Fantasy football comes to Scarborough

FA Cup: Hall's monstrous regiment hogs stage at 'Theatre of Chips' as Conference club take chance to cash in on glamour tie with Chelsea

In the words of the folk song, Scarborough Fair promised tastes of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The Scarborough Circus, playing out on an Esplanade swathed in the dank mists of January, featured tales of footballers accepting £10,000 to bare their bottoms in public, the brazenly tasteless football agent Eric Hall, and a busload of "page three stunnas". The eerily lovely, almost puritan north Yorkshire coast was once all about jacket-for-dinner gentility and the late-summer cricket festivals. No longer: the FA Cup is in town.

Perhaps more than any match in the history of the competition, Scarborough versus Chelsea today symbolises what the FA Cup is supposed to mean. The story of the most cash-rich club in the world taking its players into the desperately cramped dressing-rooms of the McCain Stadium and maybe being beaten by a club whose monthly wage bill would not pay Adrian Mutu's salary for a day, would appeal to several generations of boys' comics. It also appealed to The Sun.

Scarborough cannot be blamed for taking the newspaper's offer of £50,000 to become the team's shirt sponsor and media coordinator for the most publicised day in their history. Their usual income for a home fixture in the Conference is around £15,000; their biggest previous pay day was a League Cup game against Arsenal 11 Januaries ago which realised a 12th of what this afternoon's encounter with Chelsea will make.

So it was that the players arrived at the Villa Esplanade restaurant in a double-decker bus complete with stunnas and Hall, whose presence made some members of the club's staff uneasy. Sadly, he did not utter the word "monster" once and was, throughout, entirely cigar-less. Hall's deal with a men's magazine that would have paid the players to drop their shorts in the unlikely event that Scarborough scored was abandoned yesterday amid threats from the FA, which warned of sendings-off and fines for any "ungentlemanly conduct".

The razzmatazz seemed dated, a throwback to an earlier decade. It would not have been out of place in 1989, the year Scarborough beat Chelsea 3-2 in a League Cup fixture. The decisive goal was struck by Martin Russell, for whom the club paid Leicester £102,000. It was not clear what was more amazing: that Scarborough had once beaten Chelsea or that they had once paid a six-figure sum for a footballer. Over the last decade Scarborough have paid one transfer fee and that was £2,000 to Nuneaton Borough for the services of Mark Quayle. As an investment, it was inspired: Quayle's goal which overcame Southend in last Wednesday's third-round replay has earned the club £500,000.

In many ways today's game is an irrelevance. Whatever happens, Scarborough, a club which a little more than a year ago was in administration, are financially secure for the foreseeable future. Half the money this game makes will go to paying off the debts incurred by a previous regime; the rest will help fund the move that will leave the McCain Stadium, "the Theatre of Chips", behind. The big result was the beating of Southend that secured this fixture and everything that came with it.

Malcolm Reynolds, an urbane merchant banker and an unlikely chairman for a seaside football club, described the eight minutes that separated Quayle's goal from the final whistle as "absolute hell. It was a grossly unfair night for both sides because two clubs who didn't have money were asked to play 90 minutes' football for half a million quid. I'd want to spare a thought for Southend. Because of one goal eight minutes from time, we have got all of this and they have gone back with nothing and that is desperately unfair".

Scarborough were financially ruined by a goalkeeper, Jimmy Glass, whose astonishing goal for Carlisle in the 95th minute of the final match of the 1998-99 season returned the Seadogs to the depths of the Conference. It is something they have never recovered from in a footballing or monetary way and eventually they were tipped into administration, under the weight of debts that at one point stood at £1.2m.

It seemed appropriate that they should have been salvaged by a goalkeeper too. Had Leigh Walker not made an instinctive reaction save from Southend's Neil Jenkins which somehow turned a spiteful, close-range shot on to the bar, there would have been no victory for Quayle to snatch.

Walker owes his reactions to boxing and long sessions with Jim Montgomery, a man responsible for the most celebrated save in the history of the FA Cup, which ensured that Sunderland would, against every logical expectation, beat Leeds to win the 1973 final.

"Jim has told us to relish the moment; it came along once for him," Walker said. "He doesn't really praise me, does Jimmy, he just keeps me on my toes, which is good. He's got a bit of character about him. If I kept a clean sheet, he'd still find something to slag me off about."

For Walker to shut out Chelsea's attack would be wildly, beautifully improbable. The last time Clint Marcelle, who will be shoring up Scarborough's midfield today, faced Chelsea at home, Gianluca Vialli scored four times and Barnsley conceded six. Barnsley's manager, Danny Wilson, said afterwards that Chelsea "had toyed with us" and the great fear is they will do the same today.

With as much respect as he can summon up, the Yorkshire Post's football correspondent asks Walker what is the most times he has picked a ball out of a net. The answer is seven. "I was with Stalybridge and we were playing Crewe in the Cheshire Cup. We sent our reserves and they sent their first team. My mates have said 'I wouldn't want to be in your shoes on Saturday', but what's there to fear?

"It's going to be a good day, no matter what. It's frightening and it's nice because I'm not going to get this attention next Saturday and there's always a little thought that we might have a chance."

The chairman, the manager, Russell Slade, and the goalkeeper agree their best chance might be the pitch. All three used the same word to describe it and that word was "mess". It has been under cover for three days, which has protected it from the rain streaming in from the North Sea but ensured it will not have dried out properly before kick-off.

"They won't like it and we're used to it," Walker remarked. "Most Cup upsets are caused on bad pitches. Remember Ronnie Radford for Hereford?" If there is an upset, it will eclipse Hereford's win over Newcastle in 1972 or Sutton's defeat of Coventry and even Yeovil's victory over Sunderland in the Huish Park mist in 1949. Sunderland may have been "the Bank of England club" but they did not have the reserves of bullion Roman Abramovich has brought to Stamford Bridge.

Reynolds, who has worked in Moscow and has a knowledge of Russian, can at least address Chelsea's owner in his native language and when Claudio Ranieri sent his assistant to the McCain to watch Scarborough play Woking, they conversed in Spanish. Three sites have been identified to take Abramovich's helicopter and Scarborough have been briefed on his security requirements. "The level of luxury and hospitality we have to offer him isn't probably the same as at Stamford Bridge but we always like to make people welcome," Reynolds said. "Fortunately, we have an early kick-off and so we don't have to be too lavish, just a brunch-type buffet."

Unlike Northampton, who have doubled their ticket prices for tomorrow's game with Manchester United, Scarborough have resisted the temptation for big price hikes, although some wonder whether Chelsea will take their share of the gate receipts, worth £60,000, or hand them back.

Asked what the most extraordinary part of this week has been, Reynolds gestures behind him. "This. I have driven up the Esplanade hundreds of times and I never thought I would be standing here with a Sun battle-bus behind me and so many journalists being interested. At least after this I can go back to my usual obscurity."

Outside the restaurant, there is a sign advertising a party tomorrow night. Depending on today's result, it may be a happy wake or some wild and unseasonable celebrations.

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