The usually sleepy village of Nailsworth in Gloucestershire has been startled awake and the unassuming Shortwood United FC are to blame.
Until recently, many might not have been aware of ‘The Wood:' minding their own business in the Cotswolds, where they ply their trade in the Southern League's Division One South & West, the eighth tier of English football.
But after a giant-killing of Conference Premier side Aldershot in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round, Shortwood have suddenly found themselves thrust into the spotlight.
The players have become resident celebrities overnight; you can’t open a local paper without reading stories of their heroics, as well as their personal lives - giant rabbits, ex-Playboy models and all. But more on that later.
Not THAT Howard Webb: Shortwood will welcome 1,300 fans on Monday night
The lowest-ranked club left in the competition going into the first round proper are about to play the biggest game in their 113-year history as they host League One Port Vale – 125 places above them in the pyramid system - in front of the BT Sport cameras and a sell-out, record crowd. It’s no surprise everyone suddenly wants a piece of Shortwood - only first you have to find the place.
Travelling Vale fans be warned: this won’t be your usual away trip. From London, locating the minute hamlet of Shortwood proved tricky. A tube, a train and another smaller, creakier train takes you to the nearest town, Stroud, and then there’s a taxi ride encompassing a hillside where cows freely wander into the road.
Once in postcard picturesque Nailsworth, it’s a case of broaching a winding hill where the roads are so narrow there’s barely enough room for one car, let alone a team bus. At the top you’ll find the tiny Meadowbank ground.
The initial suggestion of moving the clash to the home of near-neighbours Forest Green Rovers has fizzled out but manager John Evans couldn’t be happier to welcome 1,300 – including 250 Vale fans – to Shortwood’s own turf on Monday night.
“They did think about it but I think the BT Sport interest, and the fact that Forest Green have got a game on the Tuesday, meant that it wasn’t really feasible,” said the veteran boss, a retired PE teacher of the local Archway School.
“We’re delighted it’s here. I’m not sure all the people behind the scenes are because they’ve got to work their socks off.”
Realistically, 90 odd per cent of our players will be going to work on Monday."
That work has entailed arranging a Park and Ride system from the bottom of the hill which will take everyone – including both teams and their staff – up to the ground on Monday night.
Co-manager Alex Sykes pointed out this will be no hardship for the painters and decorators, plumbers, students and even part-time models that make up Shortwood’s team, but for Port Vale’s professionals it could be a shock to the system as they leave any Football League luxury at the door.
“Realistically, 90 odd per cent of our players will be going to work on Monday, trying to get a few hours off in order to get on the Park and Ride quickly to get up here,” said Sykes, a games teacher who formerly played in the Football League with Mansfield Town and occasionally still has a run-out for The Wood.
“Whilst Port Vale have probably got their toes up and are having a nice pre-match meal and doing whatever else, our lads will be hotfooting it from wherever they are around the county to get here and play a game of football.
“The good thing for us is, our lads are used to that. That’s their normal lifestyle. They’ll turn up, play the game and won’t have too much time to think about it.”
When I visited Shortwood a few days before Monday’s big game it was a hive of activity, with scaffolding being erected ready for the TV cameras and a verge drainer borrowed from neighbours Forest Green Rovers getting the pitch in tip top condition.
The players were scarce, however, tied up with their day jobs. The only two present at Meadowbank were students: captain Jake Parrott and striker Adam Mann, who Evans introduced as “our goalscoring hero” after the youngster netted the winner in the replay at Aldershot last month as Shortwood came from a goal down to see off the higher-ranked club 2-1.
Volunteer Keith Williams helps gets Shortwood's pitch in shape
Both players are unanimous in their agreement of the key ingredient that has seen Shortwood through the cup this far.
“The team spirit is what’s got us here,” said midfielder Parrott, who studies alongside Mann at nearbv Hartpury College. "We’re just a great group of friends.”
One of their team-mates attracting particular attention is frontman Duncan Culley, who has scored in every cup round they’ve played so far.
But it’s not his heroics on the pitch, or even his previous work as a model that’s earning him the headlines. Culley’s backstory has gone national after it emerged that he came within a whisker of becoming the handler of a 61-year-old ex-Playboy model’s giant rabbit on a starting salary of £70,000 a year.
Unsurprisingly, Culley isn’t being let off lightly by his team-mates.
“He’s getting a bit frustrated with it at the moment,” said Parrott, unable to contain a grin.
“He also gets his name spelt wrong in the papers. He got called Darren Gurney on Saturday, so we’ve called him ‘Dazza the rabbit-handler’ and he’s just fuming with it.”
Joint managers Sykes and Evans (left) and players Parrott and Mann (right) reminisce over past successes with Williams (centre).
It’s not just the media who are taken by the club. Support for Shortwood is evident throughout Nailsworth, with local pub The Village Inn expecting a busy turnout when they screen the game live for those who didn’t manage to snap up a ticket before they sold out in under two hours.
Going one step further are the local hairdressers, owned by the wife of Shortwood’s goalkeeper, Tom King, who are offering discounted haircuts to men who support the club.
Speaking in between painting and decorating jobs at his wife Amy’s salon, King was in good spirits about Monday’s game.
“Once we get out there, it’s 11 players against 11, the old cliché,” he said.
“I think we’ll be quietly confident after beating a full-time outfit in Aldershot. Nobody expected us to come away from there with a result.”
They’ve always gone off somewhere towards the end of the season. Hopefully this year it will be a little bit more exotic."
Whatever the outcome on Monday night, there should be a well-earned holiday waiting for the team at the end of the season.
A fining system at the club sees the players cough up for a wide assortment of things: turning up to training in the wrong kit, wearing dirty boots. More pertinently, getting their name in the local paper after a match sets them back 50p, a photo and it’s £1, which has seen the money pile up over the last week or so.
They’re also fined if they fail to bring a selected obscure item to every match. In the past it’s been everything from a red chilli to a tutu. For Monday’s game, Mann has suggested they all turn up with a rabbit, in honour of Culley.
At the end of the season, the pot helps to pay for their annual club tour.
“They must be paying through the nose at the moment with all the press coverage,” said manager Evans.
“They’ve always gone off somewhere towards the end of the season. The likes of Cardiff, Newcastle. I think they’ve been to Amsterdam, Benidorm. Hopefully this year it will be a little bit more exotic.”
Watch Shortwood United in the FA Cup first round proper against Port Vale live on BT Sport 1 on Monday evening, kick-off 7.45pm.
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