The Cup that cheers

Today we face Sunderland in the third round of the FA Cup.

The third round is always eagerly anticipated as it’s the first time in the competition that the country’s top teams can face lower league or non-league opposition and the obvious David versus Goliath comparisons are made.

In recent years there has been a lot of talk that the FA Cup has lost its magic and isn’t held in the same regard it once was. I would agree with that to a large degree. Every club takes a different approach to each cup competition, which mainly comes down to how high it rates on their list of priorities in any given season.

For us, at the moment, I think a good cup run could possibly ignite our season as it doesn’t take a genius to work out that our league campaign so far has been very disappointing.

If, on the other hand, we were cemented in the top two or three and looking like we were in with a good chance of promotion then I would say it would probably do us a favour to concentrate solely on the league.

With the regularity of the matches in the Championship, a good cup run can really test the depth of your squad. It means you have games every three or four days and if you don’t have the luxury of resting players and alternating a little bit then there’s no doubt that fatigue will set in. It’s also proven that players are more at risk of injury during these hectic schedules when so many games tot up and take their toll.

Okay, I can almost hear people out there telling me to stop complaining, but with the speed at which the game is now played it is impossible to maintain performance levels if you don’t get the necessary rest and recovery in between matches.

In my own career, the furthest I’ve been in the FA Cup is the quarter-finals. We also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup a couple of years ago at Blackburn but unfortunately lost to Aston Villa over two legs. That was very frustrating as it’s not too often you get so close to playing in a cup final at Wembley and the chance of claiming some silverware. The lads here at Bolton still speak with regret about when they lost 5-0 to Stoke in the semi-final of the FA Cup a couple of years ago. For a club like ours, it’s not every year you have a real chance of reaching a final so I can understand how they feel.

Happily, I have been fortunate enough not just to lead a team out at Wembley but to actually win the final and lift the trophy. It happened when I was captain at MK Dons and we won the Johnsons Paint Trophy. Ironically, we didn’t really take this competition too seriously until the quarter-final stage as our main priority that year was the league and gaining promotion. But now, when I think back on that day and lifting the cup, it still gives me goose bumps. At that time in my career it was my biggest achievement in football and to have all my family and friends there made me very proud.

The January transfer window is now open and in full flow and, thankfully, for a change it won’t be one in which I’m looking for a move. In the last three transfer windows I’ve moved to Ipswich on loan , West Brom on a short-term deal and then to Bolton last summer, so it will be nice to be watching it all unfold this time from the comfort of my sofa. It’s a mad period that always seems to gather momentum as the month reaches its climax. The clubs that do the most business are generally the ones at the wrong end of the table, but with over-inflated premiums put on players’ heads it’s a tricky one to get right.

Meanwhile, our focus today is on a Sunderland side which will have a familiar face or two from the national side, though it seems John O’Shea is going to miss out with a hamstring problem. It’s always nice to play against your mates or international team-mates – though not so nice if you lose to them. I’m sure, that like us, Sunderland won’t be too happy with how their season has gone so far and will be keen for a good cup run.

From our point of view, I’d expect that after our congested festive fixture schedule our manager, Dougie Freedman, might well chop and change personnel and give some of the younger lads a chance.

Having a Premier League side visit the Reebok will be a reminder of where our own club really wants to be. And a victory over the Black Cats would help breed confidence that, yes, we can get back there too.

But, at least for today, it’s all about being up for the Cup.

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