FA Cup Countdown: 'I had just played the FA Cup final and lost. It was surreal'

Lee Sinnott played in the Cup final at 18, but his Watford side lost out to Everton. Now manager of Farsley Celtic, he tells Phil Shaw why meeting the MK Dons is a chance to make amends
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The Independent Online

They run 25 teams of both genders at Farsley Celtic, from the first XI to the Under-sevens, and Milton Keynes Dons may be relieved to hear that only a select few use the pitch where the Conference North part-timers take on the League Two promotion contenders on Sunday.

Many an upset in the first and finest of knockout competitions has had its origins in a non-League quagmire or skating rink. While the surface at the Throstle Nest is almost as green and smooth as the billiard-table baize manufactured in Farsley's last remaining mill, there is still much to concern MK Dons as they head to the tiny ground in the West Yorkshire borough of Pudsey. Not least the ambition, acumen and FA Cup pedigree of Lee Sinnott, the Farsley manager.

Sinnott played in the final at the age of 18, representing Watford in their 2-0 defeat by Everton in 1984, and in another semi-final when he was 21. Now 41 and in his fourth season in charge of what he calls "a true community club", the former central defender is again looking to the Cup as an opportunity to challenge himself as well as Farsley's team of firemen, salesmen, students and an ex-male stripper.

The capacity at their ground, which is tucked away in a housing estate, is 3,000, with just one-tenth given over to seating. Up to 750 Dons supporters will squeeze into a narrow terrace behind the dug-outs. It is all a distant cry from the day that Sinnott, John Barnes, Mo Johnston and the rest of Graham Taylor's side contested the trophy before 100,000 spectators at Wembley and the worldwide television audience.

"I remember being surprised that the tunnel there is on a slope, so you can't see the pitch when you're at the bottom," says Sinnott. "We went out in our grey suits for the pre-match stroll and my legs felt wobbly. But once the game started I was concentrating so hard I didn't notice the crowd or the noise. It's worse when there's 275 in, like we had against Alfreton last Saturday. Then you can see and hear individuals."

Watford were a very young side and started brightly before succumbing to goals by Graeme Sharp (bottom right, battling with Sinnott in the final) and Andy Gray. "I last looked at the video about eight years ago and I didn't play too badly," Sinnott recalls. "On the day, though, it rather went over my head.

"I only realised the magnitude of it all when I got back to the hotel around 7 o'clock that evening. We were going on to Elton John's house for a reception and it suddenly dawned on me: 'I've just played in the FA Cup final and lost'. It was surreal."

Sinnott, who had started with Walsall, went on to play for nearly two decades, having three spells with Bradford City as well as appearing for Oldham, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and England Under-21s. Along the way he accumulated coaching badges and worked at Leeds United's Academy before taking the plunge with Farsley.

Last spring brought promotion from the Unibond Premier. This season has seen steady progress to a mid-table position in a division that is two rungs from the Football League. "When I came, the average attendance was 90. It's three times that now," says Sinnott.

"The long-term plan is take the club as far as possible, and to do that we have to increase the fan base. We struggle because we're six and a half miles from both Leeds and Bradford City. But we've got a planning application in to develop the ground, which I hope would draw more people in. You can't go into the Conference with crowds of 400."

Sunday's tie should certainly raise Farsley's profile. Sinnott believes that the exposure from drawing a League club at home for only the second time in their 98-year history (in 1974 they took their tie against Tranmere to Elland Road) could be "worth 10 times the monetary value because we're trying to get the club to grow".

Farsley have knocked out Wakefield, Witton Albion and Cambridge City. MK Dons are lying fifth in their division, however, and are unlikely to go meekly under the management of Martin Allen. "They have the link with Wimbledon," says Sinnott, "but they're actually creating a club in a part of the country capable of decent-sized crowds. I've got a DVD of their draw at Walsall, who are top of League Two, and we had them watched when they won 3-1 at Grimsby. We know what to expect."

For all that Sinnott promises "a passing surface", the Dons should steel themselves for "a vociferous but fair crowd" breathing down their necks. "I won't be sanding or watering the grass. Or making sure their shower is cold. I don't go in for that nonsense. I believe in preparing my team well. But I do want our fans to generate an awkward, edgy atmosphere."

A small-scale version, perhaps, of what Plymouth's followers whipped up in Watford's semi-final at Villa Park 22 years ago. "We were in the equivalent to the Premiership, they were League One level. We won 1-0 but it was a very difficult occasion. The gap between Farsley and MK Dons is the same, so there's no reason for us to feel overawed."

Sinnott is determined his reacquaintance with the Cup will be a taste of things to come. "I want to manage at as high a level as I can, to test myself and achieve things no one else has done," he says. "That's what drives me at Farsley Celtic - and I'd take that wherever I was working."

Boss of bosses: Sinnott's managerial influences

Graham Taylor

Graham saw me playing for England youth and took me to Watford. No disrespect to Walsall but I doubt I'd have played for 19 years if he hadn't. He was an incredible organiser. I was raw and he taught me so much.

Steve Coppell

People grab your attention in different ways - they can bang the table, or talk with a quiet, firm authority and intelligence. That was Steve when I played for him at Crystal Palace. I connected with that calm presence.

Neil Warnock

Not everyone's cup of tea but I loved my year with him at Huddersfield. Neil's talent is assembling a team and getting them pulling in the same direction. If there's a wall to run through, they do it without asking why.

Paul Jewell

Paul had been in the Bradford job two minutes when he gave me a "doing" for a mistake in training. Constructively, without effing and blinding. We were big mates, but he was right. A special manager.