Football: Cottam a force in the Met's arresting progress: Clive White on the former professional giving the police side a strong FA Cup case

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The Independent Online
THEIR claim to fame in the FA Cup has never really gone beyond the man on the white horse but, 70 years on, the Old Bill are poised to give another heroic performance, this time on the field of play, when the Metropolitan Police take on Crawley in the first round proper on Saturday.

Of those non-League sides left in the Cup, the Diadora League Second Division side are, figuratively speaking of course, one of the lowest. Their arrival at the first-round stage has been trumpeted twice before, in 1932 and 1984, and both times it ended in defeat, resoundingly so in '32, 9-0 at Northampton.

Third time lucky? 'Why not?' the secretary Derek Alldridge said, though he conceded they may have used up their allocation of good fortune in the preliminary round - the very first step on the road to Wembley - which they scraped through by beating 10-man opposition after a replay.

Subsequent victories over Margate and Kingstonian have bolstered the confidence of a Met team unbeaten since September. 'Individually, we're bloody awful,' Alldridge said. 'But I've never seen our team play with such commitment and endeavour. That's what's winning us matches. Ever since John Cottam took over as coach 18 months ago we've looked a lot more professional.'

That would be because Sgt John Cottam, who is stationed at Fulham, was a professional for nearly 20 years, 10 of them at Nottingham Forest where, as a central defender, he served under five managers culminating in the incomparable Brian Clough, before moving on to Chesterfield, Chester, where he played alongside Ian Rush, and Scarborough.

'Whatever people say about Cloughie, I always had a great rapport with him. I've got nothing but admiration for the fellow, I'm just sad that it finished like it did for him. I've always been made welcome when I've gone back and he's made a real fuss of me since I joined the force. I haven't forgotten, either, that before I decided to leave he offered me a new contract even though I had damaged my knee ligaments.'

Cottam looks back on his former career with fond memories, not the least of them in the FA Cup. He was a member of the Forest team who beat Manchester City, Bell, Lee, Law and all, 4-1 before a crowd of more than 40,000 at the City Ground in 1974. They then went out in the sixth round to Newcastle in a second replay of a tie originally declared void because of a pitch invasion at St James' Park. He also reached the fifth round with Chester, who were then in the Third Division.

The flip side to all that was the sack as player-manager of non-League Scarborough following a fourth qualifying round defeat at Tow Law Town. It finally persuaded him to seek job security with the police force. 'I wish I was still in football, though. It's a great lifestyle if you're as lucky with injuries as I was.'

When you have experienced the delight of scoring against Manchester United before 40,000 people at Old Trafford ('I was off and running. I think they eventually caught up with me somewhere down the East Lancs Road') it must be difficult to get excited, let alone be patient, watching Plod do his stuff before one man and his dog at Imber Court. A fair kop they neither have nor need with financial support from a lucrative lottery and 'very, very generous' sponsorship from McDonalds.

'When you've been in the game as long as I have you see things that other people don't see. It's like police work, a more experienced officer will read certain situations better than me. I used to come home and moan and my wife would say, 'Well, they're policemen first and foremost'. So now when they do something wrong the manager Colin Rose nudges me and says, 'Remember what your wife says'.'

Yet the Met have a bit of class about them: the right-back Paul Towler, who has already got to Wembley as a schoolboy international, attended the FA's school of excellence when on Watford's books and the centre-back Paul Carruth won a Scottish schoolboy cap. Up front, Mario Russo has a formidable strike-rate.

This particular team of officers have a reputation for taking no prisoners. Their disciplinary record is not what it should be, as a sending off last Saturday confirmed. 'I don't think we'll win the fair play league, let's put it that way,' Cottam said. Alldridge put it another way: 'There are times when they embarrass us really.'

Cottam still thinks they are capable of doing a good piece of public relations for the police and the top brass would seem to agree, giving them three days' special leave to prepare for a match which has attracted the cameras of BSkyB. 'We hope for a crowd of 1,000,' Alldridge said. PC George Scorey and his white horse Billy could have handled that little lot blindfold.