Neil Warnock: My lifelong love for the Cup has always gone unrequited - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

Neil Warnock: My lifelong love for the Cup has always gone unrequited

What I Learnt This Week

I fell in love with the FA Cup as a boy, but the competition has not been kind to me.

As a player I never got past the fourth round; as a manager, in nearly 30 attempts, I've reached one semi-final, two quarter-finals and five times went out in the qualifying rounds.

Obviously, much of that has to do with the clubs I've managed. Just getting to the third round with Burton Albion, when they were in the Northern Premier League, was a fantastic achievement. When I reached the semi-final with Sheffield United in 2003 we beat two Premier League teams, including a very good Leeds United, and were very hard done by against Arsenal in the semi-final. That was the match in which my good friend Graham Poll was their best attacker – he provided the assist for the only goal of the game. It still hurts.

I've got a good team now so I'd love to have a real crack at the competition this year, but again the fates haven't been kind. We've been given a difficult draw, away to MK Dons, who are doing really well.

We're also struggling for players. I want to field my strongest team but that's always dependent on who's fit and available and, having had two tough games, we have quite a few knocks to overcome. There's also Joey Barton suspended and two players with African Cup of Nations involvement. On the plus side we can play Federico Macheda, who's done well in training this week and will be hoping for a start today. He's got a lot to play for while on loan to us and I believe he can make an impact.

I'm expecting a cracking atmosphere and I'm sure the dressing room will be in good spirits and looking forward to having a break from the League. Mind you, our fans will probably travel in trepidation. I'm told QPR haven't won an FA Cup tie since 2001, not even when they were in the third tier and playing in the first round.

2. Knockout memories – in more than one sense

One of my early memories is of playing football in the street in Sheffield when all the buses of Norwich City fans came past. It was 1959, Norwich were a Third Division team at the time, and they'd reached the sixth round. All these double-decker buses full of fans hanging out of the window with yellow and green scarves on came past. They waved at us and we waved back. It was amazing. It seems like something out of a book now.

They got a draw at Bramall Lane and when the replay came around we all sat round a table while my dad fiddled with the old wireless. It was all crackling as he turned the dials, then we heard the commentator at Carrow Road. It was 10 times more exciting as a kid listening to it on the wireless than watching it on TV. The game went one way, then the other, until Terry Bly got the winner for Norwich. I remember going to bed that night so disappointed.

A few years later I was at Bramall Lane when we played Burnley, who were a wonderful team at the time. They still played cricket at Bramall Lane then and we were in the corner, about third man in cricket positions. We were full of hope, then the blond head of Ray Pointer scored for them.

Although I've never had much luck in the competition it was the FA Cup which first got me noticed as a manager, at Burton in 1985. We played five matches just to get to the first round proper, in which we beat Staines. We drew Aldershot away and I can remember being on the pitch when the football special came along the adjacent railway line with all the Burton fans on it. We won 2-0 and they made the draw straight afterwards. We were thrilled to get Leicester, who were First Division and a local derby – we even had the same sponsors. They had Gary Lineker and Alan Smith, who scored five goals between them in a 6-1 defeat. But at 1-1 our goalkeeper Paul Evans had been hit by a chunk of wood. He was wobbling about and even sick on the pitch, but the ref said we had to play on. There was a big fuss afterwards, and we got a rematch played behind closed doors at Coventry's Highfield Road. It was a really weird atmosphere but we had a right go and only lost 1-0.

As non-Leaguers you've nothing to lose in those situations, but it's not much fun for the League team. I've never been knocked out by a non-League club, but I've had some close shaves. Telford took us to a replay when I was at Huddersfield and at Plymouth we only beat Kingstonian 2-1, but the season of living dangerously was 1999-2000.

I started it at Bury, where I wasn't very popular, and it looked as if it would get a lot worse when we met Tamworth in the Cup. They play Everton today and David Moyes certainly won't want to be taken to a replay. The atmosphere was fantastic at The Lamb Ground, but it was a really hard, sloping pitch and we had to change in a shed. Twice we led, twice they equalised. Back at Gigg Lane they led with four minutes left but Chris Billy levelled before winning in extra time. Bury's luck ran out in the next round when Cardiff beat us in the last minute of the replay, but I got a second chance with Sheffield United. One of my first matches was against Rushden & Diamonds, then going great guns in the Conference. We drew 1-1 at home, and when Shaun Derry scored in extra time at their place I thought we were through but it went to penalties. I've never prayed so much. A new manager needs a good start, not going out to a non-League club. Fortunately we won.

3. Joey's red card gave pundits ammunition

As you will have read in yesterday's Independent, I'm very disappointed the FA have not rescinded the red card given to Joey Barton against Norwich. You know the officials have got it wrong when Graham Poll and Dermot Gallagher come out and say it. I just can't understand why play went on until Joey was clattered. What if Joey had scored, would the goal have counted? It was interesting to read the experts saying they didn't think the linesman had seen the incident and had gone by the reaction of Bradley Jones throwing his head back and Grant Holt going straight towards the linesman.

At least it gives some columnists a chance to have a dig at me and Joey this week. Having said after the game that Joey wouldn't have reacted the same way, I was quickly reminded of his escapade with Gervinho when Newcastle played Arsenal earlier this season.

One aspect that unsettled me was a conversation I had before the Norwich match with Phil Dowd, the fourth official. The referee was Neil Swarbrick, who I thought had had a poor game one time in the Championship. When I marked him I gave him 100, and added the remark: "I hope this will get him into the Premier League." Little did I know that would come back and haunt me when I also got into the Premier League because it turned out Swarbrick had remembered this, and mentioned it to Phil, which suggets he had it on his mind.

4. Kids have cheered me up over rotten New Year

When you get two defeats, like we had over New Year, it is hard on families as, while everyone else is enjoying the holiday, you can't be cheerful and feeling on top of the world.

The kids have been brilliant, putting up with me and cheering me up, so I showed them some of my vintage card tricks, which I remembered while watching Dynamo on TV. He had been at Amit Bhatia's Diwali party and we kept on saying, "How on earth did he do that?"I taught William a trick, but he keeps on doing it and I've had to remind him if you do it too often people will suss it.

The family came to the Arsenal game. I went on the pitch to wave at them and looked up and saw the big clock. My mind went back to the time when my dad smuggled me on the bus from Sheffield, and into his hotel room, when United played at Highbury. I remember getting to the ground, looking up and seeing that huge clock then. They tell me it's not the same clock, but it looks the same.

On Thursday I came downstairs to find my wife and daughter watching Celebrity Big Brother. Is that sad or what? I couldn't even take them to task as I've had 20-odd stitches inserted in my mouth for a bone graft and talking is not easy. It should be OK by kick-off today, though.

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