Johnson and Johnson on trail of Huish money

Yeovil's main aim is promotion but you can't keep an old giant-killer down. Alan Hubbard visits the club
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The Independent Online

When it comes to slaying giants, Yeovil Town have been there, done it and got the T-shirt. On it is inscribed: Sunderland, Fulham, Northampton, Col-chester and Wrexham. All fell victims to the little Somerset club, then a non-League side, whose very name used to strike terror whenever the balls came out of the bag for the third-round draw.

When it comes to slaying giants, Yeovil Town have been there, done it and got the T-shirt. On it is inscribed: Sunderland, Fulham, Northampton, Col-chester and Wrexham. All fell victims to the little Somerset club, then a non-League side, whose very name used to strike terror whenever the balls came out of the bag for the third-round draw.

Yeovil away was every League manager's nightmare. In their time they have also given the likes of Arsenal, Queen's Park Rangers, Norwich, Brentford and Millwall a bit of a fright, usually aided by the pitch at their old ground, which had a slope so steep that in winter even Franz Klammer might have had trouble negotiating it.

The notorious Huish is now a Tesco's. Yeovil have been in their new abode, upmarketed as Huish Park, for 10 years. They are also in the League, perched at the top of League Two, and heading for a fourth-round FA Cup match at Premiership Charlton on Satur- day. And they are still killing giants. Well, sort of.

In the last round they went to Rotherham, two divisions above them in the Coca-Cola Championship (albeit at the bottom) and won 3-0. "It was certainly a bit of a giant-killing act for us, but we were well overshadowed by Exeter of course," says their manager, Gary Johnson, a perky little Londoner who is something of a Harry Redknapp soundalike but is currently on more of a roll.

In his three years there since returning from Riga, where he had helped coach Latvia into a nation now competing with the best in Europe, Johnson has catapulted Yeovil from the Conference into the League, got them close to a play-off place last season and now into pole position for promotion.

Fulham-born, he played for the Cottagers as a schoolboy, and became the first Englishman to play in Sweden, for Malmo. In his time as one of the game's troubadors, he has also served as a player, coach or manager at Newmarket, Cambridge, Kettering and Watford, where he was the academy director under Graham Taylor.

Evidence that the strolling player has finally captured the spotlight came on Thursday, when he turned down a formal approach to manage Coventry and occupied the pundit's seat on Sky. "It may sound a bit corny, but the honest truth is that there's a job to be done here, one that I really enjoy doing. It's very flattering and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want to manage a big club one day. But my priority now is to get Yeovil into the next division.

"This is a happy, friendly club and we've worked hard to make it so. The support is deep-rooted. There are still a few fans around who remem-ber the 1949 victory over Sunderland, who were the Manchester United of the time. When we got into the League some came up to me with tears in their eyes and said that they'd lived for this day. Although the League is now probably more important to us, it is the FA Cup that has made our name. Even now we are the smallest club left in, we respect our history and our Cup tradition."

That was founded on the 2-1 victory over Sunderland, still one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history. It was augmented by the legendary Alec Stock, a man of military mien who once famously told his players before a game: "You are going out to die with blood on your boots."

Johnson's approach may not be quite as dramatic, but he is clearly motivating a youngish squad assembled at a cost which would hardly cover Wayne Rooney's pinky.

Cosmopolitanism has extended to the West Country, with a Pole, an Australian, an Argentinian, a Frenchman and inevitably a Latvian in the squad. It was Johnson who recommended Marian Pahars to Southampton, and he has acquired his fellow international Andrejs Stolcers. Another of his 22 signings is Paul Terry, John's 24-year-old brother, who has had experience with Charlton. "We've got a bit of an in with John through Paul and we're hoping we'll be able to use Chelsea's training facilities."

Like Harry Redknapp, Johnson now has his son Lee, a 22-year-old midfielder once with Arsenal, playing for him. Recently they celebrated a unique family double. Johnson Senior was named the division's manager of the month and Lee player of the month.

Last season a record 9,100 crowd watched Yeovil's 2-0 home FA Cup defeat by Liverpool. They hope to take 6,000 with them to the Valley.

"We always try to get a winning edge, whoever we play, to be that bit more competitive than the opposition. Our players know they've got to live right, eat right, drink right, get their mental state and physical fitness right. Because if you go to Charlton without any of those, and with what we call impurities, then you are not going to have any fun, or get a result.

"Yes, I'd settle for a draw, and get them back here for the money as well as home advantage. But we are not going to play for a draw. We are going for a win. If we get a draw trying for a win, I don't mind. But if doesn't work out it is not a disaster, as long as we do well and enhance our reputation."

As we parted, Johnson made a plea: "Don't make us sound arrogant. That's the last thing we are or ever want to be. But I'll tell you what. Whatever happens, Charlton will know they've been in a football match."

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