Gareth Southgate’s love for the Emirates FA Cup remains as strong as ever and the England manager believes the competition continues to play a crucial role in the development of the country’s young players.
The FA Cup Final was one of the highlights of the sporting calendar for the likes of Southgate growing up, with it being one of the few live televised matches each season.
As a player, Southgate won the League Cup at both Aston Villa and Middlesbrough but had to endure several moments of heartbreak in the FA Cup.
There were four semi-final defeats across his time at Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, with a narrow 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the 2000 FA Cup Final sandwiched in between.
But those heartbreaks never took away his love for the oldest club competition in the world.
“My history in the competition is not as much as I would have liked. I look at that trophy and have not had my hands on it!” he told ITV.
“I had a lot of semi-finals in particular and with the clubs I played at, they don’t have a great history of winning those trophies so Villa was the only one where we got to the Final and got really close.
“I grew up watching the tournament and my earliest memories of football are watching the FA Cup Final because it was the only game which would be shown live, apart from England versus Scotland.
“When I was a youngster, that grew my love of the competition and that remains today because there is still the beauty of the competition, as it has always been.”
Speaking to the BBC, he added: “The FA Cup is still an incredible competition. We still get those brilliant upsets we see.
“Equally from my perspective, a lot of the teams have been playing young English players and for a lot of young English players it is their first experience of competitive football so it is great to see young players breaking through.
“As the competition progresses it is going to be really exciting to see if some of those smaller teams can go on the brilliant journeys that we remember from the past.”
As England manager, Southgate has introduced a host of exciting young players into his squad since taking charge in late-2016.
The Three Lions have reached the UEFA EURO 2020 Final, semi-final of the 2018 World Cup and impressed at the most recent tournament in Qatar during that time, with youngsters such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka becoming integral parts of the team.
But Southgate highlighted that despite the team’s success, he would still like to see more young English players featuring in Europe’s top divisions and stressed the important role competitions like the Emirates FA Cup play in developing the next generation of stars coming through.
He said: “The FA Cup is often the first opportunity for young players to come into their teams and get competitive experience under pressure. That is very important for us because we still have a lack of depth in terms of young players playing in the league.
“We have around 30 per cent of the Premier League who are qualified to play for England and that is very low. So for them to have the opportunity to cut their teeth in cup competitions sometimes and establish themselves in the team is really invaluable.”
When asked if the low percentage of English players featuring in top-flight football was an issue for him, Southgate replied: “Without a doubt. We have a perception that we have a huge depth of talent but we actually have less talent playing in the big five leagues than most of our rivals.
“The numbers in the Premier League have diminished again and that is a concern for England moving forward.”
Southgate will be among those attending Emirates FA Cup fourth round proper games this weekend.
You can read a preview for the fourth round proper here and see the full fixture list here.