Price is right for small-town giants

COMMENTARY

It did not need the FA Cup to bring a touch of magic to the Forest of Dean. Local lore has it that the ancient forest has been bewitched for centuries.

But for all the legends of Arthurian knights and wizards, the inhabitants are no more immune to the old pot's spell than anyone else. Any area with a heritage centre can always do with fresh romance, if only to focus pride on the present, and on Saturday the modern-day Foresters created a fairy-tale for themselves.

Cinderford Town, the Cinderella club of the FA Cup first round, twice got to the ball first and sent it into the back of the net. Bromsgrove Rovers may not be a League side, but the shock was a seismic one in the non-League world. It was also a vivid demonstration of the FA Cup's enduring potential for joy.

Bromsgrove are one of the part-time game's big fish. Three years ago they missed promotion to the Football League by one place, two years ago they knocked Northampton out of the FA Cup and narrowly lost at Barnsley.

Cinderford are one of the minnows. Six years ago they were in the Gloucestershire County League playing in front of a cluster rather than a crowd, 30 being an average attendance.

Three promotions have carried them into the Beazer Homes League Southern Division, two grades below Bromsgrove. They have also levelled, at a cost of pounds 70,000, a pitch which sloped 18 feet from one corner to the other - enough to make Yeovil's famous old Huish look like a bowling green.

There is no local Jack Walker involved. "This has been done," Chris Warren, the secretary, said, "through hard work and volunteers." This is the level where shirt sponsorship is sold by raffle; where supporters travel on the team coach; and where the club apologises for having to double its admission price (to pounds 6) under FA regulations. It is a refreshing antidote to the growing greed of the professional game.

So, too, is the attitude of Chris Price. Five years ago he was playing against Internazionale for Aston Villa and he later became one of Kenny Dalglish's first signings for Blackburn Rovers. While he never played for England except at youth level, he did play at Wembley and San Siro. By the standards of his current team-mates, he has been there, done that, yet you could not have found a more committed player in the ground.

The 35-year-old scored the first and had a hand in the second. The effects of a viral infection then forced him off the pitch but not out of the action. As Cinderford hung on, Price, looking faintly comical in a red- and-white bobble hat, maintained a high-decibel stream of cussing and cajoling. "Be strong, be strong," he barked.

They were, none more so than Gareth Howells, a centre-half with the build of a prop forward. Late on, he crashed into Rickey Carter, Bromsgrove's star striker, taking man, ball and half an acre of sodden sod. As Carter, who had not been fit enough to start, understandably reacted angrily and the referee reached for his yellow card, Price turned away, purring `Yes'.

Alongside Howells was Chris Boxall, a Wembley veteran of the 1987 FA Trophy with Kidderminster. In attack was Danny Hill, who had scored 12 goals in 19 games and looked capable of playing at a much higher level. Hill was one of four local lads, no mean achievement in an area where most schools play rugby.

Cinderford's giantkilling was the very stuff of the FA Cup's romance. This was their first appearance in the competition proper and within half a mile of the ground sheep can be seen grazing alongside the high street while hens peck in back gardens. The ground has exposed grass banking on three sides and 250 seats (concrete benches) in all.

The occasion was as gripping as the Cup will offer all season. On a mudbath pitch, it was hardly the football we need to develop to succeed in Europe but it was compelling entertainment.

From the first, Bromsgrove looked stronger, fitter and sharper. But for an outstanding save by Russ Bowles they would have been ahead within 17 minutes. Then Cinderford scored in their first sustained attack. A large deflection looped Chris Smith's cross over Chris Taylor, Bromsgrove's goalkeeper, and Price tapped in.

Eighteen minutes later, after another excellent save by Bowles, Hill drove a loose ball through a crowd of players after John Hamilton's cross and Price's hustling had caused problems. From then on, it was a matter of hanging on.

As the fog rolled in, making the players look like spooky silhouettes in the wan glow of the recently installed floodlights, Bromsgrove piled forward. Shots were blocked, went wide, or hit the side-netting. Bowles, a former boxer, dropped the ball in the box but recovered; a corner fell at Andy Dale's feet but he could not react in time; a bad back-pass was hacked clear and 19 corners went begging.

With 10 minutes left, Howells brought down Jimmy Skelding in the area and the full-back got up to convert the penalty. Cinderford bordered on panic, but Howells cleared off the line and they even survived four minutes of added time.

Tim Harris, who has been manager for most of the past eight years, said words could not express his delight. Price, more accustomed to the media glare, found some. "It is even better than the good times with Villa," he said. "I am so pleased for them," he added, gesturing around a jubilant dressing-room. "They have proved there is not much difference in the standard; we had the will to win."

"We are 90 minutes from the big boys," Harris said. First, however, it is back to the bread and butter. Next Saturday the visitors are Erith and Belvedere.

Goals: Price (32) 1-0; Hill (50) 2-0; Skelding (pen, 80) 2-1 .

Cinderford Town (3-5-2): Bowles; Cole, Boxall, Howells; Price (Criddle, 52), Thomas, Hamilton, Crouch, Wilton; Hill (Townsend, 78), C Smith. Substitute not used: Harris.

Bromsgrove Rovers (3-5-2): Taylor; Dowling (Carter, 64), Richardson, Randall; Skelding, Smith, Grocutt, Crisp, Brighton; Dale, Radburn (Power, 78). Substitute not used: Glasser.

Referee: J Rushton (Stoke).

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