Growing up as a football-mad kid in England, running out at Wembley for a sun-baked, eagerly anticipated FA Cup final was the absolute apex of dreams.
For Warren Barton, former Newcastle United defender and now Fox Soccer analyst, it was a dream he was able to experience in the late 1990s.
A big part of the Newcastle side from '95 until just after the turn of the century, Barton played right-back in the attack-minded Kevin Keegan side which came close to winning the '96 Premier League title. Two years later, though, he was walking out at Wembley after his team had reached the FA Cup final, where they lost to Arsenal as they did the double.
Just a year later, he was back in the Magpies' second successive FA Cup final appearance—but defeat to treble-winners Manchester United ensued.
Despite those defeats, speak to Barton, and there is certainly the sense that few other career opportunities can match up to visiting the home of English football, anticipating everything in the buildup and experiencing being a very real part of what was the biggest day on the football calendar.
For Newcastle in particular, the day itself perhaps meant that much more because it had been so long since they had been in a position to attain significant silverware.
"The build-up starts right after winning the semi-final. It's not just the day itself, but people calling straight away for tickets, measuring up for suits, speaking to players who had been there and done it before. You can try to prepare just like any other game—but it's not. It's like waiting for Christmas to arrive. Even the big, experienced names—Alan Shearer, Stuart Pearce and others—were the same."
So where has it gone wrong for the FA Cup? Or, indeed, has it?
Alex Ferguson's decision to withdraw Manchester United from the FA Cup the season after that win in '99 certainly had an effect, taking away part of the glamour and the pedestal on which the famous trophy sat, opines Barton.
However, the three-time England international also believes that it is very much still a competition which clubs, fans and players alike aspire to win and take part in. Foreign audiences are still enthralled by a knockout cup which pits professionals against amateurs, the world's greatest against on-loan reserve non-leaguers.
In the United States in particular, viewing figures for the FA Cup continue to soar and, with Fox covering the final again this coming May, there is no reason to think that trend will not be a prolonged one.
So who might be there, contesting the final at Wembley and aiming to have their name etched in below last year's winners Wigan Athletic?
Barton believes the winner could come from Saturday evening's key fixture: Manchester City vs. Chelsea.
"Jose Mourinho is a winner and he would love nothing more than to bring his team to the Etihad and beat Manuel Pellegrini again. City miss Sergio Aguero, I'm not sure anybody realised quite how much until he was absent, but even so, at home they should have the slight edge. Overall, I think the winners of the FA Cup this year will come from that game."
Arsenal and Liverpool will have high hopes of success too, with the sides clashing at the Emirates Stadium, while Hull City and possibly Everton might be the best bet of the outsiders.
Barton is impressed with the work Brendan Rodgers has done at Liverpool, and their lack of European focus in the coming week should enable them to field a full-strength side on Sunday. Arsenal, on the other hand, face Bayern Munich in midweek, and many believe Arsene Wenger will change the side accordingly—not something Barton is overly in agreement with.
Involved in coaching himself having taken his Pro Licence alongside the likes of Tony Adams and Roy Keane, Barton fully understands the need to change under-performing or tired players—but moving into the final stretch of the season, questions where Arsenal's priorities might lie if they change too many players around.
"The Liverpool game is as important as Bayern. What are they holding back for? Every game is huge, one shouldn't be prioritised over another at this stage. If a player is tired then yes, change them because Arsenal have the depth to do so without losing quality—but making wholesale changes after a couple of poor results will give the impression of throwing in the towel."
Either way, by the end of the weekend, it's likely that neutrals will have a far bigger idea of where the famous old trophy will be headed this season.
Two of the Premier League's top-four teams will be eliminated, barring possibly replays. Into the last eight, the remaining two will inevitably be installed as favourites to reach the final.
And Barton himself on that day?
He might have featured in a final or two back in his playing days, but his career in football has evolved to analysing the game rather than taking part on the field. He'll be part of the Fox team covering the final at Wembley, perhaps allowing himself just a few moments to recall that first sight of the green turf, the cacophony of noise inside the stadium and the vibrant colours generated by the fans, their shirts and banners.
Just like every year, it won't be an event to miss.
Visit here for Fox Soccer's schedule of FA Cup matches
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