So it has arrived. The biggest day of the footballing calendar. Not, of course, for the game's aristocrats, the moneyed classes who can anticipate the glamour that title races, Champions League finals and World Cups provide. But for football's working classes, this is it. The opportunity to luxuriate in the surroundings their superiors habitually enjoy, the chance to appear on television and achieve national, if not international, renown with their exploits.
The FA Cup allows them their 15 minutes of fame in a way the weekly grind never can. For players whose talents will never prompt a bid from Premier League, or even Championship, managers, this is it. For two Blue Square Premier clubs, this is their taste of life in the big time. It is Premier League versus non-League today, with Stoke City hosting York City and Barrow visiting Sunderland's Stadium of Light. Making the trip to top-flight opponents reduces the chance of a shock but increases the financial rewards. In Barrow's case, it should produce a minimum of £100,000 (Dh593,137).
Money, though, is a secondary consideration. "I've been in the FA Cup for 15 years and I haven't had a day like this," said Barrow's captain, Phil Bolland. "This is the FA Cup and when you're younger you dream of games like this, so I'm made up. "I've only gone to the third round a couple of times with Southport and we got York and Colchester, so this is the biggest tie I've had. "It's something to look forward to for me and my family. My wife and my mum will come; whoever wants to will come. It will end up costing me some money. I'll get my son Sammy on the pitch; I'll sneak him on somehow. He's two-and-a-half so he won't remember it, but he'll see the photographs."
They will provide the souvenirs of a career that may appear unremarkable. A CV that includes Oxford and Cambridge suggests either a glittering career in academia or a grounding in lower-league football. Bolland, though a graduate of Manchester University, has the latter. He did not turn professional until he was 24-years-old and has spent the last decade veering in an out of the Football League. After qualifying as a physiotherapist and working at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, the Merseysider's abilities were recognised by Mark Wright.
"You can't help but learn from an ex-England centre-half," the 33-year-old defender added. "I have got a lot to thank him for." Football will soon come second to his medical career. "Something to fall back on," may be insurance for wealthier players. For Bolland, it is a necessity. Darren Sheridan, one half of Barrow's joint manager line-up alongside Dave Bayliss, is a veteran of Barnsley's FA Cup win against Manchester United in 1998 and is used to life as an underdog.
He and Bayliss took over in November 2007, winning promotion at the first attempt. That represented a reversal in Barrow's fortunes. Members of the Football League for 51 years, they were voted out in 1972. But, having faced Middlesbrough at the same stage last season, the FA Cup has brought Barrow a degree of prominence. The Bluebirds represent a distant town, isolated on the Cumbrian coast and among the most inaccessible places on the British mainland. It may be a sign of the times that even non-League clubs are distant from their fan base. Bayliss and Sheridan are a Scouser and a Mancunian respectively and Barrow train in Salford, two hours' drive from their Holker Street ground. But for success-starved fans and journeyman players, today's match can be summed up in three of Bolland's words: "It means everything."