Humble brethren poised to pounce

FA CUP THIRD ROUND: Premiership elite facing a weekend of fear and choking. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Two national lotteries will dominate conversation this weekend. In the version better known as the FA Cup, those who roll over supposedly superior opposition tend to view the jackpot in emotional rather than financial terms.

The delirious few who combine both aspects traditionally do it in the third round, where 65 members of what is now the Premiership have bowed to humbler brethren over the past two decades. Most of the elite have suffered such a humiliation - Manchester United at Bournemouth and Arsenal at Wrexham being classic examples - with six victims in both 1979 and '92 and only 1981 failing to produce an upset.

So the chances, statistically speaking, are that as many as three Premiership casualties will join the losers of tomorrow's Chelsea-Newcastle tie in being left to the time-honoured pursuit of "concentrating on the League." The numbered balls certainly did their bit to enhance romance: 11 top- flight teams visit lower-division territory, among them the current bottom four.

The Premiership giants with most to fear, however, may be Leeds, whose FA Cup record over those 20 years has been largely wretched: two semi- finals but only one other run beyond the last 32. Tomorrow they visit Derby, where they won in a friendly and a Coca-Cola Cup tie earlier this season, before the First Division leaders started their present surge of nine wins in 10 games.

In similar circumstances 12 months ago it took an 87th-minute equaliser to save Leeds' skin - and possibly Howard Wilkinson's job - at Walsall. Now his tenure could again come under threat for, if Derby's run continues, Leeds' entire season will be resting on the outcome of the Coca-Cola semi- final at home to Reading on Wednesday. And by then, Tony Yeboah will be with the Ghanaian squad in South Africa.

In terms of a disparity in league places, Aston Villa have far more to lose than Leeds, although Gravesend & Northfleet, 126 rungs below them, surely relinquished what slender chance they had of winning when they agreed to switch to Villa Park. The Beazer Homes League stragglers, whose consolation will be a profit of around pounds 100,000, at least seem intent on going out in style.

Chris Weller, who works in a prison when he is not managing the part- timers, promises all-out attack. His opposite number, Brian Little, often recalls that the most stressful day of his managerial career came at Welling, Gravesend's Kentish neighbours, when he was on the brink of leading Darlington out of the Vauxhall Conference. Little admitted yesterday: "As it gets closer you think: 'Crikey, what if we lose?'"

The answer is that it would rank among the great Cup shocks of all time, alongside such feats as Hereford, then of the Southern League, overcoming Newcastle, of the former First Division, in 1972. The only other non-League survivors, Woking, appear to have a better chance at Swindon. "If they don't beat us," the Conference club's manager, Geoff Chapple, said in a piece of blatant Cup kidology, "then something's badly wrong."

While the prospects of today's Hereford toppling Tottenham look slim, the Third Division's 15th-placed team are at least on their own paddy- field of dreams. In Nicky Cross and Steve White they also have a strike force with a combined age of 72 - a latterday Ronnie Radford and Ricky George, perhaps - who have sufficient guile to keep that young upstart Gary Mabbutt on his 34-year-old toes.

One of the Premiership sides most at risk, Coventry, take a bizarre record to Plymouth, having lifted the Cup in 1987 yet lost to the likes of Sutton, Northampton and Cambridge United in only twice advancing beyond the fourth round in the other 19 of the past 20 seasons.

Third top in the First meet third bottom in the Premier as Leicester receive Manchester City in a re-run of the 1969 final; Queen's Park Rangers head for Tranmere aware that their hosts are stronger than Stockport, who put them out at this stage two years ago; and Bolton, with Ian Porterfield, Sunderland's Wembley hero in 1973, taking his first match as coach, are on a hiding to nothing at Bradford City.

Sunderland, now reviving splendidly under Peter Reid, may be catching last year's beaten finalists, Manchester United, at a good time. Everton, the holders, should come through at home to Stockport, while across Stanley Park the main point of interest may be whether Liverpool give Ian Rush MBE the opportunity to score the goal against Rochdale that would take him past Denis Law's competition record of 41.

Blackburn's barren away sequence must give Ipswich, 5-1 winners in their last home fixture, hope at Portman Road. Nor will Sheffield United travel to Arsenal in quite the trepidation they might have felt when the draw was made. Since then, Howard Kendall has revamped the Bramall Lane line-up and the Gunners have lost three of their last four matches.

There will be no love lost at Southampton, where Portsmouth drop in on the neighbours, or at Birmingham, to whom Wolves make an even shorter journey, though the most intriguing "derby" is that between the Holdsworth twins. David, of Watford, marks Dean, of Wimbledon, for the first time in a competitive game.

Glenn Roeder, who now manages Watford but has played with both, said: "You only have to speak to them to know who's the centre-half and who's the centre-forward. David's a sensible, serious lad whereas Dean's a bouncy and flamboyant character." Come tonight, unless it is a draw at Vicarage Road, you will only have to look at them to know who has won.

Kendall's Wembley dream,

Cup team news, page 26