'As far as the city is concerned, this is the biggest game ever'

Fantasy football visits St James Park tonight. Mike Rowbottom tests the fervour of local feelings
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The Independent Football

As an indicator of the FA Cup fever gripping the city of Exeter before tonight's third-round replay with mighty Manchester United, a Debenham's perfume counter was perhaps as accurate as any.

As an indicator of the FA Cup fever gripping the city of Exeter before tonight's third-round replay with mighty Manchester United, a Debenham's perfume counter was perhaps as accurate as any.

"I'm not interested," said Lorraine. "I don't want to see Exeter City." Her companion Hazel, however, had already laid plans to watch the big match. She and her friends will be in front of a big screen tonight at an Australian sports bar in the city centre, The Walkabout. "I'll be there," she said. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."

The option of actually being in St James Park was negligible, given that the home side's 7,500 tickets - all at normal prices - were allocated to those who have kept the club afloat financially in recent years through the supporters' trust.

Nobody could accuse this city of not honouring its local heroes. Down the road from the main rail station, a series of murals celebrate the exploits of famous Devonians; Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Nearby, there's a blue plaque marking the birthplace of Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford's Bodleian Library.

On the eve of the city's biggest football match, the only obvious agitation in the streets occurred overhead as seagulls swooped and squalled.

Alternative clues, nevertheless, were dotted around. Debenham's itself, as the city's tallest edifice other than the Cathedral, had formed a nightly backdrop throughout the week to a laser-generated message of goodwill - "Come on you Grecians" - from club sponsors flybe.com.

Further along the High Street, Exeter City scarves and Devonian flags hanging outside Percy's Fabrics and Haberdashery stirred in a chill wind. The scarves had sold well, according to proprietor Roger Hamilton-Kendall, who is also a club director. The flags had not gone so well - due, he felt, to the fact that their green and white colours were uncomfortably reminiscent of City's bitter local rivals, Plymouth Argyle.

Hamilton-Kendall has followed City for 25 years. He was, needless to say, among the 10,000 fans who made the trip to Old Trafford after the Cup draw which created fantasy football for a club that was struggling against financial extinction.

The two games against United will net the club, conservatively, £800,000, and this director cherishes above all else the day when City's number came out of the hat with United's. "At that moment we won the Lottery," said Hamilton-Kendall, who will help out on the turnstiles tonight before donning his club shirt and joining supporters in the Old Grandstand.

"I was in the club room watching the draw on television and the reaction was - euphoria. People were running round like headless chickens. They didn't know whether to cry, laugh, or... it was a happy day. And it just got busier, with people coming in from all over to celebrate.

"When I saw 10,000 of us at Old Trafford, it brought a tear to my eye. We can only fit 7,500 in, but hopefully there will be seven and a half million Exeter fans watching on TV."

At Lindsey and Sons, suppliers of medical goods, sales manager Helen Bradley was rightfully proud of the Cup display filling one window. "I'm surprised more businesses in the city haven't done the same," she said.

"People have been coming in and saying, 'We've seen your window, can you get us a ticket?', as if we could. We'll all be watching the game on TV tomorrow night, and we'll have a bottle or two as well."

Across the road, the Odeon cinema proclaimed: "Exeter City v Man Utd, showing here live, 19 Jan, 7pm." Screenings of The Aviator, Alexander and Lemony Snickett will be suspended for the night as the establishment seeks to capture family viewers. "Watch the game on the biggest screen in the city!" the display shouted. "Free entry - when you buy a football retail voucher of £5 per adult or £3 per child."

While the entry conditions may not be all they seem, the Odeon will be completely free of alcohol and smoke on the big night. Not so The Walkabout, where the owner, Matthew Martin, is anticipating a crowd of between one and a half and 2,000 avid viewers. "I expect tomorrow evening to match the emotional level of the last rugby World Cup final," he said. "As far as the city is concerned, this is the biggest game ever."

At St James Park, workmen were toiling on the temporary studio that will house BBC's exalted commentators, Messrs Lineker and Hansen.

At the Cat and Fiddle training ground, as the players completed preparations in wildly fluctuating weather, a 12-year-old interviewer for BBC's Newsround programme was putting the Exeter City manager, Alex Inglethorpe, on the spot. "How well do you think you'll do in the replay?" asked local boy Harry Satloka. "I think we'll certainly work hard," Inglethorpe responded, cautiously.

Who knows? Exeter's fantasy football may yet go into extra-time. But even if reality bludgeons its way back in, Lindsey and Sons have a plan B. "Of course we don't want City to go out," said their sales manager. "But if they do we'll just take out all the white ribbon and turn it into a Valentine's Day display." It seems the shop, as well as the football club, cannot really lose tonight.