Paul Scholes column: I loved the FA Cup and winning it was magical every time... losing it would ruin my summer, though

In his exclusive column for The Independent, the former Manchester United midfielder looks ahead to the FA Cup, pays tribute to Steve Gerrard and says Chelsea look tired

In my mind’s eye I can still see my miss in the late stages of the 1995 FA Cup final against Everton at the old Wembley Stadium. I hit it well but had not placed it far away enough from Neville Southall, who had an easy save. And with that single moment my summer was ruined.

That was the first FA Cup final of my career, aged 20, and I was on as a substitute for Lee Sharpe to try to score an equaliser. As FA Cup third-round weekend comes around again, I can say that I come from a generation where the Cup remained a great prize for a professional footballer. It was as much about the day at the old Wembley, in the days when just playing there alone could represent the pinnacle of a player’s career. As a boy I had loved the competition.

The strongest memory from my childhood was the 1985 FA Cup final when Norman Whiteside scored the winner for Manchester United, down to 10 men against Everton. Then, in 1990, I was in the Oldham Athletic end with my dad for both semi-finals at Maine Road when United were taken to extra time twice by Joe Royle’s team before eventually winning. By the time I became a professional at United, I knew what the FA Cup meant.

I played in six FA Cup finals and on performance alone we should have won them all. As it turned out, we lost to Everton in 1995, Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea in 2007. We beat Liverpool in 1996, Newcastle in 1999 – a final in which I scored and made the other – and then Millwall in 2004. In 1995, my first final, I had never played at Wembley before and the anticipation of the game was enormous.

At United, we would always stay in a nice hotel by the river in Windsor for FA Cup finals. Usually away games would be a trip on a Friday for a Saturday game but for FA Cup finals we would head south on the Thursday. There would be a different atmosphere around the hotel. And then, regardless of the result, we would have a decent party afterwards with the families.

What has changed? I think the honour of playing at Wembley has been devalued in the minds of players and fans. That is not helped by the ridiculous decision to stage the semi-finals there as well. There was something magical about the Twin Towers. The history of the place meant that it felt like a major moment in your career. These days, footballers, especially those in the Champions League, play in famous stadiums so often that Wembley does not stand out so much.

It still amazes me when I see managers of mid-ranking Premier League clubs – clubs who have gone years without winning a trophy – picking understrength teams for the FA Cup. I dare say we will see it again this weekend. Yet what does it take to win the FA Cup? Excluding replays it is six games. Any side should be able to balance that with the demands of a league season.

From United’s point of view, it will be interesting to see how Louis Van Gaal approaches the game against Yeovil Town on Sunday. Clearly, Yeovil have struggled badly this season in League One and, on paper, there is no way that they should be close to a match for United. Yet this is the FA Cup, and the game is at Huish Park.

 

During my time at United, we only went out once in the third round and that was against Leeds United, then of League One, in 2010. It was a terrible result, coming at Old Trafford, and a nightmare for our supporters whose rivalry with Leeds does not require further explanation. That kind of result is hard to explain, but all I can say is that when you make wholesale changes to a side there is always the possibility that the performance will falter.

The problem in those cases is often that the vast majority of players who come into the side have played very little competitive football. Regardless of the fact that they might objectively be much better players than those they are up against, they often find themselves unable to get up to the pace of the game.

During my time at United, we drew 0-0 at home to Exeter City in 2005 and then, a year later, drew 0-0 away to Burton Albion – both FA Cup third-round games against Conference opposition. I came on as a substitute in the game against Exeter. It feels remarkable that United could not beat non-league opposition, especially at home, but that was the reality. There were major changes to the United team and, on the day, we could not break the opposition down.

We played Northampton Town, then in the fourth tier, in a fourth-round game in January 2004 and, although we won relatively comfortably in the end, it was always a battle. It was an away game, against a team 82 league places beneath us. They had nothing to lose. We just wanted to get the job done and get out of there.

