SO you probably think that the FA Cup has lost its magic.
You probably think that professional footballers, managers and their clubs no longer care too much about the world’s oldest knockout competition.
That we see it as an unwelcome distraction or an afterthought — nowhere near as important as the league.
Well, personally, I don’t think you could be more wrong.
Even with the threats posed by Covid and even without fans the FA Cup remains a unique competition, bringing opportunities and creating memories for players at all levels.
To tell you what the Cup means to me, I’ll take you back to Watford’s run all the way to the final in 2019.
It started with a non-league captain calling me out on a radio phone-in and it ended with me getting banter from our future king — and what else in football can give you that?
When Watford were drawn at National League Woking in the third round our manager, Javi Gracia, gave me the option of having a weekend off.
We had just come off a busy Christmas period, so I was tempted to take him up on it.
But then a few days before the tie, I went on a radio phone-in and the Woking skipper came on and said something along the lines of “I’m looking forward to smashing you, Deeney”.
I can remember chatting to a couple of Woking fans and I thought how nice it was to have that interaction at a non-league ground.
He said it in a humorous way but once he’d said it, I told the gaffer that I wanted to be part of the squad.
I ended up coming off the bench and scoring the second in a 2-0 win to kill the tie and it was a thoroughly good day out.
I can remember chatting to a couple of Woking fans, while one of their players received treatment, and I thought how nice it was to have that interaction at a non-league ground as it wasn’t something you’d get in the Premier League bubble.
That Woking match was the start of something special.
When we came from two down to beat Wolves 3-2 in the semi-final at Wembley, it was absolutely one of my career highlights.
To be part of such a great Cup match and to score the equalising penalty in injury-time was unforgettable.
Now you may recall that the final against Manchester City didn’t go too well for us — a 6-0 defeat, which was the worst thrashing ever suffered in a major Wembley final.
But that doesn’t stop me remembering the whole day — the occasion rather than the result — as probably the proudest of my career.
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My old nan was in the stands and she loves the Royal Family. So, as Watford captain, to get to introduce Prince William — the FA president — to the team before kick-off was a massive thrill for me. And for my nan.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet William since, as part of his mental health charity work, and he is a proper Aston Villa fan and a genuinely good, down-to-earth bloke.
He knew full well that I am a Birmingham City supporter because when I shook his hand and prepared to introduce him to our team, William said: “I can’t believe I’m having to do this with a Bluenose!”
We’d stayed in a hotel right next to Wembley on the eve of the final, so a couple of hours before kick-off, I asked a security guard if he could take me out on to Wembley Way to soak up the atmosphere and see Watford and City fans mingling.
It was an experience I’ll never forget. I grew up wanting to play in an FA Cup final, and there I was properly feeling the sense of occasion, the anticipation among the fans.
Like I said, I enjoyed the day right up until the match started.
Although, weirdly enough, we had a great chance to score when it was still 0-0 — we’d identified that City might be vulnerable to counter-attacks from their own corners and we almost scored from one such break, Roberto Pereyra having a shot saved by Ederson.
I’m not going to say we’d have won if Pereyra had scored but it would have been a very different game — though in hindsight, I’d rather we lost 6-0 than 1-0 or 2-0 as there aren’t any real regrets.
When you play at lower levels, like I did at Walsall, you are well aware that a Cup run can make all the difference to your club’s finances.
Like Tranmere, who beat Watford last season, then played Manchester United — they may have lost 6-0 but the TV money will have funded their wage bill for months.
As a player in the lower leagues, you know a big performance in the Cup can earn you a move or simply provide the highlight of your career.
You may think foreign players don’t understand the meaning of the Cup like the British lads do — but believe me, they soon realise and they soon get into it.
They will be watching Sky Sports News this week and hearing about Marine, from the eighth tier of English football, playing Tottenham and they will go, ‘Wow, how does that happen? This is amazing’.
This isn’t an easy year for the Cup, it isn’t an easy year for anyone or anything.
But the Cup is a tradition worth fighting for, a tradition worth preserving, and please don’t imagine that us players don’t value it.
OD TO JOY
When Watford visit Old Trafford in the FA Cup on Saturday, there is one name I’m hoping to see on the Manchester United team-sheet — Odion Ighalo.
I have never enjoyed such chemistry with a strike partner as I did with Ighalo at Watford — we just complemented each other perfectly.
When he went on loan last January, there was surprise and a few sneers but not from Watford fans, who loved him during his two-and-a-half years at Vicarage Road, and certainly not from me.
I was delighted for Odion. He was a United supporter as a kid in Nigeria and this was a dream move for him.
He did a great job for them last season — scoring five goals and proving a really valuable squad player.
Now it looks as though he may be moving on this January, back to China or to the Middle East, so it would be great if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could give him a United swansong against us.
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