Everton’s visit to Whaddon Road on Monday night provides Cheltenham Town with an opportunity to produce one of the upsets of this weekend’s FA Cup third round.
The League Two outfit are enjoying life near the top of English football’s fourth tier, after narrowly missing out on promotion last year – they fell victim to Crewe Alexandra in the playoff final – and the televised cup-tie generates a much-needed cash inflow.
However, the game is also an opportunity to produce a shock and inject further belief into both players and supporters.
Spirited FA Cup performances against Fulham and Newcastle in 2004 and 2006 respectively ended in narrow defeats and, after being comfortably despatched at White Hart Lane in the third round last season, Mark Yates’ side will be eager to cause problems for The Toffees.
Here’s how they could do exactly that.
1 – Play their own game
Cheltenham aren’t the type of lower league side to try and bully your more graceful top-flight outfits – Yates has got them playing an attractive brand of football.
While they were slightly over-awed by the occasion against Spurs and Crewe last season, for most of the campaign Marlon Pack orchestrated a passing approach from the centre of midfield.
His impressive performances saw him named runner-up in the League Two player of the year award at the age of just 21.
Now he plays alongside former Premier League midfielder Darren Carter and the duo possess more ability than most lower league midfield pairings you’re likely to see.
Cheltenham won’t out-pass Everton for 90 minutes at Whaddon Road, but if these two are on song, they should see enough of the ball to cause a threat on more than one or two occasions.
2 – Don’t let Everton settle
As I’ve just said, it’s safe to assume Everton will see more of the ball and deploy a more patient approach to breaking down the Robins back four.
A problem for Cheltenham, especially in the second half of games is that despite Pack and Carter’s quality on the ball, they can allow opponents to become too comfortable in possession.
To combat this from the off, Yates will look to deploy a ball winner in between the midfield duo and the back four, maintaining discipline and breaking up the play.
Keith Lowe has done that job once or twice this season, to good effect, but I think Russ Penn is the man for the job – a classic bulldog-type midfielder who should keep Everton’s creative forces rattled for as long as possible.
3 – Jermaine McGlashan
The diminutive winger has been an important player for Cheltenham this season and there’s no doubt Everton will have earmarked him as the Robins’ biggest threat.
He was highlighted as the key man ahead of the second round tie against Hereford and didn’t disappoint, constantly getting the better of this man and superbly creating Shaun Harrad’s goal.
Yates signed the winger a year ago, using the money raised from the club’s visit to White Hart Lane – the first time Cheltenham have ever spent money on a player in January – and he was a big influence in reaching the playoff final, scoring in each leg of the semis.
He also has experience in punching above his weight, putting in an impressive performance in Aldershot’s Carling Cup defeat to Manchester United last season, often getting the better of Tottenham’s new signing Zeki Fryers.
The big issue will be his teammates deflecting attention from him by providing a threat elsewhere – if reliance on McGlashan is too heavy, Everton will be able to double-up on him and nullify the threat.
4 – The full backs
Cheltenham’s back five has gelled into an efficient unit, with club servant Scott Brown and new signing Billy Jones filling the spots vacated by last season’s impressive loanees Jack Butland and Luke Garbutt – the latter is owned by Everton.
And while Brown in goal and the two centre backs in front of him have a crucial role to play, the performances of Jones at left back and Sido Jombati on the other side could be a decisive factor.
Since joining from Bath City in 2011, Jombati has earned himself cult status at Whaddon Road, renowned for his trademark marauding runs down the right flank – his ability to link and overlap with McGlashan is vital.
As for Jones, the former Exeter City full back is a set-piece specialist and his delivery can be game-changing.
Underdogs look for moments capable of swinging the match in their favour and set pieces often present the opportunity to grab a goal against the run of play – Jones and Pack will keep Everton guessing from corners and free kicks but the left back has that extra dead-ball quality.
5 – Impact off the bench
This week Mark Yates took the decision to terminate Chris Zebroski’s contract and loanee Lawson D’Ath returned to parent club Reading, leaving Cheltenham with a small squad.
However, the personnel that Yates holds in reserve on Monday night could prove decisive and possibly none more so than Daryl Duffy and Kaid Mohamed.
Duffy was Cheltenham’s top scorer last season but has been used increasingly from the bench this campaign, scoring important late goals on more than once occasion.
Mohamed started last year’s third round defeat at Spurs and last month’s second round draw with Hereford but my fondest memories of him in a Cheltenham shirt are off the bench.
His explosive pace and ability to cut in from the left flank can exploit tiring right backs to produce key goals.
On the big stage Yates could do worse than to hold the winger in reserve and let him loose with 20 minutes left in search of an equaliser or even a famous winner.