If they play well, I don’t expect any problems for United against Yeovil. The same goes for Liverpool against AFC Wimbledon on Monday or Crystal Palace away to Dover Athletic or West Bromwich Albion away to Gateshead. But once a manager starts introducing major changes to his starting line-up he is giving that lower league side, especially the lower league sides that are playing at home, the first possibility of a chance.

For all the indifference that some clubs show the FA Cup in its early rounds, there is nothing like the great games that come at the end of the competition. As well as the finals we won, there were great memories from earlier rounds too. I scored the winner against Arsenal in the semi-final in 2004. We will never forget the late win against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round in 1999 at Old Trafford when we scored two in the last two minutes.

I have had my lows as well. I was given that red card for a stupid tackle on Pablo Zabaleta in the semi-final against Manchester City in 2011. I was trying to get to the ball, I just missed it. Not that it made much difference in the end – they were the better team that day.

In 2005, I missed the only penalty in the shoot-out with Arsenal in a final we should have won. There are no words of consolation that will do in those circumstances. Your team-mates tend to leave you to it. They know that you will be brooding on it all summer.

There will be some managers looking at their current league form and wondering if this weekend is a chance to take some of their players out of the firing line. There will be some players who will be glad of the rest. That is the reality of football now. Yet if they were to make it to a Wembley final, I can assure them that they will remember the day for the rest of their lives.

It’s hard to walk away – but I can see why Gerrard has chosen a new challenge

I have said before that Steven Gerrard should still be good for another two seasons at Liverpool. That he has decided to leave in the summer will have been a difficult call. The hardest part is deciding when to do it. You ask yourself: do I still have the legs to carry on at this level or am I going to end up playing 15 to 25 games a season, and become a bit of a museum piece?

I went through it myself and retired too early the first time. My preference was to play for Manchester United or no one else. I never wanted to play for any other club, whether that was in the United States or elsewhere, but I can see the attraction for Gerrard. I always thought he would stay at Liverpool and then move on to the coaching staff in the same way that Ryan Giggs has at United.

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Departing Liverpool player Steven Gerrard

 

I am sure that the lifestyle in the US, or at another European club, will be an attraction. Gerrard would have a big impact in America. That said, there is still a long way to go in the season and he will be surprised what might change over the course of the next few months, however much he feels he has made his mind up.

He has been one of the best players of the last 20 years, there is no doubt about that. A player of his standing should have more than one league title to his name and, although Liverpool have challenged in certain seasons – under Gérard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers – there has never been a sustained period where they have looked like becoming champions.

It is difficult for me, as a United fan, to say it is a pity that Gerrard has never won the league. It is easier to say he deserves to have a league winners’ medal. If there was a time to leave Liverpool and join another club, he should have gone to Chelsea when they tried to sign him for the second time after he won the Champions League in 2005. It always looked like Chelsea would win the league more than once.

There are those who say it would have been worth less with Chelsea. I disagree. Moving clubs is a part of football. I was lucky that my club were strong enough that I could fulfil my ambitions there. But when you win a trophy it means the same, whether they are the club you began your career with or one you joined for £30m.

I wonder if part of his decision to leave Liverpool now was that, compared with last season, the club look much further away from that next league title. It would be much more difficult to walk away from the Liverpool team as it was in the second half of last season than the Liverpool team as it is now.

Chelsea look tired. Maybe Mourinho should have rotated his squad a bit more

I don’t share Jose Mourinho’s view that the referees in his games against Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur were as bad as he feels. His Chelsea team looks tired. It does beg the question why he didn’t take the opportunity to rest more players in the Capital One Cup tie against Derby County and Sporting Lisbon, a dead rubber in the Champions League on 10 December. Against Lisbon he played Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa in a game that did not matter.

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Jose Mourinho

 

Player of the week

Harry Kane. Two fine goals against Chelsea

Manager of the week

Pochettino. A draw with United then a great win over Chelsea with five goals against a Mourinho team

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