A funny thing happened to Gary Holloway this week. Well, funny as far as the rest of his team-mates at Farnborough Town were concerned. During the Nationwide Conference side's trip to the La Manga training complex ahead of today's FA Cup tie at Arsenal, they played a couple of games against two other sides who had travelled to southern Spain to spruce themselves up.
The first, against a Gillingham team which has its own FA Cup appointment, with Leeds, this afternoon, wasn't funny at all, as by all accounts the non-League side were given a bit of a runaround. The second took place against England – England women, that is.
Hope Powell's players are getting over the disappointment of missing out narrowly on the World Cup finals in China later this year – they lost a crucial play-off with France – and are preparing for a long campaign of friendlies before they host the European Championship in 2005.
The opportunity to play a couple of short matches against men's teams was one they took with alacrity, and although they impressed observers with the technical quality of their play, they were not averse to adding the occasional physical element. As Holloway learned to his cost after an encounter with the Doncaster Belles midfielder Carly Hunt which left him grounded and requiring the services of a trainer.
Even within the women's game, Hunt, at around 5ft 2in, is one of the smaller players. But as her room-mate and team-mate Jody Handley explained, that doesn't stop her. "She's quite notorious for putting her foot in," said Handley with a grin. "But when he got up he said it wasn't her, it was the way he had fallen." Sadly for the former Spurs and Wimbledon trainee, that story didn't wash with his team-mates. "She helped pick him up," said one of them. "He's been slaughtered by the lads ever since."
Holloway will be hoping to avoid any further humiliation at Highbury today, where, as a Spurs fan, he has an added incentive to perform.
He will be cheered on by a party of 70 friends and family who are among the 6,000 Farnborough supporters planning to travel to the game. Jon Couch, sports editor of the Farnborough News, recalls the day 11 years ago when a similar number made the hour-and-a-half journey to the capital from Hampshire to see Farnborough achieve what remains – until today? – the finest result in their history, a 1-1 draw at West Ham in the FA Cup third round.
A penalty midway through the second half from the former Fulham forward Dean Coney earned the visitors their unlikely parity, but the moment Couch – then a 16-year-old supporter – recalls most clearly occurred shortly after the final whistle had blown.
"West Ham were struggling in the Premiership at the time," Couch said. "And before the game started a lot of their supporters waved red cards which said 'sack the board'. When the match finished, thousands of them got out of their seats and began marching across the pitch to where we were. The stewards formed an arc in front of us and we all went deadly quiet. We were thinking: 'what's going to happen here? Why didn't we just lose and go home?'
"And then all of a sudden they just applauded us. It was amazing."
It would be nice to think that Arsenal fans would afford Farnborough similar respect if they managed to avoid defeat this afternoon. As it happens, the Farnborough manager and chairman, Graham Westley, is convinced that they would do just that.
"I've spoken to so many Arsenal fans who have said to me that they really want us to do well," Westley said. "And I can imagine there's going to be 38,000 people there wanting us to nick a draw just for the sake of football. They'll probably think, 'nick a draw, because what an occasion it would be for us to be there'. If we do that, all the Arsenal fans are going to be happy because they're still in the Cup, and we're going to be happy because we will have done something sensational."
At 34, Westley, a former England Youth player, retains an indefatigable enthusiasm for the game, not merely supervising training for his players, but doing the training himself. The evening before Farnborough were due to fly back from La Manga he joined seven faintly surprised members of the press, of whom I was one, as they prepared to play a pick-up game on one of the training pitches.
After bustling around for over an hour in growing rain and darkness, dispensing encouragement – "keep the ball. Make them run" – and the occasional measure of criticism –- "that's lazy defending, isn't it?" – Westley found himself making increasing use of a phrase that is certain to be employed in good measure at Highbury this afternoon as his players attempt to deal with one of the best sides in Europe. "Take your air," he told us, as our legs grew stiff and slow. "Take your air."
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