Football: United we also reach for the sky

FA Cup: The old railway club who changed their name and moved home head for the higher ground; Stephen Brenkley talks to the Ford men driving a struggling club to a richer future
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The Independent Online
ON United's shirts is emblazoned the name of their prestigious sponsor. There can hardly be a bigger name in football than Sky Sports and since they stumped up the cash to United nobody has suggested referring the deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The fashionable liaison, the envy of United's rivals, has not changed them. Their goalkeeper remains their chairman and he and their manager still occasionally dip into their own pockets to ensure the players' expenses are paid. The side's most accomplished player, the one who could really have made it in the game, forsook the opportunity when his girlfriend became pregnant. Instead of taking up West Ham United's offer of a pounds 30 a week apprenticeship he took the pounds 100 a week available on a building site. That was 10 years ago and he and the girlfriend are no longer an item.

United increased the capacity of their ground not long ago and did so by buying 400 bucket seats which were no longer needed at Lord's Cricket Ground. Their average attendance is unaltered, consisting of young lads and pensioners and numbering between 50 and 60.

This is the first United with whom Sky began a relationship, not Manchester of the European Champions' League and the Premiership but Ford of the Ryman League third division. There is a slight difference in the financial arrangement: Sky Sports put pounds 15,000 a year in to Ford while their parent organisation, BSkyB, has offered pounds 623m to buy the Manchester club, subject to the MMC's approval.

"We approached them three years ago and they agreed almost immediately," said Ford secretary, Colin Mynott. "We were in real financial difficulty and thought of the idea of them sponsoring us as a last resort because the Ford motor company is so closely involved with their football coverage. We used to be attached to Ford and still play on their ground but none of our players work there these days and the company doesn't give us any money."

The satellite television station and the club are about to reap their reward. Ford United have reached the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time. Not only that but they have been drawn to play Preston North End, one of the oldest names in the game and the competition, home of the Invincibles, the first side to win the Double, birthplace and residence of the legendary Sir Tom Finney, site of the National Football Museum.

"It was better than getting drawn against Dagenham & Redbridge, put it that way," said Ford's manager, Denis Elliot. "I would say we've got a chance as well if Preston have an off-day and we have a good one, if the wind is permanently behind us and the pitch is a bog to prevent any passing and our goalkeeper is in the form of his life." Giant-killing managers have said that before, of course, and Ford United already come into that category.

They were promoted from the lowly Essex Senior League only two seasons ago, run entirely on fund-raising efforts and have already played eight matches including three replays to reach this stage of the competition. Their star player is the striker Jeff Wood but at the age of 34, Elliot fears he may be slowing down. The goalkeeper-chairman is Jim Chapman, a dealer in the City who the manager dropped a few weeks ago.

"He's an outstanding bloke and didn't mind," said Elliot. "But when he came into the dressing room at half-time during the match thinking he was part of the set-up I had to tell him to leave because I'd never allowed a chairman in a dressing room in my managerial life." But Chapman will play at Preston.

Not so, Jimmy Prue, who turned down West Ham. He was sent off in the fourth qualifying round tie against Lowestoft (a real shock, that 3-1 away win) and is banned from the biggest game of his life.

"We can make some money out of this to stabilise the club for a while," said Elliot, a PE teacher. Ford United could yet appear on Sky Sports rather than the other way round.