A day in the sun for plain old Salisbury

Playing a first-ever third-round tie – against Sheffield United, 90 places higher up the ladder – is a joy for the lowest-ranked team left in the FA Cup

The FA Cup comes to Salisbury City this morning. Its two accompanying, lantern-jawed bodyguards will watch nervously as the players, staff and supporters of the lowest-ranked club left in the competition take excited turns to handle the trophy and have their picture taken with one of sport's most iconic pieces of silverware.

Once that's done and the Cup's packed back into its padded case, the Salisbury players will head for Sheffield to begin final preparations for a historic moment for the Blue Square South side; a date tomorrow afternoon at Bramall Lane for their first ever match in the third round of the FA Cup.

It is the day of days for the club, but as a piece of local history it struggles for even a footnote compared with that of the area in which their modest ground, the Raymond McEnhill stadium, known locally as the Ray Mac, stands. Overlooked by the grass banks of the remains of Old Sarum castle, this is land that has been fought over by Romans, Vikings and Normans, hosted kings and for a time earned notoriety as a rotten borough in the patronage of William Pitt the Elder.

Now the Ray Mac is the fiefdom of Darrell Clarke, the young player-manager, and the man tasked with delivering the club from some rotten times of their own. The 34-year-old Clarke has done his rounds of the Football League, six years at Mansfield, another six at Hartlepool. Eighteen months ago he took over as caretaker manager at Salisbury in the wake of the club slipping into administration and being relegated two divisions from the Blue Square Premier for being unable to get their books in proper order.

Last year they took a first step back up the football ladder, winning promotion from the Southern League after a penalty shoot-out, and now this Cup run into uncharted waters has brought financial rewards that not only ensure an immediate future off the pitch but also help justify Clarke's policy of picking up young players discarded by local League clubs and offering them a second chance.

"For a club this size it's massive," says Clarke, sitting in his office behind the club's reception area that buzzes with busy excitement. A box of Maltesers lies unopened on his desk. He is still in his training gear, having spent the morning overseeing on-field preparations for tomorrow's game against a side nearly 90 places higher up the ladder (in the third round only Tamworth and Everton are further apart). Clarke had begun the session taking the players through a DVD of Sheffield United's recent games and then sought to translate that into a plan of action in training. "Sheffield United are a better team than us," he says of the League One side. "But there are always ways."

Whatever happens on the pitch, in front of a travelling support estimated to be double the 700 or so who watch most home games, the bottom line is that, combined with a good run in the FA Trophy, their seven games in the FA Cup – presuming tomorrow to be the last – will have brought the club £100,000.

"We're trying to get to a stage where we break even," says Clarke, "and because of the Cup run we stand a chance of doing that. We have to make sure that we don't end up in another mess. That we spend what we can afford."

It is an eclectic collection that Clarke has gathered to help make playing and financial ends meet. The players are full-time, although wages are largely modest, with a basic of around £200 a week. But it allows a group of chastened youngsters let go by the likes of Southampton and Bournemouth still to chase the dream without having to juggle a job as well. "This is a million, million miles away from the top level," says Clarke. "Football is a ruthless world. I've been in it since I was 17 and had a couple of knocks myself." One of them came when he was sold by Hartlepool manager Danny Wilson – now in charge of Sheffield United. "There are no hard feelings – we're still talking!" says Clarke, before returning to the subject of his squad. "I'm dealing with players who have had their hearts broken, but it's giving them a second chance."

Amid the younger players there is a crucial core of experience. There's Marvin Williams, the former Millwall prodigy, and Chris Giles, his captain who took the second part of last season off to go travelling, but none of them are better travelled than Danny Webb.

Salisbury is the 16th stop of Webb's peripatetic career. "I made some rash decisions when I was younger," he says, in between sipping from a mug of tea.

Webb has family history when it comes to the FA Cup. It is 42 years since his father, Dave, scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the replayed 1970 final against Leeds. Webb Snr later went into management. While at Southend he signed his son, then a Southampton trainee, and gave him his League debut as a 17-year-old. It was a chastening introduction. "I was playing in a team that weren't doing very well," says Webb. "If you are a fan who pays your money and are looking for someone to have a go at, it's going to be the manager's son. It was tough and I found it very hard at first. There was some hardcore abuse, a few people waiting for me outside grounds. I was 17, straight out of school. You don't expect that. After that, anything's easy to take."

Among Webb's adventures on a winding road towards Salisbury is a Champions League qualifier for the Maltese club Marsaxlokk. "We got hammered by Sarajevo – but walking out to that Champions League music, at least you can say it's something you've done – albeit briefly! Malta was an experience, not just as a footballer but as a bloke. It gave me a bit more backbone. There I was, having been promised a nice flat, a nice car, living in a dump with a couple of Bulgarians. It was different."

A falling-out with Bath City brought him back for a second spell at Salisbury earlier this season. He has played here before under Nick Holmes, who won the Cup as a player with Southampton in 1976, and leapt at the chance to come back and rejoin Clarke, his former team-mate. Webb played in Peter Taylor's Brighton side who won promotion to the Championship, went up with Hull City too and was part of AFC Wimbledon's rise through non-league ranks.

"Maybe when you're young you take things for granted, but I don't remember being involved in such hype as for this game. This means more to them at this club than any other I've been at," says Webb. Next to where we are talking, in the club's gym/storage room depending on your point of view, a large white flag with "Salisbury City" printed across it in red letters hangs over a piece of rope strung across the room. "The fans will be in on Saturday to pick it up," says Webb and grins. "Last year they were going to Truro on a Tuesday night. It's great for them and for all the people who have put their balls on the line to keep this club going.

"We're not as high in the League as we would have liked [they are 16th] but before the season if you'd have said we would be in the third round of the FA Cup for the first time I think everyone would have said it's about time we had a good day out."

Salisbury's Cup history makers

Darrell Clarke The player-manager began his career with hometown club Mansfield, then joined Hartlepool. Nick Holmes, an FA Cup winner with Southampton in 1976, brought him to Salisbury five years ago.

Danny Webb A trainee with Southampton, his father, Dave, signed him for Southend for £10,000. Has since been on the books of 12 League clubs and a further four on loan, including a spell in Malta. Started as a striker but has also played in defence, and even in goal.

Stuart Anderson The Scot's career has taken him everywhere. A Southampton trainee, he has also played for Peterhead and Blackpool.

Marvin Williams As an 18-year-old, scored an FA Cup third-round goal on his full debut to earn Millwall a draw with Everton just hours after signing his first pro contract. Also played in the Swedish third division.

Callum Hart Released by Bristol City and worked as a labourer before joining Bournemouth. Called up by Wales Under-21 but picked up an injury and wasn't chosen again.

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