Our big day, just for scissor-kicks

Up for the cut: Lee Howells and Cheltenham ready to take prize scalp
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The Independent Football

When they're not doing the main day-job, Cheltenham Town's players can usually be found helping each other with the domestic chores. Need some carpentry doing? No problem, just contact the goalkeeper, Steve Book. Tiling? That will be the centre-half, Chris Banks. Worried about your finances? Call the striking accountant, Jason White. Children's homework questions? Why not ask midfielder Russell Milton to teach you a thing or two.

"You never need to use Yellow Pages at our club," Lee Howells jokes, while team-mate Steve Jones, a defender-cum-electrician, is busy re- wiring his kitchen. Like the vast majority of his Third Division colleagues, the club captain also has an alternative job to fall back on once his playing days are over. The only surprise is that his is perhaps not a profession immediately associated with this macho world. Howells is a hairdresser and has the Nicky Clarke set to prove it. "I think it makes people laugh at first," he says, "but they soon get used to the idea."

Howells might have had a fairly typical lower-league career. Following his release by the then Bristol Rovers manager, Gerry Francis, at the end of his apprenticeship in the late Eighties, the 18-year-old was faced with the familiar dilemma of having to decide whether or not to walk away from the sport. A number of trial offers came in, most notably from Brentford, but the young Howells was keen to expand his horizons as well as play football. He soon came up with the perfect solution. "I wanted to go back to Australia," he says. "I was born there and liked the idea of spending some time in the warm. So I wrote to various clubs, explaining who I was and telling a few porkies along the way. Before I knew it, I had loads of replies."

Howells opted for Brisbane United, a team composed mainly of Italians. Young, free and single, he had the "time of my life". It was during his four-year stint on the Sunshine Coast that he developed his barber skills. "The football was only part-time, so I decided to find a way of making a little extra cash," he says. "I did a course and worked in a salon six days a week, leaving Sundays free for matches."

Having decided to return to England in 1991 after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Howells started looking for a club near his parents' Bristol home. Cheltenham soon came knocking at his door. "When I joined, they had just spent a lot of money on ageing stars like Andy Gray [ex-Tottenham and Crystal Palace]," he recalls. "Within a year or so of my arrival, we were in the old Beazer Homes League Premier Division and sinking fast."

It took five years before Cheltenham Town were back on their feet and ready to move forward again. Off the pitch, the club's new chairman, Paul Baker, has teamed up with the local council to invest in the ground and training facilities; on the pitch, the team have won the Conference title, in 1999, as well as the 1998 FA Trophy against Southport in front of 22,000 delirious fans at Wembley. Even the pitch itself has been transformed. "Our groundsman has won the top award for the last two years," Howells says. "Whaddon Road plays like a bowling green and doesn't slope anywhere near as much as it used to."

The biggest single difference, though, has been the arrival of the Cheltenham-born manager Steve Cotterill. The former Wimbledon striker took over in February 1997 and has since led the Robins to their highest ever League position, not to mention their maiden FA Cup fourth-round appearance against Burnley this afternoon. "Steve has done miracles here," Howells says. "He has totally changed the way we play and approach football. During my early years, we would be boozing in the lounge with the fans after training. Nowadays, we are all at home with our wives and kids getting early nights. The club is unrecognisable. Until a couple of years ago, most people in the town didn't even know there was a football team. Cricket, racing and rugby had always dominated the sporting calendar in Cheltenham, but attitudes are changing."

Cheltenham were disappointed not to be facing a Premiership club, but their wish can come true. The feeling among the players is that today's lower-profile opponents are beatable. "We sold all the tickets in two hours, so there must be belief," says Howells, who is looking forward to meeting up with the man he used to share digs with as a youth player at Portsmouth, Kevin Ball. "And in a one-off situation, who knows? If we play to our potential and Burnley have an off day, we have a chance. It's the club's biggest ever day anyway, but a win would be the greatest result in our 110-year history."

Today's starting XI will be the same as the one that defeated Oldham in the last round, held Luton 1-1, beat Leyton Orient 2-0 and drew 0-0 with Darlington on Wednesday. "Steve's very superstitious," Howells says. "He doesn't like to tinker if we're not losing. During the interval of one League match in which we were 2-0 down, he even got his assistant to drive to his home to collect his old 'lucky' trainers. He put them on for the second half and we got the winner in the last minute."

Howells, too, has a ritual. "Before home games, I always wear my favourite grey suit with a blue shirt and a blue tie," he says. "It's never let me down – yet."