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.

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