Football: FA Cup Fifth Round: Roaring Twenties inspire Cardiff: Echoes of a famous Wembley victory are sustaining a side deprived of their Cup talisman. Peter Corrigan reports

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The Independent Online
AN EXTRA portion of whatever galvanises giant-killers will be required to repair the damage suffered by Cardiff City in their sudden loss of Nathan Blake, the 22-year-old match-winner whose goals have delivered them to today's fifth-round tie against Luton Town at Ninian Park.

Had he been snatched from the team by a training injury, or even knocked down by a truck, the calamity could have been stoically borne. But for his fellow players and their supporters to see him purchased from their midst as they prepared for the club's most important game for 25 years was to experience one of the more brutal manifestations of the economic priorities that rule football at all but the top levels.

Those priorities reach even higher than the modest rung occupied by Cardiff in the Second Division. Ten days ago First Division Oxford United, conquerors of Leeds United in the fourth round, were deprived of a goalscorer, Jim Magilton, when he was sold to Southampton for pounds 600,000. The essence of the FA Cup is threatened if giant-killers are to be beaten not by the giants but by unexpected visits from the bailiffs.

At least Oxford had more than a week to recover from the shock before yesterday's visit of Chelsea. Blake's departure to Sheffield United has happened with numbing swiftness in the last 48 hours. Cardiff's chairman, Rick Wright, who many were swift to blame, and their manager, Eddie May, both stoutly insisted that their squad was not a one-man band and that the return from injury of the crowd's favourite attacker, Carl Dale, would offset the loss.

Anyone who saw the quality of Blake's winning goal against Manchester City in the last round, however, would have to agree that Luton have one large fear less to carry on to the pitch this afternoon. And although the goal with which Blake edged Cardiff through the previous round against Middlesbrough was probably the untidiest this season, that, too, carried an important omen.

Students of the FA Cup will know that its host nation called it the English Cup for the first 55 years of its life. Then Cardiff beat Arsenal to win it in 1927 and with the briefest of blushes the oldest football competition in the world was hurriedly renamed the FA Challenge Cup. Cardiff have not had a decent FA Cup run since. Indeed, if they beat Luton today, it will be the first time they have reached the sixth round in the 67 years that separate the club from their finest hour.

A few lively and successful spells in the League and some notable heroics in the European Cup-Winners' Cup have kept boredom at bay, but that solitary interruption of England's domination of its own trophy is still Cardiff's only claim to lasting fame; so much so that when a group of supporters exiled in London decided a few years ago to band together they called themselves the 1927 Club.

It is a tribute to Cardiff's recent progress that in just over three years the 1927 Club has grown from 30 to 175 members in London and the South-east and this weekend their title carries a little less of a forlorn echo. The club - well connected, with their secretary, Sue Ball, working at the FA headquarters in Lancaster Gate and their social secretary, Chris Howells, at the Home Office - have taken heart from a touch of deja vu that occurred when Blake hit an innocuous shot during extra-time at Middlesbrough which the goalkeeper Stephen Pears allowed to slip from his grasp and over the line.

As every 1927 Club member knows, it was a shot of no particular virtue from Hughie Ferguson that rolled off the jersey and over the forearm of Arsenal's Welsh goalkeeper, Dan Lewis, which took the Cup out of England. Even the loss of Blake as the talisman has not convinced them that Cardiff's roll is over yet.

Neither would anyone who has caught wind of Wright's tenure as chairman be surprised at any outcome. Since Blake was out of contract, Wright could do nothing about his decision to move to Sheffield, but the star player's departure is only the latest in a long line of twists in Cardiff's fortunes since the chairman's arrival three years ago. Even that was a shock. He stepped in when the club was 48 hours from a winding-up order and survival did not look possible.

Wright had no football background and no local allegiance either. He comes from Manchester but three years previously had bought the large and unprofitable Butlin's holiday camp at Barry Island. He immediately cut the price of a holiday in half and began packing the place. He brought that marketing philosophy to Cardiff City. Cutting admission prices, letting mothers and children in free, he has built a large following and rewarded them with promotion as Third Division champions last year. He had taken the precaution of insuring the club against that eventuality and picked up pounds 1.4m. Even the deal that took Blake away contained an eccentric gamble. Sheffield United paid pounds 300,000 and will pay a further pounds 200,000 only if Blake helps them avoid relegation.

Totally unorthodox, Wright has been criticised for many things, not least for the prices being charged today, but he also introduced for the first time a sliding scale of admission fees depending on where the team are in the division. They are fifth from bottom at the moment so the cheapest price is pounds 6. If they were in the top three it would be pounds 10.

He has been trying to get someone else to take over the club. 'I am a barrier now because I can do no more. Someone else has to provide the resources for the next leap. I've proved the potential - we can get bigger crowds than Blackburn Rovers. David Sullivan almost came here instead of going to Birmingham. This is his home city. He chose Birmingham because they were nearer the Premiership. I said I'd see him in the Second Division,' Wright said.

He might not because Wright still believes that Cardiff can win promotion via the play- offs. 'But we'll worry about that after we've beaten Luton,' he said. Another goalkeeper afflicted by dropsy would help.

(Photograph omitted)

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