It could easily have been Eastleigh for Leeds United this weekend; on paper a lower standard of opposition but an FA Cup tie laden with risk.
Leeds endured total humiliation away at Histon seven years ago, beaten on a pitch so bad it resembled a swimming pool by the time the stadium closed, and Eastleigh’s turf is no more of a meadow. Bolton survived it by the skin of their teeth, equalising three minutes from time and taking their third-round tie to a replay. A tight win in Lancashire carried Bolton through.
Steve Evans, who dabbled in cup upsets during one particular season as manager of Crawley, might have wanted the known quantity but Leeds’ head coach says a trip to Hampshire and a National League ground tomorrow would have suited him better than Bolton; no matter the memories of Lubomir Michalik ducking and the postman, Matthew Langston, heading Histon in front at the far post.
“One hundred per cent I’d have wanted Eastleigh because I think we’d have beaten them very comfortably,” Evans said.
“I know a lot of their players and what they’re achieving. To get to that stage (the third round of the FA Cup) is fantastic but I think we’d have gone there and dominated. When you break down the squads and look at the quality Bolton have got, they’ve got much better players.
“From a psychological point of view, it’s better to play Bolton because my players don’t need to have a second guess when they read the names on the teamsheet. Going to Bolton is a preferred game if you’re going there to play. But should we be beating a team four or five levels below us? The obvious answer is yes we should. That’s about mental application.
“At Bolton it needs to be about mental application and physical application, as in performance. If we drop our levels then we’ll go out the cup.”
Eastleigh, all the same, are having a more enlightening season than Bolton; positioned in the National League’s play-off places and close to reaching the Football League, as Crawley did under Evans’ management.
Bolton lie bottom of the Championship, ruined financially and unsure about where they will be this time next year. Evans will see the following of 6,800 which Leeds are taking to the Macron Stadium as an huge advantage for Leeds. Bolton see it as vital, badly-needed income.
Both he and Neil Lennon, however, have reasons for wanting to progress through the fourth round this weekend. A cup run would help keep Bolton afloat. For Evans, the FA Cup is a meaningful competition with the Championship play-offs slipping away from Leeds.
Bolton have won only three league games this season but Evans watched footage of their victory over MK Dons last weekend and described it as “their best performance in about three years.” “It was like watching a top-of-the-table side in the Championship,” he said.
“Neil’s done a great job there. He’s been in difficult circumstances ever since he walked in. From a distance it looks as if he was promised a number of things which have simply never been delivered. He won’t say that but I can say it.
“You’ve got two fiery managers who want to win. It’s a magical competition. Everyone wants the glory day and the glory nights, to be part of the history and the tradition. I’ve been fortunate to have a little bit of that and when you get a little bit, you want a lot of it.
“We’re taking an unbelievable support with us – unbelievable is the word. We have to make sure we’re in the draw come Monday.”
Evans, who said his line-up would be “as strong as we can be”, made the fifth round with Crawley in 2011, managing the then Conference club to wins over Derby County, Swindon Town and Torquay United. Their run ended in a 1-0 defeat away at Manchester United. Crawley had much of the game and struck the crossbar in the final minutes. Sir Alex Ferguson said Evans’ side “deserved a draw”.
“It wasn’t the best experience when you lose 1-0 at Old Trafford,” Evans said. “We were massively disappointed, as daft as that sounds being a non-league club. We gave them a real hiding for the last 35 minutes and camped in their box. But the build-up and being part of that day makes it incredibly special.”
In the past four years, Leeds have only been beyond the third round of the FA Cup once. The club last made the semi-finals in 1987, the year after a 24-year-old Evans retired from playing with a knee injury. United came safely through round three this season with a 2-0 win over Rotherham United, after which Evans said that he believed his squad could be “a bit special” in the competition.
“The older generation of supporters remember the great occasions here,” Evans said. “I want some of the younger ones to see that too – and the immediate way to do that is via the FA Cup.”