Football: The loneliest guest at the party: You're the captain, and the club has reached the Cup Final. But you won't be playing. Jasper Rees reports

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The Independent Online
AT the risk of putting noses out of joint, it is not far-fetched to describe next Saturday's FA Cup final as the least anticipated in the competition's recent memory. Both finalists not only overcame local rivals in fervent Wembley semi-finals, they also contested last month's rather lukewarm Coca-Cola Cup final. Is there any fizz left in the bottle?

Given the comparative lack of interest, it is probably as good a moment as any to consider the plight of a player who would not miss the final for the world, but certainly will. Nigel Pearson began the season as Sheffield Wednesday's captain and pillar-in-residence, but he broke his tibia in February just as the club's poor start had been put behind them. 'It was a straightforward crack through the bone,' he said. 'I knew from the start that I was going to be in plaster for between eight to 12 weeks and it turns out it was spot on.'

The opposition were Blackburn, the occasion the first leg of the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final. The score was already 4-2 and Wednesday were as sure as they could be that a place in the final was theirs. 'To start with, it didn't really dawn too much, not instantaneously. It wasn't for a few days that I started thinking that I wouldn't be playing in the Cup final.'

No footballer likes donning a suit and sitting on the back benches at Wembley. Once is bad enough, but Pearson will be doing both for the third successive time on Saturday. 'Don't remind me. It's difficult but you put it into perspective after a while. I had plenty of time to prepare myself not to play, so by the time the semi-final of the FA Cup at Wembley with Sheffield United came along I was used to the idea, and when the final came I quite surprised myself. I felt I wasn't too bad. I thought I would do a lot more moping around. I've never been the best watcher of games, but the thing about the Wembley experience is that, having been there a couple of years ago and won it, at least I've got that to cling on to.'

The Coca-Cola Cup final is one thing, but if there is one day in the domestic calendar that footballers least like to miss, it is the more historic FA Cup final. It might be catastrophic not to be selected when fit, but you would have thought that it was a disaster of another order to know that selection would have been automatic.

Generously, Pearson is not so sure. 'I feel sorry for anyone who is in a situation where they played all season and then a week or a fortnight before they get injured and they've not got time to adjust; or if you're fit and you're left out. Those situations would be even more difficult, whereas I'm in . . . not a luxury position, but I've known the score for three months now. So, if I've not sorted out my head now, I never will do, will I?'

Worst of all, he reckons, would be absence through suspension, the fate which befell his club- mates, Carlton Palmer in the League Cup final of two years ago and Nigel Worthington against Arsenal last month. 'That's harder to deal with, because you know it's your own doing.'

The footballer who famously inflicted just such a blow on himself is not inclined to regret. More so even than Jimmy Greaves and the 1966 World Cup final, or Dennis Law and the 1968 European Cup final, Steve Foster is best known for a match that he missed, the classic FA Cup final of 10 years ago, when Brighton almost beat Manchester United.

'I was disappointed for my family more than anything,' he said. 'Whatever you do in football, one minute you're up the next minute you're down, so you can't get disappointed with things. The good thing about the draw was that we all went back there on Thursday, so the whole town had two Cup finals. I would rather have won it, but as it happened we all got a lot more money each, we all had another day out, and another night out.'

Does Foster have any advice for Pearson? 'He's experienced enough. He knows that if he gets disappointed about it nothing's going to help. You've just got to hope for next season and get back again. It's just something in football everyone accepts now: you can't win every game; you can't play in all cup finals; you've got to take the highs with the lows.'

Is there anything a non-playing player can do to help as the big day looms? 'There's not a great deal you can do,' Pearson said. 'If players want to talk, I've got a role in trying to get them going. It's nice to feel you can contribute in some way but it's not something I'd say I enjoy doing a lot. But you've got to keep yourself involved. There's no point in cutting yourself off, because that makes you feel worse'.

What Foster went through, when Brighton drew without him and lost with him is every footballer's nightmare - the realisation that you might be surplus to requirements. In recent weeks Pearson has been there too. Is there ever the slightest guilty wish to see the world cave in on the team from which you're excluded? 'I've got to be honest,' he said, 'and I'm sure all players are like this: during the game you certainly don't will things to go wrong, but everybody goes through the mixed feelings syndrome. It's the worst thing for a player to know that the side does bloody well without you. It's a bit of a dent on the ego. The fact that we didn't win the other one perhaps helped me deal with it. I really do hope we win this one, and I think we will.'

(Photograph omitted)

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