The one week that Cheltenham was able to put the racehorses out to grass
Sunday 04 January 2004
The fog which had threatened the Cheltenham New Year's Eve racing programme was also slow to lift at the Quat Goose Lane training ground of the town's football club. Eventually, yellow and green bibs loomed out of the noon gloom as the players of the Third Division team who take on Fulham in the FA Cup moved into their drills. One involved jumping over hoops, not through them as their Premiership hosts hope will happen at Loftus Road today.
At the heart of the session was John Ward, the 52-year-old self-styled journeyman who replaced Bobby Gould as Cheltenham Town manager just under two months ago. In that time his team, though struggling to hold on to their hard-won League status, have sailed through two rounds of the Cup, beating Hull City and Leyton Orient. The prospect of Fulham, the first opposition from the top division in Cheltenham's history, delights Ward, and not only because of the revenue for a tightly run organisation accustomed to attendances averaging 4,000. Nursing a mug of tea and still in his tracksuit, Ward described the occasion as "a game to relish and cherish, and to work hard at trying to do well in".
Ward explained: "I am not foolish, I am not saying we are going to win, but at the same time I am not going to prepare my team to fail. It's really good that we have a game with a club 80 places above us and I want us to perform, not go out meek and mild. On what is a great occasion the supporters can enjoy it. So can my chairman and directors, but the team have to do well to enjoy it.
"Last week we lost 1-0 at Northampton, but it was a good performance and I was able to say to them that if we can produce something like that against Fulham we will do fine. If people like Saha and Malbranque really turn it on, we will put up our hands and say that was pretty good but we have been part of a game that has made them do that. If Saha produces that bit of magic other Premierships players can't cope with, I can't blame my team if they find it difficult as well."
Two years ago, under the managership of Steve Cotterill, Cheltenham got to the fifth round before being beaten by a single goal at West Bromwich. Cotterill guided the club through the Dr Martens League, then the Conference, into the Third Division and, for one heady season, the Second, and the Fulham game is the biggest thing since those days for somewhere which, as Ward cheerfully acknowledges, is not a football town. But Cheltenham have taken their full allocation of 3,100 tickets and, for a change, the talk is not of horses and rugby.
"We have given a place better known for other sports an FA Cup week, and I am proud of that," he said. "Football here has grown in stature. Possibly we are not going to become a much bigger club. The ground only holds 7,000 and we have to work to fill it. I am delighted this game offers a respite from the financial restraints that clubs of our size have. The chairman says I can have £10,000 of the Cup cash, which will probably buy me a couple of players if you throw their wages in as well. But my priority is to stay in the League, when you consider how long it took this club to make it."
As head coach at Wolves, Ward had been anticipating this season to be one of involvement in the Premiership, but he was abruptly sacked. "Friday 4 July, 12.45," he recalled. "I was told a new coach was coming. It hasn't happened yet. I was disappointed, but it has given me the push to get into management again, which is something I had hankered after, making tough and tight decisions at a club like this. I am happy working at this level. My upbringing as a player was at Lincoln City and my management career started off at York and went on to Bristol Rovers, where our training facilities were in the car park of a chocolate factory and our ground was in Bath. If people ask what I am, I am a journeyman football person."
Ward proved this post-Wolves by doing a stint as assistant at Carlisle and applying for any job that came up. "When Cheltenham offered me the chance I said, 'Yes please'. It wasn't about money or position, it was about me working."
Also in that mould is Cheltenham's striker, Bob Taylor, a 36-year-old who has spent time at Leeds, Bristol City, Bolton and West Bromwich and who recently clocked up his 200th League goal. Taylor's last big Cup-tie was also against Fulham, two years ago, when he was in the West Brom team beaten 1-0 in the sixth round. "We will show Fulham respect, but not too much respect," he promised. "The lads are confident under a new gaffer, and we could spring a surprise."
If they do, Cheltenham's reputation as a horse town could be about to change.
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