Football: No slope but plenty of hope drives Yeovil: Trevor Haylett on the enduring giant-killing qualities which threaten Arsenal in the Cup today

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The Independent Online
ONLY the brave or the foolish would dare to pass on new year greetings to George Graham just yet. A happy 1993? The Scot on the rocks and his strangely vulnerable team will not contemplate the notion for at least another five days when, if all goes according to plan, Arsenal will have avoided the man-traps awaiting them at Yeovil and Scarborough and humiliating failure is someone else's misfortune.

First up this afternoon in the FA Cup third round are those redoubtable fighters from non-League with a famous giant-killing past. As the Arsenal full-back Lee Dixon said on television the other night as his side blundered through another miserable performance: 'Yeovil away, that's a really easy game for us at this time, isn't it?' Vauxhall Conference or Third Division (in whose middle orders lie Scarborough, Wednesday's opponents in the Coca-Cola Cup), there is no such thing as an easy game for Arsenal in their present predicament. They have not won in seven League games, scored only once in that period and their array of international strikers currently possess all the sparkle of two-day-old champagne.

Their credentials will be subject to the most intense scrutiny today when Huish Park, Yeovil, will be anything but hushed, the locals having prepared for a slaying to match that memorable February day 44 years ago when Sunderland set foot on the feared slope and tumbled out of the Cup.

Football's most notorious gradient is now home to a supermarket where rumour has it the trolleys can make their own way down the shopping aisle. But slope or no slope, Yeovil are still inclined towards destroying the hopes of their seniors - with 16 victories over Football League opposition no David does it better - and while this season's heroics have come on the away grounds of Torquay and Hereford the spirit of Cup adventure has taken root at their handsome new stadium on the edge of town.

According to the player-manager, Steve Rutter, their name and reputation alone is reason for them to believe in the unbelievable today: 'Teams come here aware of our record in the competition and it makes them inhibited from the start,' he said. 'Ninety-nine times out of 100 Arsenal will beat us but there's always that one occasion when we can play above ourselves and the luck goes our way. Because of what's been happening to them recently it won't take much for Arsenal's heads to go down.'

Graham will have given serious thought this week to the line-up that will best suit the peculiarities of the tie. Rutter wishes he had those same problems. Managing among the lower orders means you can never be sure how many will arrive for training. And then there has been the dilemma of whether he was going to be fit to fill his preferred dual role. A reserve outing at Swansea on Tuesday was to have been his comeback game after a two-month absence with an ankle injury. On the point of departure Yeovil discovered the game could not take place.

Fog? Frost? Bizarrely, the teams had been notified of the fixture on different dates. The game duly took place on Wednesday, allowing Rutter an extra training session which should ensure his availability for the Cup.

'Of course everybody would want to play in a game like this but it's not really a difficult decision to pick myself. We are without Mark Shail (through suspension) and we need some height at the back.'

Rutter spent so long at Northampton he qualified for a testimonial although he did not make a single first-team appearance. 'That was the biggest disappointment of my career. The nearest I came was to be included in the squad which travelled to Darlington and Hartlepool one Christmas, but I didn't get the call.

'Most people at this club would be comfortable if they were given the chance to perform at a higher level and we are not overawed by what awaits us. Arsenal have faults just like every other team and there are weaknesses we can work on. They have two young lads in midfield who won't have tasted this kind of atmosphere before; their three strikers are as powerful a combination as you could wish for but they are going through a lean time and there's a definite lack of pace in the centre of their defence.

'I hear George Graham has had his players in every day this week while we have given ours two days off. They spent new year at home with their families which should mean they will report fresh and eager to give us something back because we have looked after them.'

The walls of the club's social room proudly recall the achievements of yesteryear but in every other respect the club's outlook is set forward. The manager has made positive efforts to embrace the young Somerset community, initiating an FA School of Excellence at the ground while four players have emerged from the YTS ranks into the first team.

A full house of 8,400 will raise the roof today but even in difficult times their attendances are among the best in the Conference. Roger Brinsford, the club's general manager, said families seldom move far from the area and support is handed down through the generations.

'There's a great affection for the club in the town and the surrounding area and that's why it was never a serious option to take this game to Highbury,' he said. 'We owe it to the fans. How can we profess to being as big as we are if we can't put on a tie of this size?'

Only two defeats in 18 games confirm that Yeovil are getting it right on the field as well with a team whose brains are not confined to their boots. It includes four graduates and a full-back, Jeff Sherwood, who designs anti-detection shields for Ministry of Defence nuclear submarines.

Rutter, who himself is studying for an A-level in law, said conversation on the team coach is just as likely to concern the state of the economy as much as the merits of 4-4-2. 'A degree is no good if they can't play but I find these lads are of a similar kind. They are trustworthy and reliable and appreciate their good fortune in being here. Consequently, they have a good effect on the other players around them.'

(Photograph omitted)