Football / FA Cup First Round - Commentary: Shilton, the reluctant fall guy, upsets the pundits

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ACROSS the Thames from Bisham Abbey, where Graham Taylor was preparing for his own assignation with an assortment of butchers, bakers and computer operators, England's most-capped player peered into the global wetting which engulfed Marlow and pondered his future.

Peter Shilton was little more than a wind-assisted goalkick from the place where he honed his reflexes before so many of his 125 international appearances. In football terms, however, the Alfred Davis Memorial Ground in the Buckinghamshire commuter belt was a million miles from the stylish Renato Dall'Ara stadium in Bologna where England meet San Marino on Wednesday.

So it took considerable confidence - some might say nerve - for Shilton to use the shelter of its 250-seat stand as the platform for declaring his desire eventually to manage the national team. Realistically, his Plymouth Argyle side, who had just consigned Marlow's FA Cup hopes to a watery grave for another year after a slightly flattering 2-0 win, have more chance of winning the trophy than Shilton has of achieving his ambition.

His otherwise typically phlegmatic mood may have masked a certain sense of relief. Shilton has been around long enough to know that the reason Match of the Day and a sizeable press contingent were out in force was the Ski Sunday syndrome; the prospect of seeing him take a spectacular fall on non- League turf.

Speculation about the fractious nature of Shilton's relationship with the Plymouth chairman, Dan McCauley, had given them hope that a serious stumble might be followed by a push from the boardroom, so it was not only the home fans who filed out into a filthy evening feeling unfulfilled.

Even in victory - which in the light of first-round successes against full-time opposition by Sutton, Bromsgrove and Macclesfield took on the sheen of a canter it never was - McCauley was hardly gushing with praise for his player- manager.

Asked how things were between him and Shilton, he replied with a terse but possibly telling: 'No comment.' Better or worse? 'Worse.'

Shilton, for his part, felt he was gradually coming to terms with his new trade but admitted he had experienced difficulties in combining roles during the past 18 months. 'If you want to go and watch a player, you've got seven or eight hours travelling and then you have to be up for training the next morning,' he said.

'You get past Bristol and see the sign saying 'Exeter 73 miles' and think you're nearly home. A lot of people questioned my wisdom in going to Plymouth - the club were on a bad run, and it is a bit way out, but they're a sleeping giant. The fans will come and support us and the facilities are good enough for the Premiership.'

At the age of 44, Shilton is five League appearances short of the 1,000 mark, though he jokes that he is 'still available for selection'. Since he clearly wants the record before he follows David Gower into retirement, the present incumbent, 20-year old Alan Nicholls, is going to have to maintain the level of excellence with which he frustrated Marlow.

Before the match, in a nearby hostelry with the engaging name of The Marlow Donkey, dozens of Plymouth supporters had roared heartily as Football Focus pored over Shilton's most infamous misfortune - his dive over the ball which gifted Poland their goal on a fateful night at Wembley two decades ago. For a time, particularly in the 20 minutes after the interval, it looked as if it might prove their biggest cheer of the afternoon.

Tim Buzaglo, so overwhelmed by the publicity which followed his hat-trick for Woking at West Bromwich three seasons earlier that he publicly hoped someone else might score Marlow's winner, came within inches of reviving his fame with a curling shot which would have had few rivals for goal of the round.

Buzaglophobia was seldom a factor except on that occasion, but Nicholls had to save athletically from Garfield Blackman and Trevor Baron was twice desperately close to the opening goal. While Argyle's inspiration was the former Ipswich veteran Steve McCall and their better chances fell almost exclusively to Steve Castle, it may have strengthened Shilton's position that his record signing, Paul Dalton, finally collected the goals which finished off the 1882 semi-finalists.

Paradoxically, Marlow are now free to concentrate on Wembley - they visit the team of that name in the Diadora League Cup tomorrow night. As for Plymouth, memories of their own run to the last four, a mere 10 seasons ago, remain vivid. For the moment, though, they must bask in the reflected glory of Shilton's reputation as he, in turn, continues his apprenticeship in the Second Division and hopes for an improbable call from over the river.

Goals: Dalton (64) 0-1; Dalton (90) 0-2.

Marlow (4-4-2): K Mitchell; S Mitchell, Baron, Ferguson, Holmes; Regan (Malins, 76), Lay, Catlin (Dell h/t), Watkins; Buzaglo, Blackman. Substitute not used: Lester (gk).

Plymouth Argyle (4-4-2): Nicholls; Patterson, Burrows, Comyn, Naylor; Burnett, Castle, McCall, Skinner (Marshall, h/t); Nugent; Dalton. Substitutes not used: Edworthy, Newland (gk).

Referee: M J Brandwood (Lichfield).