Football: Saddlers looking to the past for inspiration - Sport - The Independent

Football: Saddlers looking to the past for inspiration

FA CUP COUNTDOWN

Walsall's cheaply constructed side visit that citadel of footballing prowess and financial power, Old Trafford, in Saturday's fourth round. While there seems scant prospect of anything more than a good pay day for the Midlands minnows, Phil Shaw delves into the past for an inspirational precedent.

The name of Gilbert Alsop, picked out in large letters on one of the stands at Bescot Stadium, may not mean much to the Walsall players who pass it every day. But, as they prepare to meet the might of Manchester United, his part in one of the greatest FA Cup upsets of all time offers the Second Division underdogs hope from history.

Sixty-five years ago this month, Adolf Hitler was days away from power and a Staffordshire town was in the grip of Cup fever. Walsall, with Alsop as their dashing centre-forward, had been drawn against England's finest. Arsenal were on their way to the first of three successive championships, a feat which Alex Ferguson's side are widely expected to emulate in May.

The clubs were separated by 54 League places, compared with 57 between Walsall and United, and by a chasm in class and cash. One newspaper illustrated the disparity by pointing out that Herbert Chapman, the great Arsenal manager, had assembled his side for a then-astronomical pounds 30,000, whereas Walsall's line-up had set their manager Bill Slade back all of pounds 69.

Another paper, highlighting the differences in a way pertinent to a leather- manufacturing community, revealed that the Gunners' boots had cost pounds 18 more than their hosts' entire team. In 1998, the gap between United's financial clout and Walsall's is similarly pronounced. One squad is valued at around pounds 60m, the other was built for the pounds 60,000 it took to buy a latterday Alsop, Andy Watson.

His goal at Southend last week means that Walsall, now managed by the former Ajax and Denmark playmaker Jan Sorensen, go to Manchester boasting a 100 per cent record this year. Meanwhile, United stumbled at Southampton on Monday, confirming a sharp contrast with the build-up to the third- round tie of 1933.

Arsenal had amassed 32 points from the previous 18 games (it was then two for a win). Walsall's run was three draws and a 5-0 drubbing in the old Third Division (North).

The Cup, however, never had much truck with League form. A prerequisite for giant-killing - one which Old Trafford is unlikely to provide in Saturday's fourth-round match - is a playing surface that resembles a skating rink or a lake. At Alsop's old stamping ground of Fellows Park, which was to Highbury what Walsall town hall was to Westminster, the pitch was a morass.

It helps, too, when the bigger club underestimate their opponents. Incredibly, Chapman appeared to do precisely that. Rather than risk a quartet of regulars who had been ill or injured, he called in four reserves.

This was not the same as Ferguson rotating his squad, for three of the Arsenal team would be making their debuts and one playing for the second time. That still left seven internationals, among them the legendary Alex James, Cliff Bastin and the first pounds 10,000 player, David Jack.

On the programme cover, James was characterised as a field-marshal backed by a battery of "big guns". Barring his way, in Walsall kit, was a teddy bear armed with a stick.

And stick, to use the vernacular, was evidently central to Walsall's game plan. While Sorensen and his player-coach, the former Everton defender and FA Cup-winner Derek Mountfield, espouse flair on a shoestring, the men behind Alsop seemed to regard the ball as an inconvenience.

Bastin, in his memoir, alleged that Walsall had "behaved more like steam- rollers than footballers". Whatever the truth, Arsenal missed several chances before Alsop leapt out of the mud to head in a corner on the hour. Five minutes later, he was fouled. Billy Sheppard's penalty sealed a victory that sent shock waves through the game.

The double act by Alsop and Sheppard, which has found echoes in this season's scoring spree by Watson and Roger Boli (friend and one-time team- mate of Eric Cantona), ensured that Walsall's physical approach tended to be glossed over. The result was all: Britain was deep in recession, and in the provincial dole queues Arsenal were regarded as London toffs.

A furious Chapman instantly off-loaded one of the understudies to Plymouth and another to Brentford. A third was released after the title was secured in the spring.

As for Walsall, whose cut of the gate was pounds 586 15s 9d - compared with pounds 300,000 this weekend - they promptly lost to Hartlepools before the fourth round sent them to... Manchester. Watched by 52,000 at Maine Road, they lost 2-0 to a City side featuring Matt Busby.

Many of the 8,500 who will follow Sorensen's Saddlers north will no doubt pause to admire Busby's imposing statue. Fellows Park is now a supermarket, but Alsop's memory lives on in more modest form at Walsall's new home. The name on the stand is a reminder to his successors that, in the FA Cup, nothing is impossible.

Life and Style
tech
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Administrator - Graduate

£18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Exam Invigilators needed

£45 - £50 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Randstad Education are currentl...

Looking for work in Secondary Schools?

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Are you looking for work in Ed...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week