Football: Hednesford uphold finest traditions

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By the time the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup takes place tomorrow, some clubs could still be stuck in the third round whereas others should know who stands between them and the quarter-finals. As an American pundit said about the Vietnam war, if you're not confused then you don't really understand what's going on.

Two twice-postponed matches from the third round finally take place today, as well as three replays. The fourth round also gets underway, although several ties must wait a further 10 days. If any of the delayed games are drawn, replays cannot be staged until the middle of next month. Weather, of course, permitting.

While the eventual winners are more likely to come from one of the weekend's four all-Premiership ties, in which six of the top seven are embroiled, the romance resides elsewhere. Despite the financial imperatives that forced Hednesford to forfeit home advantage against Middlesbrough, it remains a culture clash in the Cup's finest traditions.

To say that the clubs are separated by 79 places tells only half the story. Hednesford's squad cost all of pounds 25,000, less than Fabrizio Ravanelli's weekly take-home pay, and they hit the Wembley trail before a "crowd" of 486 at Wednesfield on a September day when Boro were winning in front of a full house at Everton.

The Vauxhall Conference hopefuls boast the time-honoured mix of decorators and accountants. Boro's line-up bristles with foreign stars, with the latest capture, Gianluca Festa, costing pounds 2.7m from Internazionale.

The scouting trip to Staffordshire was undertaken by Bryan Robson himself. In contrast, the part-timers will rely on a report by a council traffic engineer, Steve Griffiths. Boro's 26 goals in six cup games suggest the traffic will be one-way, but history offers hope to both Hednesford and Woking, who face an equally arduous task away to a Coventry side 81 rungs above them.

Six non-League clubs have put out opponents from the top flight, as Coventry, humbled at Sutton United in 1989, do not need reminding. Two managed it away from home: Altrincham, at Birmingham in 1986, and Wimbledon, then of the Southern League, against Burnley 11 years earlier.

All the more remarkable, then, that the latterday Dons go to Old Trafford with realistic hopes of upsetting Manchester United, the holders. United, striving to reach a record fourth successive final, are plagued by injuries which Wimbledon are better equipped than most to exploit.

Alex Ferguson has to pair Gary Pallister with Chris Casper, whose father Frank was on Burnley's books that fateful day in 1975. The 21-year-old, yet to start a Premiership game, faces a baptism of fire-power against Marcus Gayle and either Efan Ekoku or Dean Holdsworth.

In the same position, if at the opposite end of the age spectrum, one of Ferguson's former betes noires is also in for an interesting time. Four months after leaving Aston Villa, Paul McGrath tackles them in Derby's colours. The 37-year-old McGrath may have to tame Dwight Yorke - who "worships him", according to Villa's manager, Brian Little - if the tie is not to be the Baseball Ground's last.

While Villa have not won the Cup since 1957, their 40 years of hurt is nothing compared with Derby's wait, which is now into its 51st year although they did overcome today's visitors en route to the 1946 triumph.

Precedent also gives Chelsea encouragement for tomorrow's heavyweight collision with Liverpool. Three of the four ties over the past three decades went their way, as did the League fixture on New Year's Day. With both Gianfranco Zola and Steve McManaman likely to be man-marked, a single goal could once more prove decisive.

The Premiership's newest managers, Kenny Dalglish and Stuart Pearce, tangle on Tyneside. Kevin Keegan and Frank Clark led Newcastle and Nottingham Forest respectively when they met last month, the game producing the Magpies' only 0-0 draw in some 80 matches. For all Forest's improvement under Pearce, it is hard to see them enforcing a similar stalemate.

Defeat today would intensify the pressure on two other managers. Joe Royle's Everton have endured five consecutive losses, and with a visit to Newcastle looming on Wednesday the 1995 winners cannot allow Bradford City to leave unbeaten, as Stockport, Port Vale and York have in the past 12 months.

Everton may point to five finals in 12 years but they have found the fifth round beyond them in four of the past five. Nerve-ends will be jangling whenever Chris Waddle takes possession in the early stages.

The heat is also on Harry Redknapp as West Ham - one win in 13 - resume hostilities with Wrexham for the dubious privilege of travelling to Peterborough. Meanwhile, Sheffield Wednesday, beaten at Charlton last year, have another hiding-to-nothing tie at the Third Division form team, Carlisle.