So much for the intimidation factor.

Before the West Midlanders enroll en masse for self-assertion training, however, they ought to know that they had intruded on a special moment for Bury AFC. Almost permanently broke, the wolves as well as the Wolves had just been kept from the door by the draw for the Worthington Cup third round.

When you are trying to thrive in the First Division on gates as low as 3,400 (for last week's game against Oxford) then a lucrative pairing in cup competitions is not only desirable but essential, and Bury had got the best in terms of finance: Manchester United at Old Trafford.

"It put 12 months on my life," Robinson said in anticipation of the pounds 500,000 they will make. "No one will ever know how much this match will mean to Bury. It's just marvellous, it means financial stability for a club like ours.

"When I heard all the other so-called smaller clubs getting good matches I kept thinking we'd miss out, then we got the best draw of the lot. I had a dream the night before that we'd get United and it came true."

Tonight's match pits near neighbours - 12 miles lie between Old Trafford and Gigg Lane - but there will not be the usual animosity that is provoked by such proximity. The clubs are close both geographically and psychologically and if United were allowed to look for junior partners to groom youngsters in the Nationwide League they would almost certainly choose Bury.

United's reserve and youth matches have been staged at Gigg Lane for years and even if that was just a contract of convenience - earning cash for one club, saving the pitch of the other - there are blood ties to bind tonight's protagonists.

Gary and Phil Neville were born in Bury and alternated their support between their local club and United before moving to Old Trafford for their playing careers. There are two other reasons for them to feel at home at Gigg Lane: their father and agent, Neville Neville, is the commercial manager, while their mother, Jill Neville, is the club secretary.

Not surprisingly the Nevilles at both clubs have had their loyalties questioned since. "Nev will just have to support Bury when we attack and United when they do," Robinson said of Neville Snr. The United players, meanwhile, have said they will not pass to either Gary or Phil tonight if the score is close in the final minutes.

Of course, neither Neville may play because Alex Ferguson tends to field United's reserve players in the Worthington Cup - although you suspect there will be some arm twisting for at least a cameo appearance.

"I just hope we get 55,000 people at Old Trafford so that Bury can put some cash in the bank," Phil said. "I couldn't believe the draw when I heard it. I was driving to Macclesfield to watch my friend, Grant Brebner, play for Reading when it came on the radio and I have to admit it brought a smile to my face."

Brother Gary has spent the last three weeks inundated by requests from friends for tickets. "I know it's going to be a difficult game, because I've watched Bury a lot of times," he said. "They have a set of players who have an amazing work-rate and I'm not sure they would have got anywhere near where they are without it."

Bury, whose brushes with fame were almost a hundred years ago with FA Cup victories in 1900 and 1903, have played United twice in recent times, losing 2-1 in the Littlewoods Cup 11 seasons ago and 2-0 in the FA Cup in 1993.

Only Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin remain at Old Trafford from the United team that played Bury five years ago. While the United players' memories of that season are likely to focus more on the club's first championship in 26 years than on a routine third-round FA Cup-tie, the images are still sharp for Bury's Nick Daws, who was the man of the match.

"We must have had eight corners against us in the first 10 minutes," he said. "It was like the Alamo. We were in the bottom Division then and I was still on a part-time contract as I'd just joined Bury, so you can imagine what it was like to play against Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona.

"I've a video of the game which I watch now and then and I know we defended very well. They got an early goal and then Keith Gillespie, who was making his debut, got another."

Fast forwarding to tonight, Daws added: "We have nothing to lose and there's no point going for a 0-0 draw, so we'll have a go at them. United will know all about us because we only live down the road. They won't take us lightly."

United probably will not do so but, as York and Ipswich have discovered to their profit in the League Cup in recent seasons, Alex Ferguson's team can have their eyes on greater prizes, domestically and in Europe. So Bury just might be celebrating on the coach again tonight.