Football: No fears for Rushden's diamond achiever

Simon Turnbull talks to the veteran striker relishing a Cup crack at Leeds
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WHATEVER range of emotions Colin West feels when he steps out at Nene Park on Saturday, fear is unlikely to be the most prominent. The prospect of facing Leeds United in the third round of the FA Cup will no doubt be daunting to the majority of the Rushden and Diamonds team, but their seasoned centre-forward has encountered a more terrifying reality on one of the cup trails that lead to Wembley. He still shivers at the mention of the battle of Stamford Bridge.

"I tell people about that night and I think they don't believe me," West said. "I actually scored a goal in between two policemen. There were punters running on the pitch. A cross came over and I headed the ball in between these two coppers and into the net.

"In terms of fear, playing against Leeds will be nothing compared to that night. But it was more frightening for Clive Walker than anyone else. A bloke came on with a plank of wood and tried to whack him. It was horrendous."

It was Walker, in fact, who flashed down the wing and crossed for West to head his well-policed goal. The Chelsea old boy also had the temerity to score twice on his return to the Bridge as Sunderland, 2-0 up from the first leg thanks to two West goals, advanced to the 1985 Milk Cup final with an aggregate 5-2 success. It ought to have earned West the highlight of a career that is still going strong after 18 years, but he never quite made it to the final. Sunderland fans were stunned when he was left out of Len Ashurst's team line-up against Norwich. So was West. He moved to Watford for pounds 115,000.

"It was a nightmare," West reflected. "When you get left out of a final like that you just want to leave. It was ironic the way things turned out. Sunderland and Norwich, who beat them in the final, went down at the end of the season and we stayed up. I was probably better off in the end, but I would have given my right arm to play in that final."

West always was one of those centre-forward swashbucklers unafraid to risk limb, if not life, in the line of duty. Since his emergence as a teenage goalscoring saviour of Sunderland's top-flight status in the early 1980s, though, the 6ft 3in Tynesider has also been one of the nearly men. In 1989, with Kerry Dixon injured and Gary Lineker stuck in Barcelona, he was placed on standby for England's World Cup qualifier against Albania in Tirana. He played in a practice match with Bobby Robson's squad but made neither the team nor the trip. He never was required for national service.

West has had little good fortune in the Cup either. "The furthest I've been was with Watford in 1987," he said. "We got to the quarter-finals and were leading Liverpool until the last 10 minutes, I think." In fact they were 1-0 up, courtesy of John Barnes, until a Jan Molby penalty in the 86th minute. Ian Rush scored the winner in extra-time.

Brian Talbot, as it happens, was also in the Watford team that day. And he was West's boss, though not for much longer, when West Brom were beaten 4-2 by Woking in the third round eight years ago. "I certainly know that non-league teams can beat league teams," West mused. "Newcastle had a bit of an escape against Stevenage. It can happen all right."

If it happens on Saturday the chances are West will have something to do with it. At 36 the veteran front man (he has also had spells with Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday, Swansea and Leyton Orient) is the jewel in the squad of Diamonds that Talbot has assembled as manager of Rushden, the Northamptonshire side backed by the Dr Martens man Max Griggs and, it would seem, destined to put Irthlingborough on the Nationwide League map. When the Diamonds secured their sparkling third-round tie, with a 4-2 second-round replay win against Doncaster, West got two of their goals.

"I only dropped out of league football because I knew Brian and because I knew what they're capable of doing here," he said. "It's a fabulous set-up. It's certainly the chairman's ambition to get in the league and he's going the right way about it. We train full time. And the ground really is an impressive place.

"It'll be ideal with 6,600 packed in for the Leeds match. It's a massive, massive game for us. But all the lads would give it up if we knew we could go up into the league from the Conference at the end of the season. If we could have our choice of presents we'd swap it for that."