Don’t let Michael Tonge hear you say the FA Cup has lost its magic, writes James Shield.
The midfielder was a member of the Sheffield United squad which famously reached the semi-finals of the world’s oldest domestic knockout competition in 2003 and, as his former club once again approach the road to Wembley, he explained how qualifying for the latter stages can have a positive rather than detrimental effect upon league performance.
“There’s a real buzz about a club when it’s on a cup run,” Tonge told The Star. “That was certainly the case when we nearly went all the way through.
“It’s a difficult thing to describe but, very early on, we got a sense that we were going to do well. There was just this feeling around the place. Nothing tangible but you knew everyone was thinking the same thing.
“And that drove us on. The confidence we got from that wasn’t just confined to matches in the cup. It was apparent in all our games and we went on to make the play-off final as well.
“That’s why, looking back, I can never understand it when people think the cup can get in the way and cast a shadow over other games. On the contrary, it can be quite the opposite in fact. A good run can bring energy and momentum.”
Tomorrow’s first round tie at Colchester represents a welcome distraction from the problems of League One for a United team which slipped to 23rd in the table following Bristol City’s victory over Crawley Town in midweek. Tonge, who made 302 appearances after progressing through its youth system before completing a £2m transfer to Stoke, believes Nigel Clough’s appointment as manager last month will prove the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes at Bramall Lane.
The 47-year-old joined United after being controversially dismissed by Derby County and Tonge, who enjoyed a brief spell on loan at Pride Park five seasons ago, said: “He’s the right man. Nigel is exactly the type of person Sheffield United need.
“He’s a brilliant man-manager, a great organiser and he likes to take hold of a club from top to bottom as well as bringing good young players through.
“Personally, I thought it was a bit strange when he got sacked there. Really unfortunate and undeserved.
“Nigel didn’t get the credit he deserved for the job he performed at Derby. That’s the trouble with football these days; often people only look at results or the table rather than taking into account what is going on behind the scenes.
“There’s no sense of context anymore. But, as far as I’m concerned, Derby’s loss is definitely Sheffield United’s gain because I can’t see Nigel doing anything other than well.”
Tonge, aged 30, started three of United’s matches en route to their semi-final with Arsenal at Old Trafford; a game which ended with David Seaman producing a remarkable save to deny Paul Peschisolido scoring what would have been a deserved equaliser for Neil Warnock’s side.
If Clough’s charges are to defy the odds and repeat that achievement, they must overcome a number of mental challenges. Not least, as Tonge explained, disappointing records in both the Capital One Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy of late.
“I know everyone thinks that Neil wasn’t bothered about the cups but I distinctly remember him saying to us all at the start of that season he wanted to try and get as far as we possibly could in them all.
“There were a couple of things that helped us in the FA Cup. One was the fact that we kept getting home draws and the other was that we’d done so well in the League Cup too. Ideally, you want a home draw if possible and, on top of that, you’d rather not have someone from your own division too.
“If you get someone from a higher league then you’ve got nothing to lose and you know that every single one of your fans is going to be right behind you. Equally, if you get someone from a lower division then of course, without getting complacent, you are always confident of going through if you perform to your maximum.
“But, if you don’t get what you want then you just have to get on with it because the potential rewards are just too good to ignore.”
Many commentators have claimed that United’s failure to secure promotion at the end of the 2002/03 season - they were beaten in the Championship showpiece by Wolves - could be attributed to tiredness caused by a congested fixture schedule. That performing well in the cups carried a heavy price in the league.
It is not a theory to which Tonge, using Bradford City’s march into the final of last season’s Capital One Cup final to illustrate his point, subscribes.
“When you play in big games you don’t get tired,” Tonge said. “We (Leeds) had them against the likes of Chelsea and Everton last year and you just keep on going because the adrenalin and atmosphere helps you through.
“Bradford went all the way through in one and then got promoted via the play-offs. It probably spurred them on.”