Football: Ilkeston could set Rushden stiff test

DESPITE THE absence of Manchester United from tomorrow's draw, the third round of the FA Cup will still be a very special event for those little clubs lucky enough to find themselves on the same pitch as other giants of the English game.

The sort of political scheming in the meeting rooms of Old Trafford and Lancaster Gate that led to the withdrawal of the holders from this season's AXA-sponsored tournament will be forgotten this weekend. Instead, the stage belongs to the journeymen footballers of the lower divisions and the part-timers of the non-League fraternity.

One of today's second-round ties sees Ilkeston Town, of the Dr Martens League, entertain Rushden & Diamonds, of the Nationwide Conference, in an encounter which will guarantee that at least one non-League club reaches the third round.

Given the ease with which Rushden saw off Second Division Scunthorpe United in the first round, Ilkeston would surely have had a better chance of progress if they had been drawn against one of the Third Division's lesser lights. Nevertheless, most of a sell-out crowd at the New Manor Ground will be optimistic that the Nottinghamshire side can cause a shock and reach the third round for the first time in their history.

The Ilkeston manager, Keith Alexander, has assembled a squad packed with experience. Wayne Fairclough, Paul Raynor and Ian Helliwell enjoyed lengthy careers in the Football League, as did Devon White, who has played at Wembley for Bristol Rovers. Tony Hemmings has scored at the national stadium, for Macclesfield Town, in an FA Trophy final. If Brian Talbot's Rushden side let their standards slip, they could be the victims rather than the perpetrators of an upset.

After their victory at Chesterfield in the last round, Enfield will not lack confidence at another Second Division side, Preston North End. Neither will Enfield's Ryman League rivals, Aldershot Town, who travel to Exeter City.

The Shots will have to make do without their new striker Grant Payne, who scored four goals on his debut against Enfield last weekend, as he is Cup-tied. In seven-goal Gary Abbott, though, they have the highest scorer still involved in this season's tournament.

North End are not the only side from Preston playing in the second round. The UniBond League outfit Bamber Bridge, who were playing parks football in the Preston and District League as recently as 1990, travel to Cambridge United. They have played six games, more than any other club, to get to this stage.

Bamber Bridge had never reached the first round, let alone the third, before this season. Their last brief taste of fame came in 1996, when they were beaten 9-1 in a friendly before Euro 96 by the eventual finalists, the Czech Republic.

Two Conference clubs entertain opponents from the Third Division tomorrow. Hartlepool United will hold few fears for Hereford United, who overcame York City in the first round, while Forest Green Rovers meet Torquay United at The Lawn.

The third-round dream will live on, of course, for one second-round casualty. Due to Manchester United's absence the last club "out of the hat" in tomorrow's draw - which will be broadcast live on ITV, Sky Sports and Radio 5 Live - will be at home in the third round to a "lucky loser", whose identity will be known after another draw following the second-round replays.

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