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Worthington Cup 1st Round 1st Leg, 22/8/00
Cheltenham Town
Twilight zone
By Matt Rowson

If (or when) the domestic game ever succumbs to the bleatings of the Premiership and finally abandons the wilting League Cup, the two-legged first round should be preserved for posterity. For this is a twilight zone, an anachronism in the modern day of multi-million pound TV deals and Bradford paying players with long hair thirty-odd grand a week.

The fact is, since so few clubs in the higher divisions are really bothered enough about the Worthington Cup to commit much to it in the early stages, it makes no odds whether you enter at the first or second or even third round stage. What value is a bye when you don't really give a toss anyway? On the other hand, being in the first round rather than the second gives us a better chance of pulling a draw like this... a porthole, as it is, into another world. Rather than playing Grimsby or Birmingham (again). So, in the age of winner takes all and only gives it back when it can be bothered, we are rewarded for finishing bottom of the Premiership. Brilliant.

There is, of course, no comparison between Watford and Cheltenham Town. Three years ago the Robins were in the Southern League. Last season they ventured into the Football League for the first time, a (relatively) shiny new world of professional clubs, bigger stadia, higher profile media coverage and a higher level of football. And Southend. So, clearly, a million miles from the Hornets' experiences.

The boss is Steve Cotterill, a dynamic, widely respected and much-coveted manager with faith in his own convictions. So no parallels there, either. And the club, through prudence and tidy management, actually recorded a profit (of 31k) in the last financial year... unheard of in Division 3. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, the season starts and the Cheltenham Town message board is full of optimistic discussions of the prospects for the season ahead, debates on the merits or otherwise of various team members and discussion of how the return of the injured individuals will catapult the side irreversibly upwards. Which is... well, pretty similar to our discussions, all things considered.

I'm labouring a point, obviously. But the point is that football at Cheltenham really isn't that different to football at Watford. Just as we couldn't really care for Watford any more were international stars like Rivaldo, Zidane and Chris Sutton pulling on the yellow shirt, so Cheltenham's support are equally devoted to their side, albeit perhaps fewer in number.

And it's precisely because there are people who care so deeply about Cheltenham, Rochdale and the rest that Manchester United's decision to withdraw from last year's FA Cup remains so utterly atrocious. A third round tie against the Red Bastards could have guaranteed the future of any third division side, at least for another season.

All the more offensive, the bizarre court case that is propelling football towards disaster by ruling the transfer system illegal. Just who is that supposed to benefit exactly? When the potential chaos is severe enough for even FIFA to notice and comment you know that something must be wrong.

Christ, it makes me mad. And I'm not even on the anti-malarials yet. Just wait for the Portsmouth preview...

The Robins' keeper will probably be Steve Book, a popular shot-stopper whose positioning and concentration are sometimes called into question. These frailties were highlighted in the opening game of the season when an out-of-position Book was beaten from forty yards. Main cover is Shane Higgs, who made one of his ten league appearances to date for Bristol Rovers in the thrilling game won so dramatically by Tommy Mooney's defining moment three seasons ago.

Town are strong on defensive cover; right-back will probably be Neil Howarth, an occasional centre-back who scored the Robins' late equaliser against Mansfield. Anthony Griffin is another option. The versatile Richard Walker will be on the left.

In the centre will probably be long-serving Chris Banks and John Brough, who is also used as a striker, although the uncomplicated Mark Freeman is another candidate.

Town's attempts at recruitment are currently focused on the midfield, a situation rendered more urgent by an injury to Russell Milton. The ex-Arsenal trainee and Cheltenham playmaker is expected to miss both legs of the cup-tie.

In his absence, the wide midfield options are likely to be taken by the promising Mike Duff, and classy former Bournemouth fullback Jamie Victory. The central partnership is likely to be aggressive ex-Kidderminster man Mark Yates, and the equally rugged and mouthy Lee Howells, Cheltenham's longest-serving player. Veteran and assistant-manager Bob Bloomer is another option, another of the several ex-Bristol Rovers characters at Whaddon Road.

Up-front, Cheltenham's attacking threat would be enhanced by the return from a hamstring injury of pacy former Coventry striker Martin Devaney, who played twenty minutes of a reserve game this week. Other options include the veteran but fading Neil Grayson, and ex-Liverpool trainee Hugh McAuley, although the latter may be employed behind a front pairing. Cheltenham's two summer signings were the colossal Julian Alsop and the equally direct Jason White, both of whom the Hornets have faced in recent years for Bristol Rovers and Scarborough respectively.

By third division standards Cheltenham are a physically strong and direct side who perhaps lack a little creativity in the middle of the park. If we are to entertain serious hopes of returning to the Premiership, then Cheltenham should be no obstacle. Except that cup-ties don't always work out like that.

In any case, any football side at any level that runs out to the theme tune to "Roobarb and Custard" deserves a modicum of respect...