We must protect and respect the Cup, says Hughes

Blackburn manager bemoans the modern obsession with survival in the Premiership
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The Independent Online

The Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes, believes it is time the traditions of the FA Cup were protected and respected. Hughes has a huge affinity with the world's oldest cup competition - he lifted the trophy four times as a player - but the Welshman is aware that since those heady days the FA Cup does not quite have the same appeal, certainly for those clubs in the Premiership where money rules.

Struggling teams are unperturbed at an early exit as survival is everything, which is perhaps why there has been no winner of the Cup outside the "big four" of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea since 1995.

Hughes, whose Blackburn side visit Everton in the third round today, believes it a shame the Cup no longer carries the same sparkle in many people's eyes as it once did for him. "When I was a young lad and you were asked the question, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', the reply was, 'To be a footballer and win the FA Cup'," recalled Hughes.

"If you ask young kids that question nowadays the answer would be a lot different, but things have moved on. The Premier League is so important to so many clubs because of the financial rewards, while it's a disaster if you go out of it. It's sad teams look at the Cup and say, 'We need to be in the Premier League first and foremost, and if we do get knocked out then it's not the end of the world'.

"That's understandable, but it also means the significance of the FA Cup has somewhat diminished, which is a shame. It was very instrumental in my development as a player. It has always played a big part in my career, shaped it in many ways, so I've great affection for it. Although it's fantastic winning titles, and it's a great ask, you are also judged on having a one-off day where you get to walk up some steps and lift a cup above your head. That's very special, and I've been very fortunate in that respect.

"It's still a fantastic competition, one that's known worldwide. I think we should protect it and respect it. You should always do that with a competition of the standing the FA Cup has."

Regardless of the considerable sums of money the modern-day, multicultural player earns, Hughes feels his own squad do respect the Cup. "I think the players understand what it means," he added. "It's always in the players' minds, even if the significance of it isn't as high as it used to be. There is that respect.

"If you are a younger player just starting out, or an older player coming to the end of your career, the FA Cup is always special in the football calendar - particularly third-round day."

Meanwhile, at Old Trafford the midfielder Michael Carrick is relishing the challenge of competition for places. The £18 million signing from Tottenham has been pleased with his progress in the first half of the season.

United, six points ahead of Chelsea at the top of the Premiership, entertain Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round today. Carrick said: "I have made quite a contribution in terms of games played and am happy with that. We are in a good place in the table after the festive programme and that is encouraging.

"From a personal point of view, there is always more to come and I need to improve. I am working hard to do that. While there is competition for places at United, there is no rivalry in any way. We all get on well and the manager tends to change things around. That's fine, it keeps you on your toes and at your best. Even in training you have to be on top of your game. That's a good thing, because when you come into a match you are always sharp and raring to go."

United took 10 points from a possible 12 over Christmas to keep Chelsea at arm's length. Now they face a different challenge in the Cup, and Carrick aims to make further strides. He said: "When you are playing well and winning, you look forward to playing matches. It does not matter whether it is a cup tie or a League game - you just want to express yourself."

Carrick has been impressed with the striker Henrik Larsson, who is expected to make his debut after arriving on loan from Helsingborgs. The former Barce-lona and Celtic star will return to Sweden in March to prepare for their league season. Carrick said: "Henrik has looked good in training. He is sharp and has settled in well. Hopefully he'll get a few goals in his time with United. I am sure he will be successful."

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