‘We must survive’ is almost a mantra with Cheltenham Town manager John Ward but even the Robins boss is excited about tomorrow’s FA Cup third-round visit to Premiership big boys Fulham.
Since taking control at Whaddon Road, the former Bristol City man has been desperately trying to reverse Town’s slip down Division Three and could be forgiven for grumbling about a match which his side have little chance of winning.
But wins over Hull and Leyton Orient have landed a big fish and Ward can see nothing but positives. He said: ‘The FA Cup is not a nuisance, it is a terrific opportunity for us to move forward and this is another chance to do that. I was absolutely delighted when the draw was made.
‘I said to the lads prior to the Leyton Orient game that if we can reach the third round we would like one of two things – a team at home we can beat or a Premiership team away that will give us an exciting time.
‘We drew a side which at the moment is the fifth best in the Premiership and we could not have asked a lot more than that. It will be the first time our club has played against a top-flight team so it will be a great experience for the players.
‘It is a massive tie for us and a great match financially. We are existing on gates worth pounds 3,500-pounds 4,000 at Cheltenham so to get into the third round is a bonus for us but to get this opportunity is fantastic. My chairman is very pleased with it.’
Even if the Division Three club win, chairman Paul Baker would be much happier if Ward manages to guide them away from the threat of relegation. Ward said: ‘Clearly, my first priority is to keep us in the league. Prior to my arrival we had had six defeats in seven matches so my first objective was to stabilise the situation. We feel we have done that in the eight or nine games we have had.
‘We have had four wins in that time with two of those coming in the FA Cup. I would have preferred two more wins in the league but those results have given us confidence and revitalised our thinking.’
Cheltenham were in freefall as Bobby Gould’s reign petered out and heading back to the Nationwide Conference but the new manager has at least arrested the slide. Cheltenham look up the league from fourth bottom rather than down towards the trapdoor.
In all honesty Ward knows the chance of progress is unlikely given that Fulham, under Chris Coleman, are one of the Premiership’s form sides. But that means little to the young Welshman who intends to show his guests no mercy as he strives to win a European place for the Cottagers.
Coleman said: ‘Realistically fourth in the table is a big ask of us. It’s more realistic for us to think we could get to the final of the FA Cup. We see that as a great chance so long as we don’t come up against the top three who are at a different level.
‘It will be a tricky game even if they are a few divisions below us. I’ll pick my strongest team. Cheltenham will pose a different threat and there will be pressure on our players because so many times we see the team from below pull off a result in the FA Cup. That is its beauty.
‘My players know the dangers. They know if they don’t approach it in the proper manner it could be a banana skin. We want to make sure we’re in the next round because it’s a great competition. A few years ago we got to the semi-finals and anything like that success this time and we’ll be happy.’