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Friday, Jan. 24, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

F.A. Cup gives minnows chance on the big stage


LONDON -- It is not so much David versus Goliath as David versus Goliath's big brother.

Christopher Davies

Word had it that the F.A. Cup had lost its glamour and magic but rumors of its demise have proved premature.

Had the Football Association hired a crack team of public relations experts and spin doctors it could not have come up with a more intriguing fourth-round tie than Farnborough Town (struggling to stay in the top half of the Nationwide Conference) against Arsenal (F.A. Cup holder and Premiership champion).

The tie is everything the competition should embrace. Minnow versus giant, one team that knows it will lose against one that knows it will win -- one team playing the best, the other playing the team playing the best.

If Farnborough can even score a goal it will rank as a shock. Taking Arsenal to a replay or -- pass the smelling salts -- beating it is the wildest of wild dreams.

Yet dreams do occasionally come true and the fact that Farnborough, whose team includes a teacher, a tree surgeon, a carpenter and a fitness instructor, will even play the champion of England is a fantasy that has become reality.

Father Cuthbert, one of the monks at the town's St. Michael's Abbey, said: "Prayers might not be enough. Indeed, we shall be praying for a miracle."

Farnborough, in northeast Hampshire, has a population of 55,000 and is best known for its annual air display.

One Internet site lists among "eating and drinking in Farnborough" the following: Belly Busters (kebabs), the Lemon Plaice (fish, hopefully), Burger King (self-explanatory), Pizza Hut (ditto) and a pub called the Ham and Blackbird (apparently also known locally as the Blam and Hackbird or Spam and Fatbird).

Famous residents and ex-residents include Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie (still residing in Farnborough Abbey), Paul Weller the former lead singer with the Jam (which any town should be proud of) Tory MP David Mellor (which many towns would not admit) and Stacey Hart -- yes THE Stacey Hart who was in The Beach with Leonardo Di Caprio.

Unfortunately, Arsenal fans will be spared the delights of Farnborough because Town will not play host to the Gunners on Saturday despite being drawn out first.

Farnborough's Cherrywood Road stadium has a capacity of just 4,163 and only 640 seats. Should Farnborough win promotion to the Football League (unlikely but this is proving to be a season of unlikely achievements for the club) it would not be allowed in because the facilities are not up to the required standard.

On police advice the tie has been switched to Highbury just as Farnborough's F.A. Cup third-round clash with West Ham in 1991-92 was moved to Upton Park.

If history can repeat itself in every respect Farnborough will be delighted. Ten years ago Farnborough drew 1-1 in the first game and only an 89th-minute goal by Trevor Morley saved the Hammers' blushes in the replay, also at Upton Park.

F.A. regulations dictate a tie can only be changed for safety and security issues. Financial incentives are not a justifiable reason to relocate but there are those who believe, rather cynically and wrongly, that Farnborough has cashed in.

For the record, Farnborough will earn around £600,000 at Highbury instead of half that sum had the tie not been switched -- not that Town had any realistic option.

The Nationwide Conference club will cherish its day in the spotlight at Highbury even if the "visitors" will be more like an Arsenal reserve team than Arsenal's first team.

Arsene Wenger has said that the change of venue "will certainly affect what kind of side I put out." So the chances of changing shirts with Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira are rather like Farnborough's chances of winning.

"I would expect us to win the tie wherever it was played," said Wenger. "We will obviously be a lot more comfortable playing at home. I will definitely be rotating the squad against Farnborough.

"We have a lot of important games coming up and it's important our players are kept fresh. That will affect my thinking when it comes to choosing the team I put out against them."

Farnborough's players have spent a few days this week at La Manga in Spain before returning to relax at a local health resort preparing for the biggest day of their lives.

The quote of the week prize goes to Nathan Bunce, the Farnborough defender who is also a tree surgeon (you can see the headline -- "Bunce wants to chop Arsenal down to size").

Bunce nearly lost an arm after a row with a chainsaw and needed four operations plus 458 stitches before the limb could be re-attached.

"It was horrendous," said Bunce. "It put me out of football for a year."

You don't get stories like that from Arsenal players.

For obvious reasons I shall refrain from naming names.

But a good source told me that a Premiership chairman has instructed a team of lawyers to find evidence that his manager has been pocketing money from transfer "bungs."

The chairman concerned said that he knew the manager was "at it" and "whatever it takes" should be done to nail the person concerned. "Find a way to go through his bank accounts, bug his phone . . . just bring me his head."

My source also tells me the manager in question knows what his chairman is up to.

Not quite what Pele had in mind when he called soccer "the beautiful game."



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