Ashley's reunion with Fergie is talk of the Town

FA Cup fourth round: The Cobblers awake to a new dream after all those thoughts of what might have been
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The Independent Football

It is one of the enduring fascinations of the FA Cup; its ability to reacquaint those now doing service below stairs with the masters with whom they were once equals. The lower leagues are, no doubt, replete with players who convince themselves that but for fate, injury, poor managerial judgement, they could have been hob-nobbing with the élite. Ashley Westwood and Lee Harper, defender and goalkeeper for Northampton Town, actually had that opportunity, and rejected it.

Just what might have been, the former must still speculate, had he not spurned Sir Alex Ferguson's offer a decade ago of a further two-year contract. And what if, six seasons ago, the latter had accepted Arsène Wenger's recommendation and become understudy to David Seaman?

If they harbour regret, it is well concealed by both players in the prelude to Town's most auspicious day since, well, the last occasion the Cobblers confronted Manchester United in the FA Cup, that afternoon in 1970 when Six of the Best was the punishment Town were administered for having the temerity to believe they could defy a club who had only recently been European champions.

Westwood's personal memories of United stretch back to the early Nineties. A member of the club's Youth Cup-winning team of 1995, alongside the likes of Phil Neville, he retains some contrasting memories of Ferguson. "As a young lad I found him quite intimidating, he was like the headmaster at school," says the Manchester-born defender, who as a boy supported City. "I got a lot of bollockings from the youth coach, Eric Harrison, but if you stepped massively out of line then you'd have to see the manager and he would scare the life out of you. I remember once, after a League Cup game, we went out as a team and broke the curfew and we all got put in front of him in his office. We were slaughtered and told if we stepped out of line again, we'd be straight out of the door."

In fact, it tuned out to be Westwood who made his own decision to head for the exit. Now 27, he still recalls the day, at the end of the 1994-95 season, that, a year into his Old Trafford professional career, he informed Ferguson he wanted a move from Old Trafford. "It became a joke among the lads: if you wanted to speak to him, it would take you a week walking past his office before you got the courage to knock on the door," says Westwood, who desperately hopes to recover from a calf injury in time to play today.

"When I spoke to him eventually, Sir Alex told me he wanted me to sign for another two years. But I had to look at who was in front of me in my position, and there were seven or eight defenders: people like Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce, Paul Parker and David May, and I couldn't see myself playing in the first team in the immediate future. He told me that he'd be demanding a fee, £75,000. He didn't really want any of his players going anywhere, so a fee was set to scare people off or maybe for me to learn a lesson."

However, Crewe's Dario Gradi made an approach. "Sir Alex said. 'Yes, sign your contract and go', and then all of a sudden the fee's £500,000! Eventually, it was settled at a tribunal, and the fee was £80,000. He [Sir Alex] thought it [the fee] was wrong, but we shook hands afterwards. It was my choice to leave and I stand by that decision." From Gresty Road, Westwood moved on to Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday, before arriving at Northampton last summer.

His team-mate, Harper, progressed even further at Highbury, even to the point where he donned an Arsenal first-team jersey to make his debut against Southampton in 1997. "But I didn't feel I was going to oust David Seaman, so although Arsène Wenger offered me an extension to my contract and told me I'd be number two, despite him just signing Alex Manninger, I felt it was time to move on," he says. "I've got no regrets about that, though of course it does go through your mind 'What if? Could I have got a championship medal?' "

Harper, now 32, whose career then took him to QPR and Walsall before North-ampton, adds: "I've got fantastic memories of Arsenal. I was part of the squad that went to the European Cup-Winners' Cup, when Nayim scored that goal. I still watch out for their results.I had an excellent rapport with David [Seaman] and you can't work with a man like Bob Wilson and not learn."

He will have to exhibit all his goalkeeping prowess, faced with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Co. Yet, remind him of events 34 years ago, and ask him about the foreboding that such an ignominious day in Northampton history imparts, and he is forced to concede: "I hadn't heard about that game until the draw was made... but it will be a target for me not to concede eight!"

The truth is that, unless you are Tony Blair, who apparently once recalled being present at Newcastle's St James' Park before he was born, nostalgia tends to be lost on you. That's why, when you broach the events which took place at Northampton's three-sided County Ground on 7 February, 1970, it doesn't actually instil fear in today's host players.

They were also probably unaware of Northampton's brief flirtation with the élite, having ascended from the Fourth Division to the First, in the Sixties. Joe Mercer, manager of Manchester City at the time, said that "the miracle of 1966 was not England winning the World Cup, but Northampton reaching Division One". Promoted with champions Newcastle to the First under the management of Dave Bowen, who would later take charge of Wales, they returned the following season, descended to the Third the season after that and by 1969 were back in the basement.

"Dave Bowen was a good manager, with a shrewd business brain, who saw talent in players, got the best out of them, and then sold them on at a profit. There was also a great camaraderie, like Wimbledon had in later years," explains the club's historian, Frank Grande, who has been following Northampton for nearly 50 years. "The problem was that the directors at the time were all local businessmen who didn't have the kind of money to maintain First Division football."

Grande, a postman, has penned five books on his subject, which may be considered a heroic effort considering that his club spent an inordinate amount of time in Division Three South. His works include Des O'Connor's Contribution to Midfield Artistry. The oleaginous chat-show host and entertainer, who came to Northampton as an evacuee during the Second World War, was briefly on Town's books after the hostilities. "He never really made any impact as a footballer," said Grande. Fortunately, the game's loss was showbiz's great fortune.

The present incumbent at Sixfields Stadium - Town's home since 1994 - Colin Calderwood, the former Spurs centre-half, who replaced Martin Wilkinson as manager of the Third Division side in September, is Northampton's fourth manager in a year. But the current chairman, David Cordoza, a 33-year-old property developer, has insisted on continuity. Calderwood has a three-year contract, and the chairman has insisted he will see it out.

Today, anything is possible. In 1958 Northampton defeated Arsenal 3-1 in the FA Cup third round. Victory against the champions would be an even greater achievement. If not, as goalkeeper Harper says: "There is a chance for all of us to show what we can do. A chance for us to say, 'Maybe we could have done better'." On a special day for Northampton, his words epitomise what, for many players, the FA Cup still represents.