Football: Talbot's gem of a result

FA Cup third round: Leeds dazzled by Diamonds l Exit Forest as fans protest l Hammers are held
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The Independent Online
TWO MINUTES remaining at Nene Park, and for that split second as Rushden's Adrian Foster rose to connect with John Hamsher's corner, the former Stoke and West Bromwich Albion man was probably already imagining what it would be like to stand amid the pantheon of FA Cup heroes and read today's headlines.

Something to do with Foster "canning" Leeds, no doubt. Or how David fell to David.

But it was not to be. To the utter relief of 2,000 Leeds fanatics behind Nigel Martyn's goal, not to mention their manager David O'Leary on the touchline, his header cleared the bar and the Yorkshire club escaped what would have been their most wretched FA Cup hour since Colchester dumped them out of the competition in February, 1971.

"They had a great chance at the end, but we got lucky," agreed O'Leary, under whom the fifth-placed Premiership side have been a revelation. "Rushden were excellent, but that did not surprise me. I knew we were in for a hard game. People will say that's their chance gone, but they have still got a chance in the replay because that's what the FA Cup is all about - upsets."

It was a game that epitomised the vagaries and richness of this cherished tournament, even though there was no Ronnie Radford to finish off the club who have won the Cup just once, in 1972. The conditions were near- perfect for the Leeds leviathan to fall to the team constructed almost entirely of former Football League players. A gale howling down the ground, a pitch that was no bowling green, and a 6,431 crowd so fervent that they threatened to blow the ball into the net when their favourites failed to do so. By the 74th minute, when his gifted 18-year-old central defender Jonathon Woodgate was sent off for his second bookable offence, a decision he described as "harsh", O'Leary was looking a hugely worried man instead of merely looking forward to the round four draw.

But, as O'Leary knows too well, having played in four FA Cup finals, the competition would not captivate as it does without such unexpected twists of plot. It's rather like finding the ground itself. A facile enough task, you might imagine, until it is discovered that Rushden is teeming with shoppers who were largely oblivious of what was going on at Irthlingborough four miles down the road. It is there, in a village that does not even have its name registered on most maps, that Nene Park lies, a great silver monument to one man's ambition. The "industrial" footwear from which chairman Max Griggs has made his fortune may have unfortunate connotations to some as part of skinhead culture, but "Mr Doc Martens" should worry. The man who merged Irthlingborough Diamonds and Rushden Town in 1992, his quest a league place by 2000, is worth around pounds 450m and having invested pounds 20m into the club, enjoyed that rare experience for most chairmen, a pre-match ovation as the tannoy blared "Diamonds Are Forever".

Last season, at this stage, there was much bad blood between another Conference side, Stevenage, and Newcastle. There was no chance of that here with the respective managers, Brian Talbot and O'Leary, having roomed together before Arsenal's 1979 FA Cup final victory, although they had subsequently seen their careers take vastly different routes.

West Bromwich Albion, Aldershot and Hibernians of Malta have been among the 44-year-old Talbot's ports of call; the former, of course, the scene of his dismissal following the ignominy of the FA Cup defeat by non-League Woking.

Yesterday, for all Talbot's pre-match assurance that it was "a lovely distraction", all the evidence, given Leeds' recent performances, was that there would be a bit of a stuffing left over from the festive season rather than a chance for the Rushden manager to purge his Cup torment.

Rushden, who had already played six games to reach this stage of the competition, were certainly under the cosh in the first half as the Dutch pair, Clyde Wijnhard and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, threatened to establish a score akin to that by which Coventry beat Macclesfield but failed to capitalise similarly on their superiority, with the former striking a post and finding the towering American goalkeeper Ian Feuer in superlative form on his home debut. However, towards the close of the half centre-back Jim Rodwell gave a hint of what was to follow by heading just over Nigel Martyn's goal. The former Birmingham striker Miguel De Souza confirmed it when the Leeds goalkeeper had to plunge at his feet to save, and then Gary Butterworth, once of Peterborough, forced Martyn to turn the ball over the bar with his searing drive.

Harry Kewell started off the second half as though victory would be just a formality but, having skipped through the home defence, he was thwarted by the excellent Feuer. From that moment on, Leeds were nearly made to rue their earlier charity as the Conference side responded with a sense of adventure that belied their relative position in football's hierachy and frequently embarrassed their visitors.

Their problem was that they lacked that crucial striking presence necessary to inflict a telling blow. "We've got a decent little side and we're on a high at the moment," reflected Talbot with justifiable pride, although his priorities are understandably elsewhere. "We've got to get out of this league, and it's very difficult with only one going up."

Once Foster had spurned his late chance the Nene Park faithful departed, contemplating "if only", and a replay at Elland Road, where even with O'Leary's team at their most generous, you can't imagine they'll get a second chance. Will they?

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