Old Firm pair arrive in Lilliput

David McKinney on the most distant of outsiders in this weekend's Scottish Cup third round
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The Independent Online
If dreams of players can take them into the realms of fantasy football before big games, the players and managers of Keith and Whitehill Welfare may have been struggling to keep the night- mare demons at bay this week.

The two small non-League clubs have been propelled into football's fast lane as they prepare to take on the might of Rangers and Celtic in the third round of the Tennent's Scottish Cup. They await their fate with excitement and dread.

Home advantage has been wrenched from them by officialdom, which deemed their grounds unworthy of such occasions, and so Pittodrie and Easter Road have been hired.

Keith meet Rangers today, while Whitehill face Celtic tomorrow: the two smallest clubs in the competition facing the biggest. Not surprisingly, the bookmakers have installed Keith as 20,000-1 to lift the trophy.

Jim Hamilton, the Keith manager, was looking on the bright side this week: "We'd have real nightmares if we looked too closely at the Rangers side and, to be honest, I haven't thought much about them at all yet.

"I'll wait until after lunch on Saturday before talking to the players, although I'm happy Paul Gascoigne is suspended. I would say we are as good as any team in the Third Division and several in the second. If everything was even we wouldn't stand a chance, but this is cup football and you have to hope for the best."

Like any manager in his position, Hamilton has under his charge an assortment of part-time players who will wish only to do their best and be able to walk out of the ground at the end with heads held high.

Their town will be deserted on the day, with 7,500 tickets sold in a place with a population of 5,000. This is the closest Scottish football gets to the small town giant-killing of the FA Cup yet, such is the gulf between top and bottom, genuine cup shocks are isolated events.

"I've never played in front of more than 4,000 and many of the lads are the same," said Scott Taylor, the Keith playmaker. "I hope we don't get stage fright on the day and so far everyone I've met has either asked for a ticket or told me to make sure we keep the score down to six!

"I've been daydreaming that in years to come I'll be able to say I scored against Andy Goram and Rangers."

Whitehall Welfare are heading for a sell-out against a resurgent Celtic, and they too can report record ticket sales. For a side which performs to 50 or 60 spectators on an average Saturday, 2,500 tickets sold on the first day of the public sale gives an indication of the level of interest in the area.

On such a momentous day even the manager, Dave Smith, is in danger of being wrapped up in the magic of the cup. He is toying with the idea of getting in on the act, of dusting down the boots and making a farewell bow to the game at the age of 38.

"It would be tempting, but I know I'll be nervous enough just looking over to their dug-out and knowing I'm pitting my wits against Tommy Burns. Celtic have players who have star status draped over them, so we'll be realistic about what we can do, in the knowledge that we'll have to withstand a lot of pressure.

"The days of Berwick Rangers upsetting the mighty Rangers are in the past; Celtic are a professional side with professional players.

"I have players who are determined to show they can play at a higher level, while I have ambitions myself to move on in management, and this is the platform we have been waiting for. In addition, the revenue from this one game will keep the club going well into the next century."

Smith can count on around pounds 50,000 for this game but he is likely to be left counting the cash as a consolation at full time. His goalkeeper, Scott Cantley, is in no doubt as to his task on the day.

"My worst nightmare is to let in double figures. I'm not saying I'll be happy to let in seven or eight goals but 10 or more would be a disaster. I'll do my best to keep the score down because I don't want to be remembered as the man who let in 10 or 15 goals against Celtic."

That kind of humiliation is the ultimate fear of any small club when jousting with the giants, and the players of both sides can learn a lesson from Alex Smith, the manager of Clyde, who took both Aberdeen and St Mirren to cup success.

In his days as manager of Stirling Albion, he watched his players go through the build-up to a big cup tie, only to find the occasion fell flat.

"The media had hyped up the game for the whole week and I was hoping for a good 90 minutes at the end of it, for the players to remember, but our big day lasted just 20 minutes by which time we were two goals down and the tie was lost."

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