The Whyte Side
Training was buzzing the morning before the 1997 FA Cup final. My Middlesbrough team were taking on Chelsea at Wembley and we had travelled to London that week to stay at a hotel near to the ground.
Everyone was really looking forward to it. After all, it was the sort of game most of us growing up had dreamed about playing in. Once training had finished we went for lunch, and just as I was heading to my room for a quick nap, manager Bryan Robson asked if he could have a quick word in private.
I’d been a substitute in our semi-final replay win over Chesterfield, and done well, so I thought he wanted to tell me I was in the team. “Derek, can I see you for a minute,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re not playing tomorrow…”
Bryan continued about how I’d been great for him all season and that he’d picked the side he thought best equipped to win the cup, and how I’d understand when I became a manager one day. But it all went above my head. I switched off completely. I was shocked.
It felt like I was the only one this could ever happen to, but loads of footballers have been through the same - including five of my team-mates that same afternoon.
I’d been at ‘Boro for so long, given them good service yet wasn’t going to feature in one of their biggest ever games. What made it worse was I had so many family and friends going to Wembley to cheer me on. I had to phone them to break the news straight after my chat with Bryan, and I was still absolutely gutted.
It ranks as the biggest disappointment in my football career. Sure, we got relegated that season, but this was a way to sign off with something for the fans to finally celebrate, and I’d watched every FA Cup final on TV since I could remember. To not even make the bench hurt more than anything.
However, I couldn’t sulk. Myself and the boys who were left out asked could we go to the hotel bar for a while, just to let it sink in. Then the next day, as we took the bus to Wembley, I was back in team-mate mode, trying to lift the tension and help the rest of the team relax before this massive test.
Even being on the pitch prior to kick-off, in our suits (no white ones, mind!) was a brilliant experience. I thought back to some of the amazing goals scored there - Ricky Villa in 1981 and Norman Whiteside in 1985 - and could see all the people I knew in the crowd. “This was Wembley,” I thought. “This is it.”
We eventually lost the match 2-0, with Roberto Di Matteo scoring the quickest goal in FA Cup final history. We were all devastated. Even though I wasn’t part of the side, it was still my team and I was so, so disappointed for the lads. I was surprisingly emotional at the final whistle, perhaps because I realised I’d never again have the chance to play in the FA Cup final.
So I don’t envy those Liverpool and Chelsea players who have to go through that this week. It has to happen to someone, and Kenny Dalglish and Di Matteo, now the Blues boss, will have to give the same chat as Bryan did to me. The boys will eventually understand, but, trust me, it will hurt like hell on Saturday.
CAUTIOUS UNITED PAY ULTIMATE PRICE
I can’t believe how negative Manchester United were in the derby on Monday night. As soon as I saw the team, with Wayne Rooney (right) up front on his own, I knew Manchester City would hold the upper hand.
I don’t know if Sir Alex Ferguson was over-confident, or afraid of City’s midfield overrunning them, but for once the United boss got his tactics all wrong.
And what a game to do that in. The win put their title rivals in pole position for the league crown, and I can’t see Roberto Mancini’s men losing it now.
I know the Italian’s still trotting out the line that United are favourites, but he’s just being clever - trying to deflect the attention from his players. And as much as Rooney and Co lacked the penetration to trouble City, I thought the hosts were absolutely brilliant.
Mancini was positive in his team selection, with Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero paired up front, and Yaya Toure patrolling the middle of the park is a beast of a man!
I expect the Etihad Stadium club to get full points from Newcastle on Sunday and QPR the week after. The title is theirs.
Arsenal v. Norwich - 3-0
Newcastle v. Man City - 1-2
Aston Villa v. Tottenham - 1-2
Bolton v. West Brom - 1-1
Fulham v. Sunderland - 1-0
QPR v. Stoke - 1-1
Wolves v. Everton - 0-2
Man United v. Swansea - 4-0
Blackburn v. Wigan - 2-1
Liverpool v. Chelsea - 0-1