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Apr 30, 2003

Yeovil hungry for more success

YEOVIL, England, April 30 (Reuters) - It took 108 years, but Yeovil Town have finally broken into the Football League and the first taste of success has made them hungry for more.

The Somerset team, better known as habitual giant-killers than major league contenders, are determined to turn around their reputation after being promoted out of the Conference into the Third Division.

'Teams are going to have to come here and giant-kill us next season...the talent (on our team) is frightening,' striker and Conference golden boot hopeful Kirk Jackson insisted.

Previously, Yeovil's biggest moment of glory - and the foundation of their giant-killing reputation - was the 1949 defeat of a top-form Sunderland in an FA cup fourth-round tie.

They have also beaten 20 League teams over the years, a record for a non-league club.

This month's promotion was the culmination of an ambitious and expensive three-year plan under which the club took on full-time players in a largely semi-professional league, revamped a poor-quality pitch and increased community involvement to build up their profile and fan base.

Perhaps Yeovil's most famous attribute was their sloping pitch. Teams going down the hill had such an advantage - it was imperative you avoided the 'uphil struggle' in the second half when legs were tired.

But now even that has gone. This is the modern Yeovil, not content to be the FA Cup 'party pooper' every now and then.

The gamble paid off but for chairman John Fry the promotion brought as much relief as joy.

'It's a pressure relief valve going off as far as the club is concerned - we've been spending league money and getting non-league income,' he said, sitting in a tiny office piled high with thank-you letters from fans.

But now sponsorship has sold out, merchandise is flying off shelves and ticket sales have risen as the fan-base swells.

As the promotion campaign gathered pace, match crowds rose to more than 8,000, from a season average of 5,000. Town police have had two weeks' safety training at the club's Huish Stadium in anticipation of capacity crowds next season, which will edge towards 9,400.

Its all a far cry from just eight years ago when Yeovil were relegated from the Conference. Fans and players give much of the credit for the recent renaissance to their dynamic coach Gary Johnson.

TALENT SPOTTING

Recruited in 2001 after a two-year spell as Latvian national coach, Johnson returned to Britain looking for a team he could mould using the experience he had gained at international level

Since then he has used his impressive talent-spotting skills to build up a tight young team, most of whom he will be taking with him into division three.

Kirk Jackson: Yeovil hotshot
Kirk Jackson: Yeovil hotshot

'One of my strengths is finding players who have fallen through the (scouting) net,' said Johnson, across a desk stacked with letters from young footballers hoping he will give them a lucky break.

Johnson says other keys to Yeovil's success are the unity and mental discipline he demands from the team - they have a confidence coach and new recruits have to 'buy into' the team ethos.

The players agree that Johnson's philosophy works.

'We're very close and I think that helps sometimes when things get tough. With other clubs the weak link in the team breaks very easily but for us the weak link really isn't there at all,' said midfielder Michael McIndoe, who has been with Yeovil for more than two years.

Johnson was also a driving force behind a community involvement programme that helped to boost the club's popularity and profile.

He insists his players live in or near Yeovil and are available for community events from school prize days to chamber of commerce dinners. But these days Johnson finds it hard to walk around the town himself, because he is mobbed by fans.

'It takes me two hours just to get down the high street,' he said with a chuckle.

TEARFUL FANS

Some of Yeovil's devoted followers have been overwhelmed by the promotion. Chairman John Fry says a grateful fan told him: 'I can die in peace now we're in the league.'

He has seen more than one fan in their 80s shedding tears outside the stadium since the team clinched promotion.

The main streets in Yeovil town centre are draped with flags and bows in the team colours of green and white while shop windows are filled with balloons, paper stars, medallions and even kitchenware displays in the same shades.

The younger fans who organised these displays are excited by victory but also eager for more glory.

'Its something we've been waiting for all our lives,' said schoolteacher Cara Foster, 30. 'But with the team we've got at the moment, it's just a taste of things to come.'

Success is tempting even the half-hearted into becoming supporters. 'I'm not a particular fan but that might be changing now they're moving into proper football,' said taxi driver Nigel Mounter.