'Cup can help unearth the next Jamie Vardy in the lower leagues'
Scott Laird has such a sunny personality, it is difficult to imagine him in angry mode, but even Scunthorpe United's resolutely upbeat left-back becomes a little cross when football's chattering classes sneer at the FA Cup.
"If you could have seen me jumping around my living room when the draw happened, you would have known the magic of the Cup is still there," says Laird, who could well find himself marking Willian when Mark Robins's side face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this afternoon. "Anyone who says it's losing its magic is mad."
The 27-year-old speaks with some authority. From participating in the competition's earliest qualifying rounds as a non-league novice, to helping Stevenage subject Newcastle to a third-round giantkilling in 2011 and scoring for Preston North End against Manchester United in a fifth-round defeat last year, Laird has clocked up some fairly extensive FA Cup experience.
"For me to be able to say to my grandkids that I've scored against Manchester United is amazing," says the one-time Tiverton Town full-back. "What makes this competition so special is that it really is David v Goliath. You get to see non-league players who work nine-to-five pitting their wits against Premier League regulars.
"For lower-league and non-league players to test themselves, and their skills, against the best in the world is fantastic. It gives people chances to really show what they can do, get themselves noticed and maybe earn a chance to play in a higher division. The FA Cup can change lives. There's no escaping the fact that there's a big gap between the Premier League and the lower leagues, but I do think it's getting smaller. The standard down here is definitely rising. There are lots of Jamie Vardys in the lower leagues who, given a bit of luck, could make it at the top level - catching the eye of a bigger club while playing in the FA Cup could get them there."
Similarly, knocking Chelsea out would do wonders for local morale in this corner of north Lincolnshire. In October, Tata Steel, the principal local employer, placed 900 steelworkers' jobs - and those of several hundred contractors - at risk by announcing it was pulling out of Scunthorpe. Shortly before Christmas, 88 years of steel production in the town ceased when the local plant was mothballed. Although Greybull Capital, a private equity firm, seems on the verge of buying the business after producing a last-ditch rescue plan, the future remains uncertain.
"With all that's gone on with the steelworks, people here have been having a hard time lately," says Laird in his soft Somerset accent. "So it's great for the whole town to come together, descend on Chelsea and have a really good time. That's the special thing about football, it unites people and acts as a diversion from their problems."
As the man behind a proposed £40m community leisure development centred around a brand new ground for Scunthorpe, club chairman Peter Swann also hopes to make a more material difference. "The owner's blueprint for the club, and the whole town, was a big reason why I came here," says Laird.
This attempt to embrace a wider vision has led Scunthorpe to shun shirt advertising, with players instead wearing the Prostate Cancer UK logo on their chests. Swann hopes to be able to negotiate another charity deal next summer as a Championship chairman, but the team's current position, mid-table in League One, remains a source of frustration.
"With the squad we've got, we've definitely under-achieved," says Laird. "Hopefully this game can really kick us on and convince us we can get the points needed to push into the play-offs. Playing for Mark Robins is really enjoyable, but we haven't been at our best for him yet. We need to put that right."
As Laird sits in a function room overlooking the rain-drenched Glanford Park pitch, Robins occupies an office down the corridor. Inside it, he is embarking on yet another round of interviews about that FA Cup goal against Nottingham Forest 26 years ago which quite possibly saved Alex Ferguson's job at Manchester United.
Laird's favourite Cup memory involves embarrassing Alan Pardew, Joey Barton and Co in that 3-1 defeat of Newcastle, with the shine only slightly tarnished by an incident after the final whistle involving a drunken home supporter spilling onto the pitch, punching him in the face and subsequently being sent to prison. "It was upsetting," he acknowledges. "But it was still a great game."
Now the challenge is to reprise Bradford's achievement at Stamford Bridge last year when they shocked a certain Portuguese by winning 4-2. "It's a bit disappointing not to be playing a Jose Mourinho side," concedes Laird. "Guus Hiddink's not done too badly, though, has he? Chelsea have world-class players but, like Bradford last year, we're going there to win. Dreams do come true sometimes."
Should he score, he can expect to be presented with a one pound coin by his grandmother. "It's something she did to encourage me as a kid and it's a tradition that's most definitely going to continue," says Laird. "As a professional, I've earned £40, but, in total, I'd have around £100 now - if only I hadn't spent most of it on packets of sweets."
Chelsea v Scunthorpe Utd, BT Sport 2, 2.0
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