This time last year and the players of Farnborough Town were in La Manga, the five-star sports resort on the Spanish Costa Colida which is usually the preserve of the Premiership or La Primera Liga, not the Nationwide Conference. It was part of a headline-grabbing stunt in the run-up to their fourth-round FA Cup encounter with Arsenal - one of the most controversial in the competition's vast history.
The name of the Hampshire club will forever be in Cup folklore - but for all the wrong reasons. It was their vilified decision to switch the tie from their own ground to Highbury that led a belatedly piqued Football Association to introduce a rule change. Never again could home advantage be surrendered.
Having, for many observers, sold the soul of the Cup for a pile of cash, Farnborough deserved, figuratively speaking, to go to hell. They almost did. Twelve months later and the club is in a precarious state. Its 36-year existence is under threat and relegation, a possibility, would be unthinkable.
"We had a meeting last week and I put the situation to the supporters and they said they would try and help," says the club chairman and major shareholder, Vic Searle, of their financial plight. "They set up a 'Fans for Farnborough Fund' and are now donating £1,000 a month to the players' budget. That's really fantastic. I don't think that the fans are angry with me, I hope not anyway. We've just got to get on with it."
But how - having earned anywhere between £420,000 and £600,000 from their Cup run - did it come to this? Searle's involvement at Farnborough is a curiosity in itself, as he explains. "I was walking down the High Street one day and I had a phone call from someone saying that Graham Westley wanted to have a meeting with me about taking over," Searle says.
Westley, of course, was the former owner and manager of Farnborough who - two days after the Arsenal match - left to join Conference rivals Stevenage Borough, taking with him his assistant manager, coach and seven players. Westley, a millionaire businessman, had run the show at Cherrywood Road.
A forceful, self-confident character, many believed the FA Cup run had simply massaged his ego - although, in fairness, he was frustrated and had spoken of moving on before. But the antagonism felt was summed up in mockery of Aimita, his company name, which emblazoned the Farnborough shirts - an acronym for the David Brent-like mantra of "Attitude is more important than ability".
Westley clearly did not lack self-belief and persuaded Searle, a retired 56-year-old businessman who had previously run the Ryman League club Hampton and Richmond Borough and admits he missed the "football bug", to buy him out for a "nominal" sum.
"It was quite a long meeting as I didn't want to take on a club that had massive debts," Searle says. "Graham said he would be leaving enough money in the bank for the club to be debt-free." When Searle arrived in March he was in for a shock. "When we looked at the list of debtors it seemed to be that, yes, the money in the bank might just cover it," he says. "But two months into it and we wound up being £180,000 in debt - including a bill from the Inland Revenue."
Searle's task was made harder by the depleted squad he inherited. Now there are just two players - the goalkeeper, Mark Osborn, and 40-year-old Ken Charlery, the former Peterborough United and Birmingham City striker who is the player-coach - left from the Cup run.
"Graham took seven of the team with him. In truth it was good that they did all go because if he had left them we couldn't have afforded to pay them," Searle says. "We did have five players who were on contracts that we simply couldn't afford. I nearly fainted when I saw how much money they were on.
"I don't doubt that Graham Westley put a lot of money into the club but that is the problem when you have a chairman who throws money at it. If he goes, it cannot continue - even if he is a rich Russian, which is what we need now. Or someone else like that. I do need someone who can come in."
As a consequence, all he has done since he has been there, Searle says, is "cut the wage bill". "It's now down by about two-thirds and we've not paid any money to bring in players, either," Searle says. "If we didn't have the £180,000 debt we would probably manage. But unfortunately it is incurring fines and so on. We've probably got the lowest budget in the league and that reflects where we are [in the table]."
Which is near the bottom. In October they were rock bottom after collecting just four points from 14 matches. It was then that Tommy Taylor, the former Leyton Orient and Darlington manager, quit. Searle took charge himself. "I have confidence in what I knew about football anyway and it was not the first time that I had done it," he says. "I'd managed amateur teams before. If you are saving the money on a manager then that can get you another three players at this level. What else was another manager going to do?"
The matches against Stevenage - one win, one loss - were particularly spicy. "It was very hostile," Searle says. "I think they [the fans] let him [Westley] know ... what they thought."
Overall results have improved - "I must be doing something right" - aided by last weekend's win at Leigh RMI before a crowd of 295 - 34,813 fewer than at Highbury last January. The Cup, this season, meant little: an early exit against the Dr Martens Premier League side Weston-super-Mare. Where were the 6,000 Farnborough fans from last season?
"What happened with Arsenal was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Searle says. "The genuine 600 or 700 fans that we have got are simply brilliant. You know we lost 6-0 to Canvey Island in the FA Trophy and not one of our fans booed us off. We've one target and that's Conference survival. It is vitally important that we stay up." And that will mean more than fleeting Cup glory.Reuse content