Football: Full steam ahead at Leigh

The FA Cup draw has produced a classic David v Goliath tie that has Leigh RMI buzzing. Guy Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE many splendid names in football, Billingham Synthonia being a personal favou-rite, but few are more redolent of football's past than Leigh RMI. It is not the Leigh that attracts (indeed, many people in Lancashire find that most offensive) but the initials which stand for Railway Mechanics' Institute. You can almost hear the steam hiss.

Professional football and the iron horse went hand in hand in the 19th century and it was the giants of the industry who formed the first teams, including Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, who you might know as Manchester United. RMI were their equals then, a branch line of the same company 20 miles away. A slight distance has opened between them since.

That was RMI's big time, and they have only hinted at a revisit subsequently. Two trips to the FA Cup's first round when the initials were prefaced with the name of their original home town, Horwich, and a few trophies acquired in the minor leagues of the north-west but, their evocative name apart, they have been largely anonymous.

Until Sunday, that is, when the UniBond League Premier Division side face Kevin Keegan's Fulham, Mohammed Al Fayed's millions and all, in the first round of the FA Cup. At this stage it is the closest you are going to get to the David versus Goliath contests that sustain the competition.

"It's frightening," Steve Waywell, the manager who will be the equal of Keegan for the only time of his life, said. "But nice because it gives our lads a chance to play against internationals. They're in the Second Division but if they were in the First they'd be pushing for the Premiership. I know that for a fact. We're going to have to be on our game just to live with them."

Waywell, 47, was a professional footballer himself, but was one of only two members of the Burnley Youth Cup-winning team of the 1960s not to make it to the first XI. His team-mate, Dave Thomas, went on to play for England; disillusioned, he declined a chance of a trial with Halifax Town and joined the non-League ranks.

He played for Darwen, Rossen-dale, Stalybridge, Hyde, and Horwich (playing against Blackpool when they last reached the Cup's first round) and returned to manage the club in the last game of the 1995-96 season. Since then he has overseen one promotion and last year the club only just missed out on another rise in status to the GM Vauxhall Conference.

The success has partly soothed bruised opinion which resented RMI leaving Horwich to become Leigh in 1994. The move was seen as a betrayal at the time, even though they were buying out the Rugby League club rather than moving in as tenants, and only recently have crowds risen again to around 350. The Cup run seems to have broken the last remnants of resistance and around 2,000 supporters will travel to Craven Cottage on Sunday.

"The club is buzzing," Waywell said. "We've had Sky, Granada, the BBC, everybody at the ground. Everyone wants to be involved with us. I only hope we do ourselves justice because at the back of your mind you always fear you're going to get a trouncing. I'll be happy if we play to our capabilities.

"Manchester City went, Preston went, Burnley, Oldham, and I thought: `There's only Runcorn left', which would have been a disaster for us. I thought the draw was still done on a regional basis so it was a shock when we got Fulham. Apart from City, it's the best we could get."

No-one knows how much Leigh will make from the tie, but pounds 30,000 is a fair estimate which, for a club whose record transfer is less than a seventh of that, is a windfall comparable to millions at Old Trafford.

As a consequence they will travel down on Saturday in the full-time manner. "We're doing it right because it could mean the difference of two goals on Sunday," Waywell said. "When we were at Blackpool it was `get on the coach, get changed and play'. If we'd prepared better we might have got a result. The score flattered them because it was 0-0 for more than hour until tiredness got hold of us and we lost 3-0.

"People are looking at the Fulham game and saying `it's your Cup final, it's a holiday' but we can't think like that. We have to be professional. Then the players will have no excuses."

Waywell was a great admirer of Newcastle United in the Messiah period and is excited he will be meeting the Fulham manager. "I can't compare myself with Kevin Keegan, can I? He's been European Footballer of the year, an England international and manager of New- castle. I can't say I'm pitting my wits against him, because we're so different. People tell me he's a smashing bloke and he's invited us out while we're down there."

A date with Keegan and fashionable west London. For RMI, read VIP this Sunday.