FA agrees to take Farnborough tie to Highbury

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The Independent Football

Farnborough Town were last night given the go-ahead to switch their fourth-round FA Cup tie against the holders, Arsenal, from their Aimita stadium to Highbury because of concerns over safety.

The Nationwide Conference side reluctantly concluded they could not guarantee the safety of fans at their 4,100-capacity ground, with the main areas of concern being over issues such as segregation and ticketing.

This followed a meeting at their ground yesterday between club officials and the local council, as well as police, fire and ambulance representatives and a Football Association crowd adviser.

Paul Newman, a spokesman for the FA, said: "The recommendation from that meeting was that the ground is not suitable to stage a major cup tie of this nature. There were concerns about the facilities needed for such a game and the administration of the tie. Both clubs have been informed of the decision."

The net result is that Farnborough have effectively lost their only realistic chance of causing an upset to eclipse their third-round win at Darlington. They will also miss out on £265,000 of television income, as Sky Sports has now switched its live lunchtime broadcast on Saturday 25 January to Gillingham's home tie against Leeds United.

However, given the immense amount of work which would have been needed to convert their own ground into a stadium capable of hosting such a high-profile tie, they are probably better off financially at Highbury.

The game in north London is instead set to go ahead at 3pm on 25 January and Farnborough should still benefit from their share of a £60,000 highlights fee, as well as 50 per cent of gate receipts, which could bring them up to a further £500,000.

The Farnborough manager and chairman, Graham Westley, said yesterday: "Arsenal put it to me very nicely. They said: 'We have 38,000 fans, are your stands up to it? Are ticketing arrangements up to it? Is there the potential for mass disaster on the day and can you give assurances there won't be?' In the end I think it was the only decision to make. As the manager and someone in close contact with the players on a day-to-day basis, there are all those footballing reasons to play the game at home, but they cannot be allowed to cloud a decision of this type.

"We have to be sure people come to our ground and are safe and we couldn't give that guarantee. We had to hold our hands up," Westley added. "It's time for us to get back in charge of ourselves. The lads are totally committed to doing their best on the day and we know we have a massive gap to bridge."

The Farnborough midfielder Michael Warner, who is also the Hampshire club's commercial manager, admitted: "A lot of people want us to play it here but the problem is whether the ground is secure and safe enough to stage such a big game. That is for the club to decide along with the safety authorities.

"Certainly the players would love to play at Highbury, though. That sort of opportunity probably only comes round once in your life and a lot of fans are wondering whether they'd be able to get tickets at home."

Farnborough, who were formed in 1968, will take heart from the last time they faced a top-flight team in the FA Cup 13 years ago. They switched their home tie with West Ham to Upton Park and drew 1-1, losing the replay at the same ground 1-0 only after an 89th-minute Hammers' winner.

* Two other FA Cup ties have been switched to Sunday 26 January, with Fulham against Charlton kicking off at 2pm and Stoke facing Bournemouth or Crewe at 3pm, due to Queen's Park Rangers and Port Vale both playing at home on the previous day.