Why the FA Cup is still special for Gus Poyet
At Brighton Health and Racquets Club in Falmer
A charge often levelled at foreign players and managers in England is that they don't fully embrace the FA Cup, that they view it in the same way that domestic knockout tournaments are seen in many other countries - as a second-class competition.
Given the high number of imports into our game, on the pitch and in the dug-out, it is a worrying outlook. And one that could be used to partially explain why the competition has lost some of its lustre in recent years.
But I don't believe it is totally true. For a start, British bosses are just as likely to field second-string teams in the Cup as their counterparts of different nationalities - Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp and Hull manager Phil Brown were just two examples in the third round earlier this month - and who could forget what Hitchin-born Stoke striker Dave Kitson had to say about the merits of the competition when he played for Reading in 2008?
In fact, it is rare to hear anyone speaking about the Cup with unbridled enthusiasm these days - which is why I enjoyed meeting up with Brighton boss Gus Poyet so much last week.
Argentine duo Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa are probably the first names that spring to mind when you think of South Americans who have been touched by the magic of the Cup, but, as I found out, Poyet feels exactly the same way.
Ricky Villa (left) and Osvaldo Ardiles (right) helped Spurs lift the FA Cup in 1981
It is 10 years since the Uruguayan, then a prolific goalscoring midfielder, got his hands on the famous old trophy after helping an expensively-assembled and multinational Chelsea side beat Aston Villa. On Saturday, he will face Villa again, this time as a novice manager of a struggling League One side.
His circumstances may have changed but one thing has remained the same over the course of the last decade: Poyet's passion for the FA Cup still burns brightly. "It's always been special to me," he told me. "No disrespect to the King of Spain but the Coppa del Rey, along with the Coppa Italia and Coupe de France don't really matter. The FA Cup is the only one in Europe that has got any real prestige."
That status is under threat, however, with many top-flight clubs preferring to focus on Champions League qualification or Premier League survival. It's been affected by a gradual change of priorities in English football that Poyet has seen firsthand since arriving at Stamford Bridge in June 1997, a month after Chelsea ended a 27-year wait for silverware by winning the Cup.
"Back then, it was a big deal and it was the start of Chelsea's journey to where they are now," he explained. "But now I feel people don't pay it enough attention. It has lost some of its importance because of the Champions League and doesn't get the attention it deserves."
Why does Poyet love the Cup so much? It is partly down to happy memories of his contribution to that triumph in 2000. He was the competition's top scorer that season with six goals, bagging his only hat-trick in English football in a 6-1 third-round rout of Hull, adding another in a narrow 2-1 fifth-round win over Leicester and, crucially, scoring both goals in a tense semi-final success over Newcastle.
But his appreciation is also down to his grasp of the heritage of the world's oldest knockout tournament and the traditions that he first witnessed on TV after coming to Europe to play for French side Nice in 1988.
"The biggest thing for me was always seeing Wembley, with the red carpet, the manager leading the team out on to the pitch with a flower in his suit and shaking hands with royalty," Poyet added.
"When I came to England, I thought maybe I will be lucky enough to get there once - and I was. Our final against Villa was one of the worst ever, but the only thing that mattered was being on the winning team.
"That final was the last one at the old Wembley, and I am very proud to have been part of the last team to have won the Cup there. It was a unique and very special day for me and totally different to going to the new Wembley, which is too similar to other big new stadiums. It's one of my best moments in football."
Poyet is an engaging character and his enthusiasm for the game is obvious, even when he spoke to me at the end of what had been a long and testing day. Brighton's usual training venue at the University of Sussex in Falmer has been unusable for most of 2010 because of deep snow, and Poyet's car got stuck as he tried to drive from a local pitch that was playable in order to fulfil his media commitments.
While they wait for their new stadium to be completed, the Seagulls use a public fitness club to feed and water their players after training, and it was a strange sight watching their squad and staff file past oblivious gym-goers, parent-toddler groups and tennis players, who were relaxing in the bar, while I waited for Poyet to arrive.
Poyet says the FA Cup still has real prestige
It is difficult to imagine Aston Villa's collection of international superstars having to do the same, and the gulf between the two clubs is such that Poyet feels winning at Villa Park on Saturday is an almost unimaginable feat.
"They are in the top six of the Premier League, we are at the bottom of League One," Poyet, who watched Martin O'Neill's side draw with West Ham on Sunday, said. "There is a big difference and, if they are at their best, it is going to be practically impossible for us to win.
"If not, maybe we will have a chance. But what we have to do is make sure that we are at our best. Everyone will expect Villa to go through, and, realistically, they probably will, but I want everybody at the club to enjoy the day and who knows what might happen."
The odds are certainly against Brighton, but Poyet's presence at least gives their fans some hope. After all, he has something of a midas touch when it comes to cups.
While playing in Spain, he won the Copa del Rey (King's Cup) with Real Zaragoza in 1994 and was part of the team that beat Arsenal in the final of the now defunct European Cup Winners' Cup in 1995 - when Nayim famously beat David Seaman from the halfway line - before helping Uruguay beat then-world champions Brazil to win the Copa America that summer.
At Chelsea, as well as that win over Villa, he returned from a long injury to score a vital goal against Vicenza in the semi-final of the Cup Winners' Cup in 1998, and scored the winner against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup at the start of the following campaign, thus securing the last European trophy to arrive at Stamford Bridge.
He has not collected quite so much silverware since turning to coaching, working as an assistant, firstly to Dennis Wise - at Swindon and Leeds - and then to Juande Ramos during the Spaniard's brief reign at Tottenham, although he was part of one notable triumph when Spurs won the 2008 Carling Cup.
After leaving Tottenham when Ramos was sacked later that year, Poyet had a year out of football, a spell during which he says there were "plenty of rumours about jobs but nothing happened" before taking his first management post with Brighton at the start of November 2009. "I was excited by the chairman, the city and the club," he said.
Poyet is still settling into his new role - results have been mixed since his appointment - but he is relishing his responsibilities and feels the biggest difference to being a number two is that, in the past, he had to accept his opinion might be ignored. Now he gets to make all the decisions himself, although he says he is never slow to ask for other people's advice.
"I am more open than Dennis and Juande. I still have the final say, but I ask my assistant (former Ipswich and Spurs full-back Mauricio Taricco) many, many questions. The more information you have, the easier it is to make a decision."
Brighton's league form is slowly turning round - they are unbeaten in three league games since 19 December and lie 19th in the table - but, perhaps unsurprisingly given his record, Poyet has had more joy in the Cup, steering Brighton into the fourth round for the first time since 1993.
So, is there a secret behind his success in knockout games? "I would just say I've been lucky," added Poyet with a grin. "I was never able to play in a team that was capable of winning a championship. Not in Spain, not with Chelsea when we were close but not close enough, and with Spurs.
"But I have been fortunate enough to be at clubs that won cups. I always thought going into those competitions that anything is possible, and if you believed you could win, we would. It is different to playing for Chelsea when you are manager of Brighton and draw Villa away, but it is a Cup game and I will still enjoy it, whatever the result."
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