I’m a bit old fashioned and a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to football and the FA Cup will always have a special place for me. I was a Manchester City fan as a kid, and was lucky enough to actually go to the final when City played Tottenham in 1981. I was about 17 then, a young amateur playing for Burnley and dreaming of being a professional. It was the first game I’d been to down in London, and everything really came alive for me that day.
When the players came out I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever walk out of that same tunnel. So when I walked out in my first FA Cup final in 1993, for Arsenal against Sheffield Wednesday, all those memories came back. It was a boyhood dream. I turned back into that kid again, forgetting the words of the national Anthem!
There’s no doubt it has been diluted a little bit: with more foreign players in the game it’s only natural they don’t have the same emotional attachment. But it is special, it’s the domestic cup competition, and is recognised as such around the world. The FA Cup is a fantasy that we all jump on board every year, and it would be a tragedy if anything were to happen to it.
Double FA Cup winner with Liverpool
I’ve won a couple of FA Cups, but I’ve lost a lot more finals than I’ve won! I still have happy memories of going to Wembley, however, although when I got to the final with Watford, against Everton in 1984, it was a bit strange because it was only ten minutes around the corner from our ground! It was virtually playing at home, but it was a fantastic day for our fans.
I think the FA Cup has taken on an added significance in recent years. Five or six years ago all that mattered for some of the big clubs was the Champions League and grabbing one of those top four Premier League places.
But as it turns out, a lot of those teams either didn’t get into the Champions League or else would go out early. Teams realise now that winning a trophy is the most important thing and, in terms of a single occasion, there is no bigger day than the FA Cup final.
FA Cup finalist with Chelsea
I was a wee bit snobby as a player: until I started covering the FA Cup as a pundit for ESPN I’d forgotten what happened in the lower leagues. But the FA Cup third round is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for teams such as Mansfield and Cheltenham to play the likes of Liverpool and Everton. It’s a great opportunity for these clubs to get a TV station pitch up at their ground, bag a few quid and make headlines.
As for the big clubs, the buzzword seems to be “jaded”. Managers get it into their head that players are tired, but the reality is that when they’re on a winning streak they just want to play, they don’t want to rest! With the size of some Premier League squads, why can’t teams challenge for both the league and the Cup?
I’ve experienced the highs and lows of the Cup. I played for Chelsea in 1994 when we lost 4–0 to Manchester United, and I was left out of the team for the 97 final by Ruud Gullit, who was arguably the worst manager I ever worked under, and I’m told he left me out because my contract negotiations weren’t going well. It was a chance for me to get a winners’ medal [Chelsea beat Middlesbrough 2–0], but I didn’t, and that hurts.
Double FA Cup finalist with Tottenham hotspur and Sheffield Wednesday
You can go to almost every ground in the country and there will be an FA Cup moment everyone remembers. Your team might not have got to the heights you dreamt of, but you can remember a time when a big team came to your ground and you had a chunk of luck and enjoyed a big Cup scalp. It’s that history the FA Cup can draw on that no other competition can.
I kept playing in the Cup until I was 45, still trying to get that winners’ medal! Long after I appeared in the Cup final for Spurs and Sheffield Wednesday, I dreamt of doing a Stanley Matthews, playing when I was 50. Even when I dropped out of the pro game I continued to play. I know what it’s like for lower teams, when local players become heroes and there’s a real buzz in the air. You can always dream. That’s what it’s all about.