They went to La Manga during the week, but it may as well have been La Mancha. Farnborough Town's tilt at the Premiership giants fell short yesterday as Arsenal breezed into the fifth round of the FA Cup.
But it was windfalls, not Don Quixote's windmills, they were left counting as the tie yielded the non-leaguers £600,000 – plus the memory of scoring at the Clock End after playing for approaching an hour with 10 men. "That was our trophy," said Farnborough's manager, chairman, owner and chief bottlewasher, Graham Westley.
His players may have spent four days at the exclusive Spanish sporting resort, but it takes more than a midweek break to tackle the Cup holders and Premiership leaders – especially if you forfeit the one chance you had: home advantage.
Playing at Highbury also earned Farnborough the belated opprobrium of the Football Association and chastisement from all quarters. They have done this before, of course, opting to play West Ham United at Upton Park a decade ago in the third round, which went to a replay.
In truth, judging by the rapt expressions on the faces of the Hampshire club's 6,000 supporters, going to Highbury was probably the best decision. Westley was unrepentant and said he would do the same again, if he was ever given another such opportunity. "I have no regrets," he said. "We simply do not have the infrastructure to stage such a game." These two clubs are separated by 102 places in the League pyramid and despite Farnborough's memorable Cup run and intense preparation – their fitness earned plaudits from the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger – they are a fairly average Nationwide Conference outfit and one with eight full-time professionals.
As the home side in the tie, they wore their usual red-and-white stripes and ran out to the theme from the film Rocky. Westley, who has a Masters degree in management psychology, said beforehand that Rocky had won, Jack had cut down the beanstalk – so who knows. The problem was, of course, that this was real life.
If he needed any reminder he had only to look at the Arsenal teamsheet. Wenger used the match as first-team practice and gave a run-out to Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour, returning from injury, plus Kanu and Pascal Cygan. If anything it was a stronger line-up than had faced Oxford United in the previous round and was easy preparation for Wednesday's Premiership game against Liverpool.
And so the non-league dream lasted for 19 minutes until a lethargic Arsenal shook off their torpor and Sol Campbell headed home direct from a corner. Francis Jeffers added a second four minutes later as he tapped in from Kolo Touré's cut-back. "We did not know what to expect," Wenger said. "But once we were two-nil up there was no doubt." The remnants of a contest disappeared soon after as Farnborough's makeshift centre-back Christian Lee was sent-off for tugging back Jeffers when he was clean through.
The referee, Alan Wiley, was roundly booed as Lee trudged off but he had little choice. The striker was only playing because first-choice Barry Laker had failed to shake off an injury, despite the attentions of a faith healer,.
Farnborough had ditched their usual shirt sponsor – Westley's own company – in favour of a deal with a tabloid newspaper. But there was never any chance this time of it being The Sun wot won it.
Jeffers stretched the lead to three after the break and then, following the unedifying distraction of a male stripper (from the Farnborough end – but, judging from the physique surely one not organised by The Currant Bun), Baptiste struck. The goal was a severe embarrassment for the lumbering Cygan who was left struggling for pace as the striker raced through.
Baptiste steadied himself and was composed enough to pick up the rebound from his first effort to scuff the ball over stand-in goalkeeper Stuart Taylor. It was his seventh FA Cup goal this season.
Within seconds substitute Dennis Bergkamp restored the three-goal lead and Lauren completed the scoring after 79 minutes, but it mattered little. Farnborough had their moment in The Sun.
At the final whistle, the crowd of 35,108 (a new club record for Farnborough) rose to give a generous standing ovation. The tannoy was then handed over to the non-leaguers and the crowd reminded by the announcer that their next opponents were Hereford United – who probably recorded the most memorable FA Cup upset when they beat Newcastle United in the Seventies. There was no chance of that being upstaged yesterday. But, then again, that game took place on the minnows' own pitch.