From ball-boy to giant-killer

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Steve Mcmahon's first job in football was chasing after Joe Royle's misplaced headers at Goodison Park. The old Evertonian, a ball-boy in the early 1970s and snapping young midfielder a decade later, returns this afternoon with the scalp of Royle's off-colour Blues in his sights. Victory for his Swindon Town side would greatly enhance his managerial reputation. Whatever the outcome of the FA Cup third-round tie, though, at 35 the Merseysider already boasts an impressive pedigree.

In the two years and two months since he replaced John Gorman at the County Ground, the former England player has succeeded in providing the rocking Robins with the stability they desperately required. Though unable to prevent their freefall into the Second Division in 1995, he halted their alarming descent from the Premiership days of 1993-94. Championship success last season has been followed by encouraging progress again this season. Huddersfield would testify to that, having been thrashed 6-0 at the County Ground. So would Alex Ferguson, whose admittedly less than full-strength side required a late Paul Scholes goal to beat Swindon 2- 1 at Old Trafford in the Coca-Cola Cup.

The abandonment of their home game against Grimsby eight days ago, while leading 1-0, and the postponement of their New Year's Day fixture against Queen's Park Rangers saw them drop helplessly from 10th to 16th place. The play- offs, however, remain a realistic enough target.

It is a minor miracle that things are looking up for Swindon. After venturing way above their heads in a doomed attempt to swim with the big fish, they could have easily sunk without trace. Instead, their debts of pounds 2m are all but cleared and, thanks to McMahon's shrewd stewardship, they have an upwardly mobile team again. "He's done well," Royle, his rival this afternoon, acknowledged. "He's dealt well in the cheap market. He's done a similar job to the one I did at Oldham."

McMahon's overhaul has been so extensive Kevin Horlock is likely to be the only member of his team this afternoon who played in the 6-2 slaughter Swindon suffered at Goodison two years ago. Goalkeeper Fraser Digby, an absentee that day, is the only other survivor from the club's Premiership squad. With the pounds 1.3m sale of Jan-Aage Fjortoft alone, McMahon has bought three key strikers - Wayne Allison, Peter Thorne and Steve Cowe - and still left Swindon with a profit of more than pounds 500,000. He has also made three adept young free-transfer acquisitions: Steve Finney from Manchester City and Peter Holcroft and Alex Smith from Everton.

"We've had to wheel and deal because of the financial side," McMahon said. "It's taken a while, but we're getting there, slowly. We're going in the right direction. It's been a massive job." McMahon, who recently signed a contract until 2001, has tackled his job with tenacity and diligence reminiscent of the peak playing days he enjoyed, after breaking through with Everton and moving on to Aston Villa, as Kenny Dalglish's first signing for Liverpool. He even braved the back pain which prompted his declared retirement to play 20 minutes as an emergency substitute at Stoke last month.

That cameo was required because of a casualty list as long as Everton's has been in recent weeks. Swindon will be below full-strength again today, a factor that may prove a saving grace for an Everton side on a three- game losing streak, but McMahon cannot disguise his natural relish. "It's a great tie for the club and for the players," he said. "For me, it's always special to go back to Merseyside. I had great times there and I'll always appreciate the start I got at Everton. They're a fantastic club."

McMahon wore the red of Liverpool when he collected a winner's medal at the end of the Merseyside FA Cup final derby in 1989. "I was always an Evertonian, though," he pointed out. "I only changed over when I had to professionally. I was a ball boy at Goodison when Joe Royle played for Everton."

So was the rival he faces this afternoon his boyhood hero? "No," McMahon replied. "I always wanted to be Alan Ball." And Alan Ball always craved the kind of managerial success Goodison's old ball boy is steadily achieving.