Tuesday 20 February 2018

Stephen Hunt: One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I never went beyond the fifth round of the FA Cup

'Don’t be surprised if they try to match up with Chelsea’s formation in the way Tottenham Hotspur did.' Photo: Reuters
'Don’t be surprised if they try to match up with Chelsea’s formation in the way Tottenham Hotspur did.' Photo: Reuters
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

In looking through my own appearance history in the FA Cup, to try and jog my memory for this column on how players feel about the competition, one thing stands out - and it annoys me. It annoys me how my clubs prioritised the league so much, at the expense of the FA Cup.

It's one of the great regrets of my career that I never really went that far in the competition. I never got further than the fifth round. I don't have those memories of a good run in it, of the excitement of being so close to a medal.

It's something I've said in this column before, and what I always say to young players: you should look to make those memories, to try and make history, because it can be worth a lot more than your bank account in many ways. It's what you really take from your time in the game.

Making memories is what a lot of ­players will have been trying to do this weekend, and it's worth thinking about amid some of the general dissatisfaction with the cup disrupting the Premier League schedule. So many players involved - and not just in the lower league - will be raring to go. I've seen it from most angles. I've been one of the lower-league players getting a rare taste of the big time, and I've been a Premier League player either flying high in the table with Reading in 2006-07 or fighting relegation.

Even at the club where I got my first taste of regular first-team football, Brentford, the coach Wally Downes used to always say around an FA Cup tie, "five games to Wembley", or then "four games to Wembley", and it would create a buzz. The lads would get into it.

All the usual cliches would come out on the training ground and in the dressing room. "They won't like coming here", "it's 11 on 11". And, the thing is, it would work in the sense that it would provide mental focus and maybe allow some lads to gain a bit of confidence if they were taking on a bigger club.

Players also buy into the build-up too: the different coverage, the different routine, just the different context of it all. That gives a life to it, and brings back childhood memories. It creates more of an urge to create your own memories.

I clearly remember my own first taste of the third round proper, in 2002-03, and that was because I scored the only goal for Brentford, who were in the old Division Two at the time, to knock out Division One Derby County. It was a flukey goal, but that is what the cup is about. It's still one of the highlights of my career, in truth.

I was so hyped up in the tunnel before it, and the Derby lads were probably going 'Good God, who is this lad?'.

Another of my favourite memories was earlier that season, in the first round, when we had a local derby with Wycombe Wanderers, and the situation was reversed. I was 21, it was my second ever game in the competition, and I just remember their player Steve Brown was in the tunnel with his top off, shouting and roaring at people. He now works with the FA in youth development, and I only bumped into him a few weeks ago, but he was a big force in the division at the time. This was his way of getting into people's heads, so I just turned around to him and said 'would you ever shut up'. I think my teammates were as shocked as he was, but it was all part of the competition. We went out and beat them 4-2, after they had come back from 2-0 to make it 2-2. A great day, that set us up for Derby two rounds later.

It does get like that. When you're a younger lower-league player, it is initially about the excitement of playing in it and the chance to take on the big boys, but there is of course another element: it is genuinely the shop window. For lower-league players, it's like playing in the European Championship or World Cup, in that one good performance can be career-changing.

That may be unfair on players, since your regular consistent performance level in League One, say, should mean much more than one game, and scouts will have already watched you, but there is a sense of them finally being able to see whether you can also do it at a higher level - whether can do it against ­Championship or Premier League clubs.

It's sink or swim, so justify yourself, and that's how it can have the same effect as one big game in a Euros. Lower-league clubs can't turn down that kind of money either.

With all of that on the cards, one thing that some Premier League players will have noticed is lads from lower-league clubs - like me when I was at ­Brentford - being so psyched in the tunnel. You want to make an impact. That's the challenge of the early-round games, too. In the build-up, all the talk is about the potential of an upset. . . only for the higher-level side to kill the game and any sense of tension with an early goal.

So that's what you're psyching yourself for, to keep them out for a while, rattle them, and then see what happens. The lower-league players will, however, ­notice some of the Premier League players seeming as if they are almost asleep, not up for it - and then suddenly they're alive and kicking. They just go into a zone, and a level the lower-league players have never seen before, and they are then just outclassed.

Lower-league clubs will still try and even things up with all the usual stuff, leaving the dressing room cold on purpose and that, and it might shock a few Premier League players. In general, though, there's a smile and a laugh and no disrespect. Top players are also too well drilled now. Some of them would even enjoy the different nature of the game, and the different surroundings.

For my first third-round game as a Premier League player with Reading in 2006-'07, though, the manager actually sent me and Kevin Doyle on holiday for a break. Steve Coppell sent us to Dubai for five or six days. We didn't feel we were missing too much once we got to Dubai but, once the game had started, you wanted to be there. You want to be part of it all.

I had some good FA Cup experiences, like getting drawn against Manchester United and Liverpool, but can't get away from the fact that we never went further.

Even trying to think of my history in the competition now, I can remember all the big games, but forget so many. It's funny how a footballer's mind works in that way. It's only when I actually go looking through my appearances that I remember specifics from the individual matches.

Like, one of my most frustrating ever nights was when we went out to Preston North End with Ipswich Town. It was my first game back from injury, and I'd had a chest infection that nearly saw me get pneumonia. I made this lung-busting run in the game, but it took me five minutes to get back into position.

My last game in the FA Cup was in my penultimate season, with Ipswich against Southampton, and I had a goal disallowed for offside. I didn't know I was going to retire within two years at that point, but I remember being taken off and being really frustrated with the manager. I even booted a bottle. We went out, and it was just this frustration, another chance at a run gone.

By contrast, I was trying to think of my first experience in the competition, and couldn't remember. It was a defeat to Scunthorpe with Brentford. Then there was an utterly forgettable cup game against Stoke City with Wolves in 2010-11. We went out, but it didn't seem to matter so much because we had Premier League concerns. And that's what I kind of regret now.

It goes to show, you only remember the good times. And that's what this should be about.

That's what Peterborough, say, will be trying to do today. Don't be surprised if they try to match up with Chelsea's formation in the way Tottenham Hotspur did, to see if they can make it a difficult game - and maybe even make some history.

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