Preece must box clever to pull off unlikely knockout

Vics are £500,000 in debt but can cash in with giant-killing against Charlton
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The Independent Football

Today's Charlton Athletic may not be quite the FA Cup scalp that Dagenham & Redbridge went so close to claiming in 2001 but for Northwich Victoria, their first-round opponents today, being drawn against them is almost the stuff of dreams.

Not that the Cheshire-based Conference club are unused to rubbing shoulders with big names. They reached the third round in 2006, losing to Sunderland by a 3-0 scoreline that flattered the Premier League team. But this time their excitement has been stirred by more than the prospect of giant-killing glory.

The Vics, Conference North champions only three years ago, are battling for survival, more than £500,000 in debt. In administration since May, they were spared expulsion from the Conference only after an appeal to the Football Association, but are barred from signing new players. The windfall of a televised tie and a 5,000 full house at the Victoria Stadium, potentially bringing in more than £100,000 in broadcasting fees, prize money and commercial income, could not be more timely.

"It is fabulous for the club financially," agreed their manager, the 42-year-old former Crystal Palace striker Andy Preece. "When I came in as caretaker-manager in February the players had not been paid for months. There were times when it looked as though the club might go under. To go from that to the first round of the FA Cup on live TV is fantastic. In money terms, it will be like getting a whole season's revenue from one match."

The Vics were in administration once before, in 2004, and would have gone that way again in 2007 had Jim Rushe, a Manchester businessman, not completed a takeover. But their relegation from Conference Premier in May was too much. They are seeking a way out via a Company Voluntary Arrangement, but the Inland Revenue, their biggest single creditor, have been difficult to satisfy.

"It is frustrating," Rushe said. "We've had offers of 25p and 30p in the pound rejected. The last time, we had the agreement of all creditors except the Inland Revenue. We have offered 40p now."

Northwich went down last season despite Preece and his assistant, the former Manchester City defender Andy Morrison, empowering the team so successfully they won their final six matches. But the momentum was carried forward to this season, and the burden of a 10-point Conference penalty for going into administration has already been overcome. Currently 15th, they would be eighth without the deduction.

If today's tie represents a lifeline for the club, it is potentially a life-changing opportunity for individuals, Preece among them. He has proved himself as a League manager already, having spent four years in charge at Bury, keeping them competitive against the odds, but lost his job there during another financial crisis in 2003 and has been looking for a second chance ever since.

"Financial problems seem to follow me around," he said. "Bury told me they had to let me go because they needed to save money. After four years of hard work I was absolutely gutted."

Since then he has managed Worcester City, where he lost a first-round tie against Huddersfield, and applied for several League jobs, reaching the final interview stage at three. "It is very competitive," he said. "Ultimately I want to manage in the League again. But Northwich has been a huge challenge and I'm proud of what we have achieved here."

That pride will today be tinged with poignancy for Preece, who lost his father, Gordon, less than a month ago. "I know he would have been delighted that we have this tie and it is nice to think of him looking down on our success," he said.

The challenge today will be to bring about the downfall of Charlton, only three years out of the Premier League, without his top scorer, Mark Danks, and his captain, Simon Grand, who are both suspended.

Preece will look instead to Jon Newby, who won an FA Youth Cup medal in a Liverpool side including Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen. The 30-year-old striker, whom Preece signed for Bury from Liverpool, returned to the starting line-up with a goal against Stafford Rangers last week. "We are unbeaten in 10 and they have won only one in six, so it may be a good time to play them," Newby said.

For others at the beginning of their career, it might be a chance to enjoy the benefits Preece himself reaped as a player, when his goal for Second Division Stockport knocked out Queens Park Rangers, then of the Premier League, in a third-round tie in 1994. "It was probably that goal that got me a move to the Premier League with Crystal Palace," he said. "That's the kind of chance these players might get from today."

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