IT’S August in the home dressing room at Shortwood United’s quaint Meadowbank ground, and Alex Sykes is borrowing from one of his old bosses as he sets out his Step 4 side’s targets for the season.
“It’s a cliché, but you take things from all the managers you played under – good and bad – and I remember when Frank Gregan did this thing in the dressing room at Forest Green,” says Sykes, the 39-year-old joint player-manager alongside veteran John Evans, his old mentor in PE teacher training.
“Frank stood us all up and he said, ‘Right, I’m going to go through the rounds of the FA Cup and I want you to sit down when I say the one which is the furthest you’ve reached’.
“Thankfully this was before we signed lads like Tony Daley and Dennis Bailey, and of course, we were all sat down at third or fourth round qualifying, so the ask was to try and get through to the first round proper.
“I did the same with our lads. I had Tom Warren, who was at Yate and they beat Newport County to get to the first round proper last year, but he left us after a few games to go to Bridgwater, so I had no-one else who’d got anywhere near the first round proper.
“They were all sat down quickly so that by the time we got to fourth round qualifying there was only me and John still stood up. It’s quite phenomenal really.”
What is so exceptional, of course, is that the Wood are through to the first round for the first time in their 113-year history.
If the home tie with Skrill Premier side Aldershot Town in the last round was the biggest they’d played in that time, then tomorrow night’s clash with Port Vale is gargantuan. “Bonkers really,” is Sykes’ view.
Struggling in the Calor Division One South & West, where they haven’t won for seven matches, United have come alive in the Cup – slaying Skrill South Dorchester before their replay success at The Rec last week.
Sykes grew up a goal-kick away from Vale Park and played there as a Mansfield Town youngster, so he knows exactly what a contrast awaits League One players, their 300 travelling fans and the BT Sport cameras as they head through the sleepy Gloucestershire hamlet and ascend the stone-wall lined lane that leads to the 1,300 capacity ground.
“Going to Forest Green used to be a bit of a hike, but you get up here and can’t believe there is a football pitch at the end of the road,” says the ex-Rovers, Bath and Gloucester City midfielder, who bossed Bishops Cleeve for two years before joining Shortwood in the summer.
“You think you’re just going to get to the edge of a cliff and fall off. It’s a great little ground, but we’re used to a maximum of 100 people and it’s such a quaint, tiny Non-League ground that you think, ‘How are they going to fit in?’
“There is a reason for the cameras being here, and I said to the lads in the last round, ‘Who’s going to be the hero? Come on, it’s going to be one of you.’ Even at 1-0 down at Aldershot, we fancied our chances because we knew we could hurt them at the back.
“I’ve had some good nights in football, but that was fantastic. Port Vale have had a recent history of losing to Non-League
sides, with Canvey Island, Scarborough, Chasetown and Grimsby all knocking them out, so I’ll be asking the boys the same question.”
When Sykes talks about having had “good nights”, it’s no exaggeration. Most famously in his adopted home region, he won promotion to the Conference with Forest Green, United’s Nailsworth neighbours, and then helped them to the 1998-99 FA Trophy final at Wembley, where Rovers lost to Kingstonian.
More pertinently to tomorrow however, and especially anyone travelling south with trepidation, he was part of a Non-League giant-killing with Nuneaton Borough 13 years ago.
Sykes recalls: “It was a first round replay at the old Manor Park after we’d drawn at Stoke in the first game. It was only played because it on TV. It was an absolute mudfest.
“I got stuck on the M42, and Stevie Burr said to me, ‘Come on Sykesy, get out for the warm-up, you’re late’. It was one of them – kit on, straight out and how we got through the game I’ll never know.
“On that occasion, the pitch was a leveller. To have people like Graham Kavanagh and Tony Dorigo trying to pass it on there was nigh on impossible. It played into our hands.
“The problem we’ve got at Shortwood is that our groundsman has won groundsman of the year and the surface is like a carpet. Barring the fact that they’ve got to come up the hill and try and find the place, when they do get there, they’ll love it.”
As Sykes clearly does, too. And as the romance of the Cup cuddles the Cotswolds, he’d love nothing more than completing his Potteries double with the lowest-ranked team left in the competition.
“For Non-League lads, being at this stage of the FA Cup and pitting yourself against full-time pros is the best feeling in the game, but I won’t be playing,” smiles the permanently ‘unused’ sub. “Gone are the days where I have to bend my warm-up run around the manager to try and persuade him to put me on.
“We’ve got some talented young lads who could play higher, but they love being at the club. It’s their time now.”