Things could hardly be rosier for Yeovil Town. In their first season as a League club they stand third in the Third Division. Then, for these renowned Cup battlers, there is the small matter of a home game next Sunday in the FA competition against Liver-pool which will pour £265,000 of TV money into their bank account. And should Yeovil win, as they did so famously against Sunderland 54 years ago, champagne will flood the dressing room.
Well, no, actually. Yeovil have got where they are today, under the pragmatic managership of Gary Johnson, by shunning alcohol. Though the thought of such a regime could induce a fit of the vapours among some of the Premiership's mega-earners, Johnson insists his tight (in the nicest sense of the word) squad of 22 are behind him every inch on sobriety's path.
"We entered into this commitment," Johnson explained over a mince pie and coffee at Huish [pronounced Hugh-ish] Park. "The boys who could not understand that having a drink dehydrates you have been moved on and we are left with a very professional group of people. Maybe some of them like a drink, but they certainly don't because they know it would affect them in a negative way. None of them had a drink over Christmas.
"I haven't banned alcohol, all you can do is advise them, but if their form falls because of that they are not in the team. And if they were having a pint on the quiet I would know, because I see 'em every day and I would even know if they were having an extra sugar in their tea. I am a good people-watcher and I know exactly when they are up and down. It's not a strict regime, it's a regime that's getting them success."
The team captain, Terry Skiverton, lends full support. A 28-year-old central defender who started his career at Chelsea ("I was a bit of a drinker then"), he said: "If you are out drinking you can't do the work the gaffer wants. There is nobody here who is coming to the end of his career and is set in his ways about liking a drink. Since the lads stopped going out at night we have started winning things. Nobody wants to fall out of this team. We have created history by getting into the League and we can create more by kicking on and trying to get ourselves into the Second Division."
The 45-year-old Johnson, born and raised in Fulham, rules out nothing for his team. He has amassed an impressive CV as a player at Watford and FC Malmo in Sweden, manager at Kettering Town and Cambridge United, youth academy director at Watford and the national coach of Latvia for two years until he joined Yeovil in the summer of 2001. "I take a lot of credit for Latvia getting into the Euro 2004 finals," he grinned.
"I certainly haven't banned the Liver-pool word here," said Johnson. "But we have had to focus on the League and, since the Cup draw, we have won two of our three games. The Third Division is the biggest thing, of course it is, but after the Swansea match the Liverpool game becomes the most important thing for this club.
"We gave ourselves the target of being in the top three by the Liverpool game and we got there slightly earlier than expected. We don't give ourselves unrealistic targets. Against Liverpool a realistic target is to go out and produce our football. We want to play our game against the very best and see how it affects them. People tell me it's a good time to be playing Liverpool. Maybe it is, if you're Man United or Arsenal. You are talking about a team who are still one of the best dozen in Europe. They are going through a bit of a rough time but they have some fantastic players. We have to keep our feet on the ground without being frightened, because if we start thinking about their pace, ability and world-class players, then we might not perform on the day.
"We will prepare the same as we would if we were playing Carlisle. No one needs to tell me Michael Owen is quick, I have a nice video of everything Liverpool have been doing over the last month. I thought about taking the team away beforehand but I don't want to pamper 'em and I don't want to do anything different. Sometimes you take players away to get that togetherness. But we have already got that because everybody lives in Yeovil. And if I said we were preparing differently, then we couldn't have been doing it right previously and I am slitting my own throat. Liverpool will be playing their best side because it's an opportunity to stay in Europe. But, of course, it's an opportunity for us to get into Europe."
Johnson's tongue was firmly in cheek with that last comment, but Yeovil have certainly come on since his arrival. They won the FA Trophy in 2002 and were Conference champions last season. However, Yeovil's enduring fame is down to that 1949 occasion when they beat Sunderland 2-1 on the famous slope which is occupied these days by a supermarket, the move to Huish Park having been made in 1990. Yeovil have reached the first round proper more than 40 times, and their ground record of 8,612 for the 1993 tie against Arsenal seems certain to be shattered in the current frenzied clamour for tickets.
"When I first came our average gate was 2,500," said Johnson. "Now it is nearly 6,000. And the reason I am enjoying it so much is because I have a group of players I love working with. One is my own son [Lee], but I treat them all like my own sons. I told them, 'I want us to create a reputation and guard it with our lives'. We have this reputation of being good footballers, young, athletic, nice fellers, boy-next-door types. And we have kept it. It's known as Fortress Huish here, very tight, very close and partisan."
What Johnson will not be doing is advising his team to enjoy their big day out. "Saying that means you aren't worried about the result. This group of lads will be gutted if they get beat. It would be fantastic to get through, brilliant. No one is really expecting us to win, except maybe us. If we lose I'll be disappointed but I'll pick 'em up and focus on the next game." For a club whose motto is "Achieve By Unity", Yeovil will be attempting to do precisely that against Liverpool. And if they manage it, nobody will begrudge them their celebrations with fruit juice and mineral water.Reuse content