Football: Flynn drives the little big men

For David v Goliath, read Wrexham v Middlesbrough, Hereford v Leicester and Villa v the AXA boys
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The Independent Online
BRYAN ROBSON and his men might just have plundered the tomb of an Egyptian king and stumbled across the dreaded curse inscribed on a sarcophagus as the FA Cup third-round draw was made. You can sense the shiver as the former England captain heard the dreaded words: "And number 58... Wrexham... will play number 23... Middlesbrough." A visit to the Racecourse Ground is about as enthralling as being visited by a plague of killer scarabs. It is the FA Cup pairing no Premiership club want to hear.

In the last quarter-century Southampton (1974), Sunderland (1977), Newcastle (1978), Arsenal (1992) and West Ham (1997) have all been tormented by that particular FA coupling, all clubs in the top division at the time who have been humiliated by the men from North Wales. Brian Flynn, who engineered the last two, is too rational a character to believe that his side can depend on the power of legend alone, but even the Wrexham manager has to concede: "If our reputation gives us a small advantage we'll take it. It's something we've worked hard for, and those before us.

"Three times we've reached quarter-finals. The first was in 1974 when we beat Middlesbrough [then Second Division] 1-0, before going out to [then First Division] Burnley. Middlesbrough people may remember it, because we certainly do."

For the next few days, Goliath-felling speculation will temporarily replace the national pastime of Lord Archer-crushing as the search is on again for Davids to sling-shot their way into the national consciousness. It is certain to bring Flynn's team into sharp focus once more. Victory on Saturday is possibly one of the few occasions when the dragon-slaying St George - in the form of Robson - would receive national acclaim.

Wrexham 2, Arsenal 1 was a real shaker on the Richter Scale of Cup feats because it was a confrontation between a team bottom of the old Fourth Division the previous season versus the champions. Yet, partly because of the deeds of the nomadic Mickey Thomas and company that day, and the more recent defeat of West Ham at Upton Park in 1997, there would probably be no more than a quizzical eyebrow if Flynn's 1999 contemporaries succeeded in eclipsing Premiership opposition once again.

Flynn's dressing-room address this time will not differ greatly from seven years ago. "I just said to the lads, 'The unexpected can happen'," recalls the former Wales captain and Burnley and Leeds midfielder who recently celebrated a decade as manager of Wrexham, together with assistant Kevin Reeves. Coach Joey Jones is the other member of the Anglo-Welsh international triumvirate.

"They didn't even have an off-day. In the first half, we just couldn't get the ball off them and Paul Merson, who was unbelievable, scored just before half-time. But they didn't step it up. They obviously thought 'We can defend this, no problem'. We stayed in the game, but it took something exceptional to equalise, but then it usually does. There was a foul on Gordon Davies by David O'Leary, which was debatable. They lined up a wall, with the England goalkeeper behind and that ball could only go in one place, the top corner. Mickey Thomas took it, even though I wouldn't normally let him have free-kicks. It went straight into that top corner. At that time, we would have been happy with a replay. To go back to Highbury. More money, you see."

But two minutes later Steve Watkin scored the winner and the rest is an integral part of FA Cup folklore. As Reeves interjects: "The look of disbelief on supporters' faces, that was the thing that stuck in my mind." Wrexham are now a division higher. Yet the chasm may have broadened.

Increasingly, it is becoming difficult to discern that the two clubs are part of the same industry. Today, the Davids survive by the footballing equivalent of sleeping rough and selling the Big Issue, to be precise by cashing in on the young players they have nurtured, while many of the Goliaths have become another branch of big business. The contrast is stark, as reflected by respective turnovers of around pounds 19m and pounds 1.9m, and when Juninho, Paul Ince, Brian Deane and Gianluca Festa are compared with Flynn's collection of free transfers and players developed by Wrexham's youth policy. "Even in our league there's a division between the haves and have- nots," insists Flynn, whose most expensive player is the centre-half Brian Carey, at pounds 100,000.

Fortunately, the locality resembles a stud farm for thoroughbred footballers. Flynn takes great pride in those who have passed through, including Spurs' Chris Armstrong, Lee Jones who went to Liverpool, and Brian Hughes at Birmingham. "I've got two brothers now who've got a hell of a chance, Stephen and Neil Roberts. They live a mile from the ground."

One asset Wrexham can boast is Darren Ferguson, son of Sir Alex, who is an influential midfielder. The former Manchester United and Wolves player, who has also performed for the Dutch side Sparta, has yet to sign a contract with the Welsh club. "His passing ability is excellent and he can tackle, particularly when he gets a bit angry. Like his dad, he wants to win all the time. He doesn't live off his father and he could easily. He's his own man."

Still only 43 and 42 respectively, Flynn and Reeves - who made two appearances for England and achieved distinction as the country's third pounds 1m transfer, after Trevor Francis and Steve Daley - retain lofty aspirations. The former is taking a Professional Diploma Course, which will give him a licence to coach throughout Europe. "Oh, I'm ambitious, yes," says Flynn. "I want to manage a bigger club. It sometimes frustrates us, because we know we could manage in the Premiership. We've all played at the highest level and after 10 years we know how to do things.

"The problem is that some PLCs believe that only certain managers can attract a type of player, which I think is wrong. Would Brian Flynn, in the Premiership, be able to attract Juninho? I think he probably could."

Flynn's image as a cerebral manager, who does not court controversy, could conspire against him, but victory in six days' time might reinforce his claims. "I've watched Middlesbrough myself," says Flynn, who is young enough to have played at Doncaster with a callow 18-year-old named Brian Deane. "They've got quality all-round, but we've got a game plan to beat them. Nine times out of 10 they'd win, of course. But this could be the 10th."

It is appropriate that one of his actor namesake Errol's best- known roles was Robin Hood. If there is one thing Flynn the manager relishes it is robbing the rich. Flynn's men will ensure Boro will be all a-quiver.