Salisbury's UFO alert for Forest

FA Cup winner Nick Holmes has transformed the Whites and, as he tells Nick Harris, League One leaders Nottingham Forest should beware tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Strange things happen in this part of Wiltshire, what with its White Horses and standing stones, the hush-hush Porton Down, and Boscombe Down, an airfield where Apache helicopters hover, and the perimeter carries signs that warn: "Notice: Prohibited place under the Official Secrets Act".

Just down the A345 is another institution, tucked away, surrounded by fields, where plotting is under way. Salisbury City's dynamic recent progress is one of the best-kept secrets in non-League football but tomorrow all that could change. The Conference South club will host the former double European champions Nottingham Forest - three divisions and 76 places higher in the pyramid - in the second round of the FA Cup. The game will be live at lunchtime on BBC1. And the only aim for everyone here is a UFO: an unexpected footballing outcome.

It is fitting that the manager charged with trying to make it happen once effectively disappeared for 13 years. For that period, Nick Holmes, 52, a one-time FA Cup hero with Southampton, never believed he would be involved in football again.

Between his Saints debut as a 19-year-old in 1974 and his retirement in 1987, he played 543 games and scored 64 goals. He featured in both the club's major finals of the era: the 1976 FA Cup giant-killing of Manchester United when he played at left-back, shackling Steve Coppell; and the 1979 League Cup final, when Southampton lost to Brian Clough's all-conquering Forest.

He was integral to the Saints team who finished as runners-up in the League behind Liverpool in 1984, the most successful year in Southampton's history, and was, Lawrie McMenemy once said: "The man for all seasons."

Yet when Holmes hung up his boots, the finances of those pre-Premiership days dictated that he left the game without trace. The man himself explains what happened between then and his return - as Salisbury manager, in 2002 - in a typically understated manner. "It wasn't very interesting, that's for sure."

First he ran a village shop, in Winterslow, near Salisbury, for 10 years. "The money I was getting for looking after Saints' reserves and doing the scouting wasn't enough to sustain what I wanted for my family. So I got an 'open all hours' shop and worked my nuts off. Running the shop paid better than football. I didn't want to do it that way, but it's what it was. My only connection to football was as a season ticket holder at Southampton... I'd completely given up the thought of getting back in."

In 1999 he had another change of career, this time enforced when his wife, Carolyn, was diagnosed with lupus, a disease of the immune system. Warm weather can ease symptoms, so Holmes moved the family to Florida, where he started a property management company. "I was looking after British people's homes. Totally boring," he laughs. "Phone never stopped. The last thing I wanted to know was somebody's toilet wasn't working at midnight. I was on call 24 hours a day for that sort of stuff. And I'm not a practical person. It was pretty obnoxious."

One call changed everything, from Neville Beal, a Salisbury businessman, fan of the club and former player, who is now chairman. "He said would I be interested in coming back and taking on the job? I'd managed a shop. I'd managed a property management company. I knew I could do it."

If anything, Salisbury's then-parlous situation swung his decision. They had just been relegated, then saved at the 11th hour from financial extinction. They had few players and scant resources. "I saw it as a good challenge and thought 'What have I got to lose?'" Holmes says. "I thought I could always keep the business in America as a fallback option."

As it transpired, while Holmes was rebuilding Salisbury, his firm, in surrogate hands, went to the dogs. He sold it in 2004, "and gave my whole heart from then on to what I'm doing here."

This spring, the Whites won the Southern Football League Premier Division. They are now pushing for promotion to the national Conference. The longer-term ambition is an assault on the Football League. Gates have grown from 350 to more than 1,200, the highest in the division. Tomorrow's match will be watched by a full house of 3,000.

"All my players are important, but our match winners are people like [striker] Matt Tubbs. He's the darling of the team, the top scorer. The girls love him. And there's Luke Prince, a wide midfielder. Blond hair, white boots. You'd never do it in my day but he gets away with it. And Paul Sales, who's always been recognised as the best centre-forward in the non-League around here." Holmes' son, Matt, plays in midfielder. "I wouldn't put him down as a match-winner. But he's hard-working."

Arguably Holmes's single most important signing was that of midfielder Tommy Widdrington, 35, formerly of Southampton, Grimsby and Port Vale among others. Holmes hired him in February 2005, and the side won 25 points from their next 12 games. "A great talker, a great motivator," Holmes says.

Widdrington, unavailable through injury this weekend, is now on a long-term player-coach contract, and recently declined Macclesfield's offer to become their manager to stay where he is. This weekend's game could possibly have been moved on appeal to lure a bigger crowd and earn more money. "But I certainly wanted it here," Holmes says. "Our ground has its idiosyncrasies. If we'd gone to Bournemouth or Southampton or Swindon it would've been like playing at Forest. A big open pitch, crowds further away, everything neat and tidy. But here you see fields, only two sides will really have any supporters. It's different. It gives us half a goal, and we'll just need to find the other half."

He rates Forest highly. "With Colin Calderwood, they've got a man who will take them back to where they should be. They can be a Premiership side again in time. I've seen videos, had them scouted, read detailed reports. They're the best side in the competition this weekend by a mile. It's scary really, but it will be a good test for us."

Holmes was never a limelight hogger, so when asked about the magic of the Cup, his personal high of 1976 is not to the fore. Of course, he remembers little Bobby Stokes scoring the winner and dashing 60 yards to be first to congratulate him. And he remembers "funny little things, like the Queen was wearing blue", and how he really did not enjoy the post-match knees-up at The Talk of the Town cabaret in London when a drink with friends and fans in Southampton would have been preferable. But magic? That for him lies in the possibilities of a minnow, any minnow, earning immortality. "If we get a result against Forest, it'll still be remembered in 20 years' time. That's where the romance is. Think of Ronnie Radford for Hereford, or the Leatherhead Lip [Leatherhead's Chris Kelly, a key man in their giant-killing heroics of 1974-75], or Colchester beating Leeds, or Sutton doing Coventry. Even Yeading getting as far as meeting Newcastle, if not beating them, a few years ago, it's what it's all about."

One personal cup memory - League Cup - that does stand out is his most important previous encounter with Forest, the 1979 final. "We hammered them first half and went in 1-0 up. But whatever Mr Clough said at half-time, they came out a completely different side. Actually I was speaking to [Forest's then captain] John McGovern a few weeks ago and he said 'You know [Clough] got us pissed? We were absolutely drunk the night before. He made us drink champagne. It took until half-time to get it out of our systems'."

Forest scored three times in 30 minutes and though Holmes hit a consolation, Southampton lost 3-2. A defeat of such slender margins for Salisbury tomorrow would be a result of sorts.

Holmes, the quiet man, no doubt has faith in better. And strange things do happen in this part of Wiltshire...