Posh but poor: Fry fears for the smaller fry

The Cup can offer respite from a bleak survival fight for a man as happy as Barry
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The Independent Football

Enterprising chaps that they are, the photographers had brought along their own props to Peterborough's training ground: life-size cardboard cut-outs of Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy. Requested to pose between the inanimate versions of Newcastle's strikers, Barry Fry cheerfully played along for the snappers, as we knew he would.

"Oo's this geezer?" Fry demanded, pointing at Bellamy. But he knew well enough who the other one was. Pretending to throttle the Shearer figure, he explained: "We've got a chance without him." Whether his side do have a chance in this afternoon's FA Cup fourth round is irrelevant in the Peterborough manager's mind. What matters is that the income from this televised tie will keep the club afloat a little longer.

Peterborough United are one of a swelling number of Football League clubs staring at ruin; losing money every week, faced with selling their best players and unable to afford replacements. The wonder is that Fry has not been forced to field cardboard cut-outs in the Second Division this season.

The man who has survived two heart attacks and a 28-year roller-coaster career admits that, for the first time, he was nervous before Peterborough's third-round replay against Darlington last Monday. "If we won, we were guaranteed half-a-million extra income from various sources, whereas if we lost it was probably a photo finish whether I called in the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association] this month to pay the wages," he said. "At this level there is such a fine line between success and failure. Thank God we won, 10,500 fans turned out, cheered us on and blew the ball in a couple of times to secure us the victory. It's like winning the Lottery, half-a-million pounds.

"I'm not a bit nervous about Newcastle, I can relax and enjoy it. Everyone in the country, apart from our fans, expects them to beat us. A win for us would be fantastic for the Posh supporters but a draw would suit me 'cos it's extra revenue and I am looking to the club's future. Now we will have enough in the kitty to pay the wages till the end of the season. Also the pressure is off the chairman to sell the club tomorrow."

The chairman, Peter Boizot, rode to the rescue five years ago, paying off a loan of £210,000 Fry had taken out to keep Peterborough solvent. Fry had arrived at the club having been offered ownership and says he was told the debts totalled £650,000 when they were in fact £3.1 million. At any rate, he is grateful and loyal to Boizot. "He has been tremendous, saved the club from liquidation and put five or six million in." Now, says Fry, there is a cash-flow problem. Hence the pressure on Boizot to sell, relieved for the moment by TV's timely manna.

However, the problem will not vanish and, anticipating possible new ownership, Fry has so far managed to resist offers for half a dozen of his team. "I felt a new owner might want to improve the club, not dismantle it. Other people know we are in trouble and are trying to nick my players for a few hundred grand instead of a few million. But they ain't gonna do it."

Fry is full of praise for today's opponents and their manager. "Bobby Robson has worked miracles since he has been there. The place was in turmoil and the laughing stock of football when he went there, but his professionalism, experience and enthusiasm have made them a force to be reckoned with.

"Newcastle are full of everything – pace, power, organisation, they can score goals from anywhere. It's frightening. I don't want to talk about it. I was going to show my players the videos of some of their games but after watching them myself I changed my mind, I thought they might frighten my lads and they wouldn't turn up."

One big factor in his team's favour, Fry feels, is that the game is at Peterborough's modest London Road ground. "Our pitch is the poorest in the League and the lights are really four candles. The crowd are really close to the players, so the atmosphere will be great. We will need a lot of luck to win, but we have had a lot of luck in the Cup so far.

"First round, we got drawn away to Bedford. We were very lucky to survive a nought-nought, even luckier to win the replay 2-1. Then we played Bournemouth, had one shot and won 1-0. We were 2-0 down at Darlington with half an hour to go and drew 2-2. So luck has taken us a long way this year and I hope it is still with us on Sunday 'cos I have a feeling we will need it."

Despite the horrendous casualty rate among his fraternity, Fry claims to be happy in his job. "I enjoy it, I get up and I want to go to work, despite the hassle. But it's a constant challenge, that's for sure, and it's getting worse. I don't know what boards of directors want out of people. Everybody can't be winners, it is more of a success to get your club right these days.

"I am fearful for football the way the money is going. The rich are getting richer and the small are struggling. What I fear is 30 or 40 clubs will go out of existence overnight. Yet those clubs, with their 2,000 gates, are brilliant for their communities and it will be sad if they go to the wall."

Fry acknowledges that the plans of any new owner for Peterborough might not include him. "But I don't want to leave Peterborough, it's full of potential and with the right structure we could be a good First Division club. But you are never sure these days what people want when they buy clubs. I am very wary of all these whizz kids who don't know what they are doing, basically. Some of them don't know a goal-line from a clothesline. There are huddles in corners at so many clubs, but here Peter Boizot and I have a deal. We speak plainly to one another. That's why I've still got my sanity."

And why Barry Fry will be able to enjoy the sight of Shearer and company – the real thing, not cardboard cut-outs – in action at London Road this afternoon.