James Scowcroft: How the Premier League's lure wrecked my FA Cup dreams

The Weekend Dossier: Injuries caught up with us. Something had to be sacrificed and the Cup was it

An FA Cup tie between Watford and Crystal Palace on a cold winter's day in 2008 won't stand out in your mind – even if you support one of the clubs who were involved – and it certainly shouldn't. But it's a day I'll always remember.

I was 32 at the time, all too aware that my career didn't have long to run and that if I was to experience some of the magic of the FA Cup that had captivated me as a kid – sitting in front of the TV set, glued for eight hours on Cup final day, or running home from school to dial up Teletext and to see the draw for the next round – then this was it.

There was a buzz about the Palace team I was a part of that season. We were doing very well in the Championship at the time and the manager, Neil Warnock, had worked miracles, having taken over in early October. Watford hadn't won at home for weeks. This could be our ticket to the next round of a competition which had given me glimpses of its magic but snatched them away just as quickly.

I'd always had mixed fortunes in the Cup. There was a fifth-round defeat against a high-flying Aston Villa side for Ipswich at Portman Road on 17 February 1996, in only my third senior appearance, when I was 19. There was also a run that took me to the quarter-finals with Leicester City in 2005, when we fell to Premier League Blackburn Rovers, with a semi-final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff just a whisker away. But overall the FA Cup wasn't too kind to me – so perhaps you can imagine how I felt at training on the day before that third-round game with Watford, when Neil read out the team and we discovered that he was fielding a weakened side. My heart sank.

The team he'd picked was a mixture – half made up of senior players, with a few lads who were on the fringes and a couple of youngsters barely out of the youth team. I couldn't blame the manager. The temptation of the Premier League was too much for a club like Crystal Palace. We were second from bottom when Neil took over. We had risen very quickly and were now in the top six. But injuries and the small size of our squad had caught up with us. Something had to be sacrificed and the FA Cup was it.

You wouldn't believe the difference it makes, knowing that your team is going to be below strength. The routines were the same as they are in every game. Same pre-match food, same bed time. But as soon as we'd seen the line-up, training had a different feel. It was a lot more low key; a lot more relaxed.

We had a practice match against the youth team in training that Friday morning and as I walked in after the session at lunchtime, I couldn't help thinking that the next day's game would be tough and that it would take a very special effort to beat a strong Watford side under Aidy Boothroyd. Their home record might not have been special but they'd demolished us at Selhurst Park a month before and were favourites for promotion. Now it was going to be even harder.

The game itself, on a muddy Vicarage Road pitch, certainly wasn't a classic. Even Watford themselves were probably not at full pelt and the 10,480 attendance was well down on their 16,000 average for that season. It was a clear sign that the FA Cup had lost some of its appeal with the public.

The 11 lads who represented Palace that day certainly didn't let the club or supporters down. But Watford were the better team. We were trailing 1-0, with 10 minutes to go, when I can clearly remember having a chance to equalise and one of the Watford players sarcastically shouting: "What are you doing? Neither of us want a replay." Perhaps he was just being sarcastic – but after the set-up, build-up and general low-key approach to the day and game, perhaps he wasn't. Two minutes later Danny Shittu (below left) put paid to any replay when he headed his second goal in.

Just after that, the referee ended the tie and after the formalities of shaking hands and wandering over to applaud the travelling Palace fans, I couldn't help thinking that an opportunity had gone forever. I'd always thought whenever I'd been knocked out of the Cup, that there would always be next year. But at 32, approaching 33, I knew there wouldn't be too many more "next years".

To make matters worse as I walked down the tunnel, I was pulled to one side by the doping agency, to be told that I'd been picked to give a urine sample. As I sat in the small room, trying to drink as much water as my body could take to rehydrate myself and provide the sample, I started to listen to the radio one of the stewards had on. All the results were coming through with commentators in ecstasy over the giant-killings of the day – Coventry winning at Blackburn and Havant & Waterlooville getting a draw at Swansea.

It made my mood worse – listening to players being interviewed and grabbing the moments of glory they'd earned. I started to think back over my career and those "what if" moments. It was all too late now. My FA Cup career was all but over, put paid to by the lure of the Premier League. Football at the top is awash with money now, but money will never be able to buy moments like those that Bradford's players experienced during the week.

So if you're watching a Cup tie which feels unattractive, with very little resting on it this weekend, spare a thought for some of those players of a certain age out there who are giving everything to progress. They know they have to make the very most of it. It's a short career.

Five asides

1. The Eden Hazard/ballboy story was embarrassing for all concerned

But I do think that some clubs use ballboys tactically to their own advantage. I remember Howard Wilkinson doing exactly that when he was a coach at Leicester during my time there. Before the game, he pulled a ballboy to one side in the tunnel and gave him his instructions: "When the ball goes out, sprint to the ball and throw it to the nearest player." That player would, in turn, immediately throw the ball behind the opposition back four for me to run onto. Five minutes into the game that's just what happened. The ball went out of play and seconds later I made my run. I caught the full-back asleep and crossed the ball for my partner to put us 1-0 up.

That's how ballboys really can come in handy. It's a tactic I still coach to this day.

 

2. Robin van Persie and his textbook quickstep

I currently work four days a week coaching youngsters at the Ipswich Town academy and constantly use players as examples. Robin van Persie's "opposite movement" to score against Liverpool two weeks ago was a prime example on how to lose your marker. Take two steps away from the ball's direction of travel, draw the defender with you, then attack the space towards the ball that you've created. Van Persie: textbook.

 

3. Michael Carrick's a player-of-the-season candidate

He's a great one to watch – especially the way he always receives the ball on the half-turn (never with his back to the play) and always looks to pass forward to "break the lines" to a player that is behind the opposite midfield but in front of the defence.

 

4. Wilfried Zaha is superb

But if he now has a poor game, which is inevitable, people will write him off. Mentally he'll have to be very strong going into every game.

5. Ryan Giggs is on the road to management

Completing the first part of his pro licence course at the new St George's Park is a clear statement that Ryan intends to go into management. He would only need half the qualifications if he wanted to coach.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
News
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
Voices
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star