Oldham captain Dean Furman focused on survival ahead of Everton FA Cup tie

Despite exciting prospect of knocking Everton out, he is more worried about his club staying up, he tells Ian Herbert

At the top of a crumbling, hole-pocked Boundary Park terrace hangs a banner bearing the legend "keep-the-faith.co.uk" and there is a telephone number to call for those visitors to Oldham's ground who are moved to do so. It's a desperate fight to keep on the right side of the line between survival and oblivion here, and garish offers of the most "pietastic" food in all of Lancashire cannot obscure that fact.

This is the landscape which tells you why it was less perverse than it seemed to sack manager Paul Dickov a week after his team had beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round. The 3-1 defeat at Walsall, which plunged the side deeper towards the obscurity of League Two a week later, mattered much more.

The environment, which Everton enter this evening in search of more success in the FA Cup fifth round than the "other lot" managed three weeks ago, explains why the club captain, Dean Furman, did not pay much attention when, at a location 6,500 miles from Oldham on fourth-round day, he got wind of the fact that his team-mates were up to something against Liverpool.

Furman, who was born in Cape Town, has been discovered in the depths of League One by South Africa's manager, Gordon Igesund, and it was in the comparatively surreal environment of the national team's Durban dressing room, halfway through the final and decisive Africa Cup of Nations group-stage game against Morocco, that one of his team-mates told Furman that "your boys have done the business".

Considering that the Bafana Bafana were trailing 1-0 at that time and heading out the tournament, Furman could be forgiven for not asking too many penetrative questions about the game which had started an hour before his own. "I was trying to work out what 'the business' meant," he says, the South African timbre to his accent still distinct, though he was five when the family moved to England. "I didn't know whether it had been a draw. I knew we hadn't lost. It was hard to think about it, but I guess it did give me a little extra push."

It was after the nation's 2-2 draw, before a 45,000 sell-out crowd, had sealed a quarter-final berth for Igesund's rank outsiders, that Furman left the field to discover that Matt Smith, his housemate, had scored the goals to clinch a 3-2 win. "The big man's part capped it all. I called him from my changing room. It was an unbelievable moment," Furman says.

His tournament was over within six days, terminated by South Africa's defeat on penalties to Mali in Durban, but it was a tantalising taste of the life that might have been for Furman, a Chelsea trainee in the cohort which included Michael Mancienne, Scott Sinclair and Ryan Bertrand, a decade back.

Suddenly, every South African talkshow seemed to be dissecting the influence of the unflashy, unflustered operator deep in the national team's midfield. There was also a national conversation about the iconic No 15 jersey Furman (right) was given, popularised by Doctor Khumalo, the South Africa midfielder who tormented visiting defences during the 1996 Cup of Nations. This is the kind of attention a boy dreams about when he's got a trainee contract at Chelsea and John Terry is heading across after first-team training to watch you.

It didn't quite work out like that for Furman, of course. The leagues are littered with those who don't develop the requisite "world class" to graduate at Chelsea, as Furman generously puts it. Jack Cork at Southampton, Liam Bridcutt at Brighton, Shaun Cummings at Reading, Sam Hutchinson on loan at Nottingham Forest and Harry Worley at Oxford United were all part of Furman's Chelsea group, too.

He got a second bite at the big time when Brendan Rodgers, the youth- team coach he adored at Chelsea, and the club's academy manager, Neil Bath, helped him get try-outs at Celtic and Rangers and he opted for Hampden Park, where Paul Le Guen had just arrived. But there was money to spend back then – Pedro Mendes and Steven Davis came in – so Furman, who didn't give up the chance of a serious run at a tennis career to warm a football bench, turned down a one-year deal and went back on the road. He sought out a loan role at Stuart McCall's Bradford City and then, three years ago, laid his hat at the stadium they call Ice Station Zebra, where they love him down to his boots. Furman seems to have done an awful lot of travelling for a 24-year-old.

"Home" is a town which is dragging itself up with real determination from some very desperate days when race riots ignited in the hot early summer nights of 2001. With his girlfriend of two years, Tash Howarth, Furman has a deep affection for the place. But it's not the easiest environment to carve out an overseas international football career.

"No, League One isn't that well publicised over in South Africa," the player admits. He got a call-up for the South Africa squad which played Australia at Loftus Road four years ago, but after that there was a deathly silence. The notion of a role in his home country's 2010 World Cup was not even on his landscape as managers came and went without apparently knowing he was up there in the foothills of the Pennines. But Igesund watched the League One DVDs in a way that Joel Santana, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Pitso Mosimane and Steve Komphela evidently had not.

"I pretty much got a call out of the blue," Furman says. "The first squad he asked me to join was six months ago, his first camp, away to Brazil which I have to say was a pretty surreal moment, coming up against the team that played against England last week. I just thought to myself that this was an opportunity I couldn't be nervous about. I thought, 'Go in. Be yourself. You might not get this chance again. Play as if you're here, in Oldham, at training.' We had a few days training in Brazil, and to learn I was starting was unbelievable. We lost 1-0, I played an hour and they scored late on."

On his side of the Sao Paolo pitch were Neymar, Real Madrid's Marcelo and Chelsea's Ramires. "What I've found is the quality on the ball is so very good. If you make an error most of the time, you get punished…"

You might think that the arrival of David Moyes' side for tonight's televised Cup tie has been helping to ward off feelings of anti-climax for Furman after that experience. But, truth to tell, it's hard to stop the midfielder drawing this conversation back to the fight against the drop into professional football's lowest rung. Last weekend's 3-1 win over MK Dons still left the club two points from safety in the relegation zone. They are also still managerless, with the head of youth, Tony Philliskirk, in temporary charge.

"I've been at the club a long time and it means a lot to me," Furman says. "To come back from the tournament, and see it where it is, is disappointing and obviously what's gone on in the month I've been away – which is the manager I've worked with for three years losing his job – is hard. It's been a great month for me but that doesn't take away how vital it is for us to stay in League One. We've four additions to the team who have all played at a good level. We have to fight the fight from here."

Missing the Liverpool tie prevented an encounter with Rodgers who you feel has impressed him more than anyone in football. But today brings a coveted chance to play against his compatriot Steven Pienaar – who retired from international football before the nation awoke to Furman's ability – and Steven Naismith, who was at Rangers during Furman's brief sojourn there. Yet he would still trade the afternoon of his footballing life for League One survival. "This is character building, that's for sure," he says. "You're coming off every week and looking at others people's results and at where you're going to be. It's not a nice place."

Furman's route from our interview room to dressing room takes him past the Oldham trophy cabinet which contains an award recognising a Performance of the Week from January 1993, the inaugural season of the Premier League, when Oldham were in its number. There's a pewter plate in there, too, bestowed by Manchester United, with whom Oldham contested the following year's FA Cup semi-final. Twenty years ago and yet almost a lifetime. Relegation to the bottom tier would be Oldham's final ignominy. It's easy to see why avoiding it is what matters most.

My Other Life

I used to play a lot of tennis and, at 13, I was at that stage where I had to decide which way to go in sport. I played with James Ward, the British No 2, who is now doing very well for himself. His performance against Mardy Fish at last year's Wimbledon showed what he can do!

I played for Middlesex and was on a futures programme for top boys in the country at one stage. I still play a lot of tennis in the summer and get down to Wimbledon or Queens. When I go back home I play with my old coach and my brother. It was a big part of my life.

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