It always rains in Manchester? Yesterday it poured. Exeter City, no longer in the League and facing a constant struggle to make ends meet, went to Old Trafford and achieved what seemed to be the impossible by holding out for a 0-0 draw against United, while City made the short trip to Oldham Athletic and were beaten 1-0, with Scott Vernon scoring the goal after 14 minutes.
Exeter, who surely made the long trip north only to collect a fat cheque that will be vital to their survival, proved more durable opponents than could have been expected. But perhaps their trials and tribulations have toughened them up.
The Grecians grew tired of the inevitable jokes in 2000 but the Devon club were greying at the temples and in need of rejuvenation. Instead they became a novelty act as Uri Geller tried to bring his brand of magic to bear on the team. Despite the visitation from Michael Jackson that he conjured up, Geller certainly could not bend it like Beckham and after his intervention Exeter found themselves looking for a way back into the League and needing to be put back into shape.
After all that, perhaps a trip to the home of one of Europe's biggest clubs was a mere breeze. Surely, it was just 90 minutes of football like any other; if Exeter had not forced their way past Grimsby Town and Doncaster Rovers in the Cup this season, they would have had to deal with Halifax Town in the Conference yesterday.
Exeter, whose director of football Steve Perryman knows a thing or two about the FA Cup after his exploits at Tottenham, employed a simple plan in front of more than 67,500 fans - 10,000 of them their own: "Take 'em back to our place and deal with them there." Part one achieved; part two awaits on 18 January. Alex Inglethorpe, Exeter's manager, said: "People will write us off but you can't afford to go into any game thinking you will lose. The magic of sport is that you never know exactly what is going to happen." That more famous Alex, Ferguson, would no doubt agree. "I apologise to the fans. They did not deserve that," he said. "In my 18 years at this club that was the worst performance we have ever produced in the FA Cup."
He fielded reserves but brought on Ronaldo, Scholes and Smith. "We played some young players but that is not an excuse, we expect more of them than that," he said. "Maybe I should have brought on Paul Scholes and Alan Smith at half-time," Ferguson said. "If I'd been pleading guilty to a murder charge those would be my mitigating circumstances. It's fantastic for Exeter, the greatest day of their lives. I will play a much stronger team in the replay."
City can now, as they say, concentrate on the Premiership. Oldham may be 15th in Coca-Cola League One, but they do have an FA Cup history. Back in 1994 it took a late equaliser by Mark Hughes and a replay to prevent Oldham from reaching the final at Manchester United's expense. City succumbed to them yesterday after Vernon side-footed home David Eyres' cross and Brian Talbot's side hung on.
Three other Premiership sides fell to lower opposition. Aston Villa lost 3-1 at Sheffield United, where Andy Liddell scored twice; Norwich City lost 1-0 to Marlon Harewood's goal at West Ham United; and Marcus Stewart scored the penalty that beat Crystal Palace 2-1 at Sunderland.
Impressive, but the underdogs from Devon could yet cap the lot.
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