Football: FA Cup - Diamond day for dreamers

Leeds should survive tough Nene Park test, but Everton look vulnerable at Bristol City
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The Independent Online
WHEN EVEN a hard-nosed old cynic like George Graham bemoans the devaluation of the FA Cup, complaining that certain clubs treat it less seriously than Europe, you know it is time the world's first and finest knock-out competition reasserted its capacity to conjure romance in the least propitious circumstances.

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the last time a non-League club eliminated opponents from the top flight, when Coventry City were goosed at Gander Green Lane by a bricklayer's goal for Sutton United. Responsibility for building on the list of six such shocks rests today with a club who are laying the foundations for something the part-timers of the past would scarcely have believed possible.

Rushden & Diamonds, where pounds 20m has been invested in the six and a half years since the Doc Martens footwear empire merged two non-League nonentities, are no ordinary Conference outfit. The XI confronting Leeds United, which will be coached by David O'Leary's former Arsenal room-mate Brian Talbot, will be comprised entirely of full-time players. And whereas Sutton stood just above the relegation zone, Rushden would be six points clear at the top if they won their games in hand.

Leeds' Premiership position, fifth, is exactly that held by Coventry in 1989; a coincidence to inspire Northamptonshire's dreamers. The depletion of O'Leary's defence by injury and suspension ought to encourage them further. However, the excellence of the set-up at Nene Park may work against Rushden. The pristine pitch and luxurious facilities are a far cry from the days when would-be giantkillers turned off the heating in the visitors' dressing-room and gave them lukewarm tea.

If the non-League game is to be represented in tomorrow's draw, it is more likely to be by the rougher diamonds. Southport, who will have the oldest combatant of the round in 42-year-old player-manager Paul Futcher, could prove a last resort for Leyton Orient, who have succumbed to Conference opponents in the last two seasons.

Yeovil go to Cardiff, the Third Division frontrunners, with a former Ninian Park hero and South Wales electrician, Carl Dale, sparking their attack. The Somerset club have a tradition to maintain: 50 years ago this month, under the player-managership of Alec Stock, they put out mighty Sunderland, stirring the Sunday People scribe to gush: "Hang out the flags! Ring the joybells! Let's go gay!"

Surprisingly, the biggest disparity is not the 90-team gap between Rushden and Leeds but the 91 that separate Aston Villa, the Premiership leaders, from Hull, bottom of the Third. The visitors would doubtless settle for a handsome contribution to their coffers and for going back to the struggle for League survival without confidence being further damaged by a heavy defeat, although Villa's record Cup win, 13-0 against Wednesbury Old Athletic in 1886, looks safe.

Only two Premiership clubs are certain to be missing from the fourth round. Middlesbrough return to Old Trafford, where they beat Manchester United 3-2 last month, hoping for lightning to strike twice but undermined by successive reverses. Blackburn pit their revival under Brian Kidd against Charlton, who can only hope that League form really does have no bearing on Cup fortune.

Arsenal face a potentially fraught start to their defence of the trophy at Preston on Monday, by which time at least one more of Arsene Wenger's Premiership counterparts is likely to be contemplating the dubious consolation of being able to "concentrate on the League". Walter Smith and injury- torn Everton, away to a reviving Bristol City, look particularly vulnerable.

Nor will Derby, even more disrupted by injuries and suspensions, relish their long haul to Plymouth, while Southampton receive Fulham knowing the Second Division leaders have already beaten them at The Dell this season in the Worthington Cup. Nottingham Forest, mired in the longest run in their history without a League win, also face a hiding-to-nothing tie, at home to Portsmouth.

Four of the players who brought the European Cup to Forest will be managerial foes at Leicester, where Martin O'Neill and John Robertson are for once unable to appropriate the psychological tag of underdogs against a Birmingham side under Trevor Francis' and Ian Bowyer. Former Manchester United team- mates will be on opposite benches at Coventry, where Gordon Strachan comes up against Macclesfield's Sammy McIlroy and Peter Davenport.

Nowhere does a winter's day chill the bones like Boundary Park, a wind- trap of a ground which could help Oldham's journeymen test the theory that Chelsea's glove-wearing foreigners may not like it up 'em, as Corporal Jones used to say. John Hollins' Swansea, unbeaten in the Third Division since October, would have fancied their chances against West Ham at the Vetch Field but may have to make do with dignified defeat and a lucrative pay-day at Upton Park.

Vale Park can be almost as unforgiving as Oldham when a gale drives in the rain, and John Rudge's reign at Port Vale has seen Tottenham, Everton, Derby and Southampton all blown out of the competition there. The Potteries stragglers - four points from the last 33 in the First Division and blighted by 'flu - will welcome any assistance from the elements against Liverpool, especially as Neil Brisco, 20, may have to make his debut with a plaster cast on a fractured hand.

But the Vale manager spoke for all those striving to emulate Sutton's feat, saying: "The Cup has a habit of throwing up unlikely heroes, so we're just hoping someone will rise to the occasion and make a name for himself."