IN January 2008 after another defeat at home, a journalist asked me if the magic of the FA Cup was a welcome distraction from our dreadful league form.
Reading weren’t playing well at all, having lost 6-4 to Tottenham and 2-0 at home to Portsmouth.
It was after the Pompey game — when I was angry and not in the mood to answer questions — that I told one reporter I didn’t give “Two s****” about the FA Cup that year because we needed to sort out our Premier League form.
I knew people’s jobs were on the line. And they were not going to be saved by an FA Cup run, no matter how much we enjoyed playing in the competition.
Although I believe to this day my sentiment was correct, it was a poor choice of words to make my point about a great competition — and the press had a field day.
The backlash from fans all over the country was immediate and I estimate a good-sized rainforest gave up its life for the hate mail.
We used to pin the vilest stuff — including death threats — to the changing room notice board until it was somebody else’s turn to be ‘W***** of the week’.
But worse still was that my fears came to pass, we went on an eight-game losing streak that only ended in March.
It was a run that would ultimately relegate us. We didn’t survive past the third round of the FA Cup, with Spurs knocking us out in a replay we could seriously have done without.
At the training ground, I had to walk past friends who had lost their jobs. They were carrying cardboard boxes full of possessions from their desks.
These people had been at the club far longer than any of the players.
And the way I saw it, they were leaving because I hadn’t been good enough. I have never got over that.
It’s an extreme example of a perfect storm converging on a football club — but it isn’t the fault of the FA Cup.
The truth is, the Cup has been very useful to me over the years.
When I was having a tough time at Stoke in 2010, it was an FA Cup sub appearance against Manchester City that got me back in the frame. I came off the bench to score a 79th-minute opener as we won the tie 3-1 after extra-time.
The Cup also provided me with my first game back after a six-month knee injury, following a shocking tackle by Middlesbrough defender Chris Riggott on the opening day of the season.
I then managed to score in the first half — which upset Birmingham defender Matthew Upson, who decided to have a go at wrecking the one good knee I had left.
We won the game but I lost my head in the post-match press conference and battered Upson to the assembled journalists.
He replied by saying he would never intentionally injure another player. Have a look at a video of the tackle if you’re ever hard up for entertainment and tell me what you think. Personally, I’m not convinced at all.
And I’ve been involved in some cracking FA Cup matches.
One that really stands out is Manchester United against Reading, just like today’s tie.
It was in the fifth round and finished 1-1 in 2007.
Then there was the 3-2 defeat in a breathless rematch, during which we conceded three goals in the first six minutes — only to reply with two of our own before hitting the bar in the last minute.
There aren’t many fifth-round games which get a DVD!
If the match had gone on for another ten minutes, we would have beaten them.
If the score had been the other way around, then maybe the game would have gone on for another ten minutes!
I scored in that replay, something that I don’t mind boring people about.
If you’re going to score in the FA Cup, then United is the team to do it against given their great history in the competition.
I would have loved to win the Cup. But then again, I would have loved to have gone out with Kate Moss. The point is that beggars can’t be choosers.
If you’re playing for the clubs I played for, great though they are, then your responsibility is to do the best you possibly can in the FA Cup until a better team beats you.
But you never take your eye off the bread and butter.
The sad and simple truth is that finishing 17th in the Premier League pays an awful lot of bills for an awful lot of people behind the scenes.
The game is littered with clubs that have gone all out for Cup glory and paid a very heavy price.
As a former non-league player, I love seeing how far my old club Arlesey Town can go.
That’s when I feel the real attraction of the FA Cup.
The fact every club in the land has a fair crack at sharing the glory in their own way is what makes the FA Cup truly magic.
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