There was a time, not so very long ago, when this evening's fourth-round FA Cup tie between Watford and Tottenham Hotspur would have been considered a meeting of equals. Some would suggest that even now a meeting between a Championship club and a Premier League side is hardly a mis-match, the more so when Watford are at home and Spurs will probably rest half a dozen of the usual first team.
To spend time in the company of the Watford manager, Sean Dyche, however, is to be reminded of the reality imposed by ludicrously inequitable television revenues. The Hornets have about as much chance as the third-tier Chesterfield side he then captained were considered to have of beating Premier League Middlesbrough in the FA Cup semi-final of 1997.
Dyche, a hard-tackling defender whose playing career never encompassed the top division, converted a penalty that day to put Chesterfield 2-0 up, only for the game to finish 3-3 after referee David Elleray disallowed a Chesterfield shot that had clearly bounced over the line. The Spireites went on to lose the replay 3-0.
"At that time, Premier League clubs were only really beginning to bring European talent on board, Middlesbrough leading the way with people like Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho," Dyche recalls. "Now the world is a smaller place, and Tottenham are a good example. The top clubs look for the absolute top level of player, they put massive resources into that, the infrastructure, the support systems – and that's where the gap has got bigger from having a run with Chesterfield and playing Middlesbrough, to what it is now with Watford. We consider ourselves a reasonably sized club, a Championship club looking to develop, looking to build, but that financial gap has got so much bigger and harder to close."
After a run of eight league games unbeaten before Christmas, three consecutive defeats have seen the Hornets drop to 18th, and Dyche is looking for what he calls "a performance" from his players. "We've had a couple of awkward results in the league, after a very good run – in the grand scheme of our season it's not something we're overly concerned about, though we have to correct it.
"In that respect, playing Tottenham is an opportunity. It's awkward planning to play a team which can change in so many ways, they could play so many different formations with the players they have. That's why we have to concentrate on what we do, and look for players to play slightly above themselves – though to be honest you're looking for that every week."
For all that Watford supporters would relish seeing their team embarrass such high-flying opponents, the consequences might not be wholly welcome. With the transfer deadline falling on Tuesday, an eye-catching performance might persuade Newcastle United, having had an offer of about £2m turned down, to increase their bid for the highly rated defender Adrian Mariappa, or one of a number of interested Premier League sides to bid for the hugely promising 20-year-old striker Marvin Sordell, scorer of nine goals in 24 appearances this season.
"It's a reality of being at Watford, but we're not in the same position as we were a couple of years ago when we nearly went into administration, and we can be wiser with our business because we're on a more stable financial footing," says Dyche.
"We had a big transition in the summer with 54 per cent of our goals leaving [the club sold Championship top scorer Danny Graham to Swansea City for £3.5m] and we've had to try and remodel on, obviously, not major finance. We're a different animal to what we were then, the club is on a better financial footing, but even Cristiano Ronaldo moved for £65m in the end. Players will attract attention, but we can stave it off – unless the Ronaldo price comes in." Ronaldo actually moved for £80m, which only serves to strengthen Dyche's point.
Watford's owner is Laurence Bassini, who took over the club last May, despite being made bankrupt in 2007 after the failure of a business. He feels the same way as Dyche about only selling players for big money – judging by his statement on the club website – as do members of the Watford Supporters' Trust (WST).
"Most fans recognise we have to be a selling club, but the new owner seems to recognise the need to stay in this division and be determined not to let the club slide," said the WST chair, John Fawell. "I think a lot of us were concerned about the manager when he came in because we made an awful start to the season, but he has his own way of doing things and seems to know how to use players. Bringing in Michael Kightly [on extended loan from Wolves] was very successful, but a lot could depend on who he brings in over the transfer window."
Dyche insists he and his staff are working on the basis both Mariappa and Sordell will be available for the rest of the season, although the converting of defender Nyron Nosworthy's loan from Sunderland to a permanent deal improves his options should Newcastle come back with an improved offer for Mariappa. It will have to be considerably improved, according to Dyche.
"The interest is nowhere near the level that might make a club like ours sell our players, nowhere near," he stresses. "I think if clubs at our level are developing players, the big clubs with the big money should respect that and just go about it in a manner that is appropriate, rather than tickling it with offers that are nowhere near to almost get a reaction from us as a club."
Whatever happens, both Mariappa and Sordell will surely start against Tottenham. "You wouldn't be a player or manager without wanting to test yourself against the best, but they're human, and human beings don't get it right all of the time," says Dyche.
"Tottenham get it right quite often at the moment, but we're looking for them to not get it quite right on the night, and for us to play super well, and maybe have a bit of the rub of the green. Who knows? It's the FA Cup, and that's where dreams are made."