Gulls set sights on Seagulls

Liz Searl reports on the rise of Canvey Island, who meet the 1983 FA Cup finalists in the first round on Sunday
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Three years ago, Canvey Island Football Club were going nowhere in the Essex Senior League, training underneath a lightbulb stuck to a wooden post.

Since then the club have enjoyed a remarkable transformation into a successful team challenging for promotion from the Second Division of the Icis League (the old Isthmian League) and preparing this weekend for their finest hour.

Through to the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time in their history, they welcome Liam Brady's Second Division Brighton side to their Park Lane ground on Sunday. When the Gulls meet the Seagulls it will be evidence of both Canvey's rise and Brighton's fall. Brighton, FA Cup finalists in 1983, are now one place off the bottom of the Second Division and a home win is far from unlikely.

The man behind Canvey's rise has been their manager, Jeff King, a local businessman. Since he joined, the team's roll of honours from its foundation in 1926 has more than doubled, to include appearances in the quarter and semi-finals of the FA Vase. From their origins in the Metropolitan and Essex Senior Leagues, since 1992 Canvey have blazed a trail through the Icis League and are now going strong in the Second Division.

King is the Islanders' spiritual saviour, but the club's financial good health is largely due to the excellent links with the local community. The club is self-sufficient, having relied on the good-will and skills of its supporters to improve facilities at the ground. Gone are the old lightbulbs stuck to wooden posts and in their place is a new set of floodlights.

Park Lane's FA Cup first-round debut on Sunday in front of a capacity crowd will be King's thanks for their support. A financially brave step for a small club - profits would have been more forthcoming at a larger ground - it may, however, give the home side a distinct advantage.

``For a team not used to playing so close to a crowd, it will be quite unnerving, especially when they are playing in front of four thousand people desperate for Canvey to pull off a win,'' says the captain, Kevin Lee, once of Chelmsford City and one of the club's stalwarts.

Lee will not admit to planning any tactics for Sunday, but Canvey's inspiration on the field is so obvious that it may be their downfall. If Brighton stick to Tony Mahoney, the 35-year-old centre forward, once of Fulham and Crystal Palace, and the young forward Andy Jones, then Canvey will lose a large part - although by no means all - of their inspiration on the field.

Mahoney is the solid, thundering attacker who will take anyone on to drive through towards goal. Jones is the opposite, a devastatingly quick attacking force who takes a butterfly path to score, and should match Liam Brady's bunch for speed when his team-mates may fail.

The visitors will be trying to get one past a former Brighton keeper, Jon Keeley. Midfielder Glenn Pennyfather, once of Southend, Crystal Palace, and Ipswich, completes the line-up of ex-professionals.

King, however, is surprisingly modest about the outcome. ``It will be a major upset if we win, and to be honest I don't really think we will,'' he says. But given Canvey's present form - a 5-0 win against Tilbury last Saturday, the advantage of playing at home, and Brighton's poor form, it seems almost short-sighted to deny his team a chance.