Football: Ford on drive to deflate Preston

FA Cup first round: Rymans League amateurs prepare to reap rewards of playing at Deepdale
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IF DENNIS ELLIOTT, the manager of Ford United, was not already aware of the magnitude of his team's achievement in reaching the first round of the FA Cup, he became so at around five o'clock on Tuesday evening. "We went up to Preston for their game against Millwall and checked on the hotel where we're staying on Friday night," he said, "making sure they've got no mini-bars and the players can't get alcohol with room service, that sort of thing.

"Preston invited us down to the ground before the match and showed us around. As soon as I walked on to the pitch, the whole stadium just lit up. You see the two pictures of Bill Shankly and Tom Finney on the seats and, er... I'm not a nervous person normally, I'm very laid back, but my knees started to wobble a bit."

Some of the gloss might have been knocked off the oldest Cup competition in the world in recent seasons, but nowhere will the reason for its enduring appeal be more apparent than at Deepdale today. Preston North End, winners in 1889 and 1938, against a team who just three years ago were at the very bottom of the non-League pyramid and in danger of dropping out of the Essex Senior League.

Ford have taken a step up into the Rymans League since then but, put in perspective, today's game is between a side from the third tier of English football and one from the ninth. Preston's players are full-time professionals, Ford's players are amateurs: their captain, Reg Gardner, is a postman; their chairman, Jim Chapman, is also their goalkeeper.

Although they still bear the name, and still play at the Ford Sports and Social Club ground near the car plant in Dagenham, it has been years since the club could offer jobs with the motor company as an inducement to prospective players. Their most famous recruit, Les Allen - father of Clive and later a member of Queen's Park Rangers' 1967 League Cup-winning side - played in the team then known as Brigg Sports that lost 2-1 to Bishop Auckland in front of 54,000 at St James' Park in the semi-finals of the 1954 Amateur Cup.

Nowadays, despite an pounds 80,000 handout from Ford for ground improvements, in order to stave off closure the club relies on the goodwill of sponsors that include Sky, thanks to the television company's own sponsorship deal for Monday night football with Ford.

Only one of the current team is a Ford worker (Eddie Carrick, sadly suspended along with Jimmy Prue for today's game), and even Chapman's appointment has broken with the tradition of the chairman coming from within the ranks of the Ford payroll, a position held until recently by John Rowe who first joined the club as a player in 1959.

Rowe, along with another longtime servant of the club, George Adams, is chief executive now while Chapman, a 30-year-old senior trader for stockbrokers Merrill Lynch, keeps goal and keeps an eye on the cash flow. "Three years ago we had a good season but the money ran out with two or three months to go," he said, explaining how he has become the first goalkeeper- chairman in the competition's history.

"I said to Dennis, instead of the season falling apart and everyone going their separate ways I didn't mind sticking a few quid in till the end of the season. The players appreciated it and it didn't cost me an awful lot - to me it was a hobby and I just wanted to keep it going.

"I stuck another few quid up at the start of the next season, our first in the Rymans League, and then Dennis said he thought the way the club was run should change and asked if I would back him up. I said `of course', and he rang me two or three days later and said, `You're chairman'.

"All the people who were there before are still there and work really hard for the club, it's just that they're not in a personal position to put any money into it. I leave the chatting-to-the-chairman bit to George and John - I'd rather go and have a drink with the players after a game. But I'm concerned with finding ways for me not to have to dip my hand in my pocket, coming up with ideas and trying to make sure the club, eventually, is self-sufficient.

"People like Sky are not going to sponsor us forever and I can put in as much money as I like but that's not curing the problem. The money that comes in from this Cup run, we could easily smash it up and say to the players, `Well done, there's a grand', but we've had a meeting and decided that we really do want to put it back into Ford United."

As far as the game itself is concerned, Chapman casts off the suit and tie and dons his goalkeeping gloves: "We might be nervous, but we're not under any pressure," he said. "Playing Lowestoft in the last round was massive pressure because you're playing a team of similar ability for the reward of a big day out. And we did it, we handled the pressure really well. Preston might whack us six or seven-nil, but no one expects us to get a result.

"It's a big day for us and we feel privileged to go there - these opportunities are once in a lifetime for some people - but when it comes to five to three I'll just be trying to get the nerves out of my system. The respect will always be there but, when it comes to the 90 minutes, our players won't give Preston any more respect than if we were playing Clapton, or Dagenham and Redbridge. We want to get a result." And with ambition like that, who needs money?

FORD UNITED'S WEMBLEY DREAMERS

Jim Chapman: 30, goalkeeper, stockbroker, club chairman.

Terry Beck: 32, sweeper or centre-half, fire protection officer.

Ben Willis: 22, central defender, works for Barking Council.

Lee "Arthur" Fowler: 24, right-back, salesman (Conference experience with Dagenham).

Jay Devereux: 25, left-back, works for Barking Council (Conference experience with Dagenham).

Reg Gardner: 32, midfield strongman, captain, postman.

Mark Lord: 30, midfield playmaker, carpenter.

Steve Munday: 31, midfield maestro, window fitter.

"Dangerous" Dave Riley: 25, midfield dynamo, maintenance man.

Geoff Wood: 34, striker (99 goals in past two seasons), civil servant.

Lee "Poo" Parish: 28, striker, "does something mucky with concrete".

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