Corks will be popping all over Somerset - and a little pocket of northern Portugal - if Yeovil Town prevail over Liverpool in the FA Cup's most engaging tie this weekend. For the Third Division side's young defender Hugo Rodrigues it would be a cause for double celebration. The family business, based in a tiny village north of Porto, manufactures and exports corks for wine bottles.
Beating Liverpool is, of course, a tall order. But in Rodrigues, the Glovers have a tall guy. At 6ft 8in he is, in fact, the tallest footballer in the country - towering a full 12 inches above the man he hopes to come up against, Michael Owen, who is set to be risked after a month out with a thigh injury such is Liverpool's concern over the encounter. Indeed the fabled giant-killers, 40-plus times in the first round proper and the slayers of the imposing Sunderland in the 1940s and 19 other League clubs since, now have a giant in their own ranks.
Rodrigues' presence at Yeovil - for their first season as a Football League club - is one of those little nuggets that deserves an entry in FA Cup tales. The 23-year-old joined last summer from the Portuguese Second Division side FC Pedras Rubras.
He had previously played with Walsall's Jorge Leitao at the youth team CD Feirense - where he was denied a "dream move" to the team he supports, Porto, because a £30,000 transfer fee was demanded for the raw 15-year-old. "Usually they would just buy a set of training tops," Rodrigues said ruefully.
Rodrigues postponed taking the final examination for his economics degree - after five years of studying - to have a trial at Yeovil even though he freely admits that, well, he had no idea who the Conference champions were.
"No, I'd never heard of them," he said in fluent English learnt through working for the family firm where the main clients are from the United States and Australia. "I only knew about teams from the Premiership and one or two from Division One. I really didn't know what to expect but it was a good surprise - well organised, professional."
It was a local agent, Raul Sanha, who persuaded him. "He said that Yeovil was a good club, had just come up and their manager is known for developing young players. So he said it was a good place to begin a career in England, a good door to open." A one-year deal was duly signed and Rodrigues says he will now complete his studies next summer.
"I thought 'Why not?'. I can go for one year and if I don't like it I can always go back," he said. "I thought it would help me grow up, learn the language and the culture."
But first came the culture shock - on and off the pitch. "The first game we had at home was against Preston in pre-season and I thought: 'Oh my God, what is this?' The stadium was full and everyone was singing. It was unbelievable, a fantastic atmosphere," he recalled. It was not untypical. "Then, in our first League game, we were at Rochdale and we arrived with 2,000 fans. It's five hours from Yeovil! It's just unbelievable that so many of them travelled." They had, of course, waited a long time.
The players, he said, display a similar commitment. "The speed of the game is higher than in Portugal," he explained. "The concentration is higher. If a team is losing 4-0 in Portugal, they give up, the game is finished. Here the teams always try to score, even just one. Also the referee doesn't stop the games so much. Here you never try and do something against the rules - in Portugal if a player dives and wins a free-kick he is seen as clever, here he's a cheat."
The first few months were spent on the substitutes' bench - partly because Yeovil's manager, Gary Johnson, wanted him to "watch and learn" but also because the team were winning while playing three at the back and there was no room for the new guy in the centre.
"It was frustrating because, of course, I wanted to play," he said. Things were made harder because he was in a new country, living on his own and away from home for the first time. "So it was a shock to me," he said, admitting that many hours were spent talking to relatives and friends through an internet webcam. "But after two months I began to get used to it. Now it's all right."
Yeovil is - of course - a small town. "Everyone seems to know each other," he said. And at his height he obviously stands out - quickly becoming something of a cult figure for supporters. "In the town centre they talk to you," Rodrigues said. "And they all come to see the games. I've been to other places such as Rotherham... but I didn't like it there."
And so to the FA Cup - and Liverpool. Only playing Manchester United - his favourite English team and the next opponents for Porto, of course, in the Champions' League - would have meant more. "It's a fantastic draw," Rodrigues said. "Everyone knows Liverpool. Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, all the players. They are not doing well this season for a team like Liverpool, who always want to be winning the title. But you have to respect Michael Owen - he's one of the best strikers in the world."
Nevertheless, Rodrigues is undaunted - and prides himself, despite his height, on an athleticism and pace developed through gymnastics and swimming as a child. "That helped develop my co-ordination," he explains. "I'm told that I walk and run normally because the majority of tall people have difficulty in making some of their movements. It's a big advantage to me when I'm playing. I'm a quick defender."
The confidence, he feels, is warranted. "I think if the game was at Anfield we would have a 10 per cent chance but here it's 50-50 with the crowd and everything," he said. "We won't be thinking, 'Oh, it's Heskey or Owen'. They are men, we are men and we'll try to do our job the best we can. The pressure is on them, they are the bigger team and they need the FA Cup to save their season."
He has had a quick initiation into the importance of the competition - "cups mean little in Portugal" - and his family have arranged for satellite coverage of the tie. "When we played Wrexham [in the first round] I said 'Oh, that's all right', and everyone said 'No, it's not just all right - it's the FA Cup, it's a massive game'. Then I began to realise what it all means."
Not that Johnson is allowing much talk. "The first thing the gaffer said was: 'Anyone who starts thinking too much about Liverpool will definitely not play.' We need to win our games before then to get as near to the top of the table as possible, because then Liverpool will look at us differently. The main thing to us, of course, is the League." Nevertheless, Yeovil go into the tie on the back of two consecutive defeats.
The League can wait, however, at least for one weekend. Yeovil have tradition to uphold. "I'm realising now the history of the club," Rodrigues said. "I know that they killed the giants before. Maybe they can do so again." With this giant on their side.Reuse content