Cheltenham host Manchester City with joy, fear and a bar to change in

Ben Fisher
·7 min read

Cheltenham were the first name pulled from the plastic cauldron as Peter Crouch channelled Rod Stewart by exuberantly diving into the FA Cup balls, but they hope to make a lasting impression when Manchester City visit Gloucestershire in the fourth round on Saturday.

Pep Guardiola’s side will change in a carpeted supporters’ bar named after the former Cheltenham defender Jamie Victory, who lived the club’s journey from the Southern League to League Two, and to shower City players will take it in turns to exit on to the touchline and skedaddle down the tunnel in a towel and flip-flops.

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Whaddon Road’s watered-down version of the Etihad Stadium’s Tunnel Club aquarium will not be the most salubrious surrounds City’s players have sampled but the Cheltenham manager, Michael Duff, insists Guardiola need not worry about the state of the pitch. The League Two club sent City a 10-minute walkthrough video of what to expect on arrival.

“You’re not going to get a Ronnie Radford scene where it’s like a ploughed field. We will try to make it as hospitable as we can. They are the form team in the country, if not the world, and just to add to that we’ve not won in seven,” Duff says, smiling.

Cheltenham’s director of football, Mickey Moore, has taken in City’s past three games and on Wednesday Duff watched them in the flesh, acknowledging he would be “well into next week trying to look for a weakness”. Cheltenham’s performance analyst, Shaun Howl, is an ardent City fan. “He’s loving it at the moment, getting paid to watch Man City play,” says the assistant manager, Russell Milton, who started his career at Arsenal. “City remind me of the ‘Invincibles’, Wenger’s days, because they are quite capable of beating any team 7-0 or 8-0, let alone a Cheltenham.”

On the corridor walls at the Etihad Stadium are pictures of the former City full-back and manager Tony Book, whose nephew Steve is Cheltenham’s longstanding goalkeeper coach. “My uncle started as a brickie, played for Bath, went to Plymouth and within two years he was captaining Manchester City,” says Book. “He didn’t join City until 31 but still ended up becoming a legend up there and was inducted into the hall of fame. It’s a fairytale, isn’t it?”

As a player Book won the First Division, FA Cup, League Cup and, until Roberto Mancini guided City to the FA Cup 10 years ago, he was the last City manager to win a trophy: the League Cup in 1976. “I used to go and visit my nan when we were living in Bath and there was a picture on the dining table of my uncle with the FA Cup on his head, so I thought: ‘He can’t have been that bad.’ But it was not until Manchester City started spending all the money that I really realised what a legend he is.”

Book, an honorary president at City, will not be at the game but Mark Sertori, who played with Duff, Book and Milton for Cheltenham two decades ago, will be among the travelling City party flying to Kemble airport on the edge of the Cotswolds. Sertori, a masseur at City, was part of Fabio Capello’s staff at the 2010 World Cup. The subplots do not stop there. Duff, who lived in Manchester during 12 years at Burnley, working under Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche, rents a house to a City youngster. “He’s a good tenant – he pays on time so that’s all I’m bothered about,” Duff says, laughing.

Cheltenham’s payroll for a month is £200,000, two-thirds of Kevin De Bruyne’s weekly wage. “There will be lads playing for Man City earning in less than a week what our lads earn in a year,” says the vice-chairman, David Bloxham. “The financial gulf is probably greater than the gulf on the field.”

Action from Cheltenham’s game at home to Newport on Tuesday.
Action from Cheltenham’s game at home to Newport on Tuesday. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

When Cheltenham realised their contracted goalkeeper Scott Flinders would not make the start of the season following a broken leg, Book was given a £500-a-week budget to source a replacement. “City could probably go and spend £20m if they wanted to,” says Book. “Luckily enough, I went and got Josh [Griffiths, on loan from West Brom]. I had done my homework and he has come up trumps. They’ll have inflatable mannequins and I’ve got probably six balls and a handful of cones.”

The Cheltenham defender Will Boyle, who scored in extra time to defeat Mansfield in the previous round, hopes to test himself against City’s “household names” but concedes “they could bring their F-listers and they wouldn’t be a bad outfit”. Whether Ederson features or not, Book believes the Brazilian has changed goalkeeping. “It’s gone from keeping the ball out of the net to: ‘Can you set up attacks?’ He’s awesome at it. It’s killed a lot of keepers who cannot play out with their feet and managers’ expectations have equally gone up.”

Paul Godfrey, the club secretary whose 31-year association began as a volunteer programme editor, is Mr Cheltenham Town and moonlights as the club’s historian, Covid-19 officer and even stretcher-bearer. “I had to go on twice against Scunthorpe,” says Godfrey, who joined full-time in 2001 and the board of directors in 2010. “I’ve done everything from working on investment agreements for our owners to shovelling snow off the pitch and just about everything in between. We’re just a small club and there are not many bodies to do these things, so you end up becoming jack-of-all-trades.”

The morning after a draw that, Boyle says, left players giddy for an hour before Duff defused the excitement, preparations got under way. Godfrey had to dash to welcome Sports & Stadia Services – “troubleshooters for grounds without undersoil heating” – and later root around to find a pennant for the occasion. “I’m not sure if we’ve actually got any left in the shop,” he says. “It’s a tradition. I’m just looking at a Leicester one from when we played them in a friendly a few years ago.”

They are prudently run and won’t, Duff says, bet the ranch but a televised teatime kick-off generates valuable income for a club facing a £1m loss owing to the pandemic. A crowdfunder led by the fans’ group 1887 Red Army has raised more than £25,000, and the club have sold “virtual tickets” and produced a striking special-edition matchday programme with the City fan Kevin Cummins, the renowned music photographer who worked with Oasis: 50% of programme proceeds are going to FareShare, the charity fighting hunger and food waste. The cover stars? The Gallagher brothers, of course.

Ordinarily, this game would put Cheltenham on the map but Tom King’s goal for Newport on Tuesday, which has since entered the Guinness World Records for the “longest goal” at 96.01m, went some way to spotlighting the club. The match on Saturday, Duff says, is the biggest free hit in history but Cheltenham hope City coming to town could earn more than £250,000.

“It’s money we haven’t budgeted for and that’s the beauty of the FA Cup,” says Godfrey. “Our journey began against South Shields of the Northern Premier League and now we’re hosting Manchester City. Peter Crouch putting his hand in and pulling out that ball makes a world of difference.”