Players, staff and fans huddled together expectantly at Huish Park, the home of League Two’s Yeovil Town, to watch the draw being made for the fourth round of the FA Cup.
It was only the fourth time in their 113-year history the Glovers had made it this far and, as the lowest ranked team left in the competition, they had already garnered a certain amount of attention by this point – upsetting the odds to knock out higher division sides Southend United and Bradford City. Now their name was about to go national.
There were polite cheers when Yeovil were drawn out of the pot first by Dennis Wise, indicating a home tie, but few were able to hide their excitement when Rio Ferdinand picked out his former team Manchester United as the opponents.
“It was a complete surprise,” chairman and co-owner John Fry told The Set Pieces. “The penny dropped when I had a call from the chief executive of the EFL who said it couldn’t happen to a nicer club and a nicer chairman. We deserved it.
“I’m very pleased for everybody here; the staff, the directors and the players in particular. We’ve had three years of trying to build a team and we haven’t really had a break of this magnitude. It’s come at the right time and even the right time of the season, in terms of our finances and for the club’s football operations.
“It means a lot to the players because it’s the prestige of one of the biggest teams in the country – one of the biggest in the world – coming here to Huish Park. The players want to be seen on the big screen.
“I think the FA Cup is one of the most exciting competitions because of the opportunities for grassroot and lower league teams to do well. Look at Lincoln last year.
“The town is buzzing. It’s that big an occasion; it’s like the Queen coming. Yeovil’s name all over the world.”
A David vs Goliath clash to capture the imagination of football fans around the globe, the game was selected as the first pick for television, being shown live on BBC One on Friday, 26 January at 7.55pm.
For manager Darren Way the tie almost felt inevitable, though, after setting up a special meeting the morning before the draw was made.
“The players spoke to Sir Alex [Ferguson] in a conference call on Monday morning and then we get drawn against Man United,” Way told to The Set Pieces.
“He did mention it. His words were; ‘the FA Cup is probably the most prestigious cup in the world’, and you can imagine the players’ thoughts and feelings when Man United came out having had that conversation and shared that moment.”
The Glovers have been here before, of course. A little over three years ago the same fixture was drawn in the third round, with the Red Devils – then managed by Louis van Gaal – running out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria.
A lot has changed at the Somerset outfit since then. Only two players from the match day squad back on 4 January 2015 remain at the club in goalkeeper Artur Krysiak and defender Nathan Smith. They have been relegated, sacked two managers and have regularly flirted with heading back to non-league for the past three seasons. They currently sit just two points outside the drop zone.
Yet this match, one of the biggest in the history of a club who have something of a reputation as FA Cup giant-killers since beating Sunderland at this stage in 1949, is perhaps a chance to briefly forget their struggles and maybe, just maybe, pull off the impossible.
“It’s making sure that we make the most of this moment. Which is why the attention to detail has to be different for a game of this magnitude, making sure it is absolutely spot on for a moment that’s not like any other. You have to make sure you are physically and mentally ready for that,” Way continued.
“I think the way I am as a manager I’ve always believed in bigger and dreamed bigger. I’ve always had ambitions to be the best that I can be. If you’ve got that and you’ve got 11 players, supporters and staff that believe that same way, you’ve got a really good chance.
“It’s about me putting together a game plan that the players put in place that shows no fear on the day and that they’ve got total faith and trust in each other and put in a shift that they have never put in before.
“Basically it’s keeping a ball out of a net and if we can do that for 90 minutes we’re going to Old Trafford (for a replay). But the concentration has to be at a level that it’s never been at before. It’s how much you believe you can get the result.
“It’s whether the group of players now can go and fulfil their dream and the next part of that journey and that is ultimately a 90-minute game, against all odds, in front of the cameras, full house. What a great experience.
“We’re certainly the underdogs. Victory tastes a lot sweeter when you’re the underdog.”
Yeovil’s 9,500 stadium will be sold out on the day and for a brief moment this corner of the South West will be the main focus of English football.
Yet for the supporters who are there week in, week out, and who have seen their side’s rapid drop through the divisions since reaching the Championship in 2013, playing Manchester United won’t make their frustrations disappear.
Attendances are falling and there is an increasing antipathy towards Fry and fellow co-owner Norman Hayward from certain sections of the fanbase, with a belief the pair are allowing a club they took out of non-league for the first time in their history in 2003 to sleepwalk back there.
However, for a team with one of the lowest budgets in the EFL and an annual outlay for players’ wages that would just about cover Alexis Sanchez’s earnings for three weeks (or two, depending on which report you believe), the financial windfall from this one match could be the difference between looking back towards League One next season, or playing in the National League.
So what is Fry’s plan?
“It means the biggest PR you can get. We’ve got to get it right to get the fans interested and back buying tickets. That’s what it means – people buying into the club and looking at us and thinking; ‘it’s worthwhile following this team’,” he said.
“You need these cup matches, because the only way you can make money other than individuals putting it in is to sell players, or have a cup run.
“It’s hard to complete deals (for new players) but an opportunity like this gives you the finances. Financial fair play came in hard for a club of this size. It’s all about the support and what you can bring in. You can only spend so much and they cap you.
“This gives us some extra income. It enables us this year to look at the player budget. All the money here we’ve got spare goes into the team, into extending contracts of players already here.
“It’s very difficult for a club of this size to get the money in. It’s very competitive. But this raises the profile.
“It’s getting little old Yeovil Town into the bigger world.”