FA Cup Countdown: Cheltenham dreaming of dark horse surprise

Newcastle United are wary of history repeating tomorrow as they enter the land of the giant-killers, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Football

Cheltenham is used to Cup fever but this weekend there is a difference, the affliction is of a silver hue, not Gold. And instead of horse racing's thoroughbreds occupying the spotlight the less celebrated footballers of Cheltenham Town are in the parade ring.

Tomorrow, with the BBC's cameras in attendance, the Robins will attempt to down the Magpies, a giant-killing if ever there was one. It is the biggest day in the 114-year history of a football club which was playing in the Birmingham Combination the last time Newcastle United won the League title and only came out of non-League in 2000.

Naturally all the usual accompaniments are present. The Western Daily Press, whose sports pages more usually feature rugby, horse racing, cricket or Bristolian football, is bringing out not one but two supplements. The builders have been at Whaddon Road constructing a commentary gantry and a pundit's box. Supporters have queued overnight for tickets - some of which have appeared on eBay.

There is even a gripping human interest story. Nikki Bird, wife of the midfielder David Bird, is due to go into labour tomorrow morning. For Bird, the prospect presents something of a dilemma. "I had a poster of Alan Shearer as a youngster," the 21-year-old said. "I will have to seriously consider what to do if Nikki goes into labour. I think she'd understand if I said I had to play the match - she's good like that. But hopefully it won't come to that."

Bird is at the beginning of his career while the manager, John Ward, will be involved in his 718th as either a player or manager. His playing days, primarily as a centre-forward, were spent mainly with Lincoln City. His management career has taken him to York City, both Bristol clubs, and Cheltenham. He has also been a respected coach working with Graham Taylor at Watford, Aston Villa and within the England set-up, and more recently under other regimes at Burnley and Wolves.

"I remember as a player getting beaten up by John Wile at West Brom when Lincoln got to the fourth round, and at Watford we reached a final and a semi-final, but I wasn't the manager. This is top of the pile," he said. The priority for Cheltenham, who have moved into the play-off places with only two defeats in their past 13 League Two matches, is promotion but the Cup, said Ward, is a welcome distraction. "I think they go together," he said. "It's nice to put Cheltenham on the map for different sporting reasons and hopefully people will take a little more interest long term."

And is the tie about glory, or cash? "For me it is the football," Ward said. "I appreciate the financial aspect but as a manager working with young players, to give them the opportunity to play against the likes of Alan Shearer, Shay Given and Nolberto Solano at first hand is great. I can chat to them but I can't offer them that."

Newcastle have had problems in this part of the world before: it is less than 30 miles to Edgar Street where they famously lost to Hereford United in 1971. Ronnie Radford, one of Hereford's goalscorers, was previously a Cheltenham player. "That would be something but the fact that was 30 years ago, and people still talk about it, shows how rare such results are," Ward said. "Graeme [Souness, the Newcastle manager] has a few more injuries than us but I looked at his last team-sheet and there were plenty of names I recognised.

"I look at it like buying a lottery ticket. You think you might win but you are competing with millions, we're only competing with one team but obviously it will be difficult against a team of Newcastle's magnitude. I'm not sure we'll hold many surprises for them - Graeme came down with Dean Saunders and Terry McDermott in midweek to watch us in the LDV Vans Trophy. And the pitch won't be like the one Hereford played on."

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