McLeish's Villa out to avoid giantkilling
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and twice claiming the Ballon d'Or during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.
This weekend brings one of the most exciting dates in the English football calendar as the FA Cup third round rolls into town. We are down at Bristol Rovers with ESPN on Saturday, as the League Two strugglers look to cause a major upset against Aston Villa, who are three divisions above, and a world away.
I still believe the FA Cup is the best cup competition in the world; it excites everybody and gives lesser known sides a chance in the spotlight. Big teams have to travel to small stadiums, some with dressing-rooms that wouldn't even be able to hold a Premier League club's medical staff, never mind their squad of players.
Conditions are usually more difficult at the lower league grounds; you often have more swirling wind to deal with (though we saw in midweek at Newcastle and Everton that the wind gets into big stadiums too) and you often don't get a good playing surface either. Some of the teams you play will be training on the pitch a couple of times a week and, going back a few years, if a big club were visiting then a team would train on it all week long to roughen it up. As a visiting player, you'd walk out and think 'it's like a ploughed field' and immediately you're worried about the ball bobbling, or whether it will stick in the mud when you run with it. Those days are gone a little bit but this weekend, certainly if it's as windy as it has been all week, could provide Aston Villa with a real challenge.
You hope that when Premier League players are involved in these sorts of games, they get back on the coach at the end of the day and realise how lucky they are. Those who've played there know that already of course. I started out with Scunthorpe in the Fourth Division and we used to train on a rugby pitch - if we chipped our goalkeeper it would usually go in under the rugby bar! Then when I moved to Liverpool and trained with proper goals, I remember thinking what a big deal that was. Playing against smaller clubs always made me think about how far I'd come, but also made me think 'I want to be playing at Anfield regularly, not here again' - I always felt it was a wake-up call and made me feel how lucky I was, and it should be the same for some of those lads at Villa.
It can certainly be difficult for a big club like Villa to prepare for a trip to somewhere like Bristol Rovers; Alex McLeish will have had his scouts go and watch them but you don't know the opposition players inside out like in the Premier League so you're going into the unknown a bit. Add to that the fact you're at a ground you're not used to playing at, with a different atmosphere to what you get every week and it makes for a demanding encounter. I always told my teams to think about it as the hardest game they've ever had.
The way Alex rotates his squad for the game will be crucial. If he is going to go down there and make some changes, they need to be the right ones. The players who picked need to be hungry and not just think they're playing because the manager doesn't want to risk injuring a big name. It's all to do with the attitude of the players, whether they are up for the fight and fancy a crack at the next round, or if they shy away. Villa could well get three straight home draws next and then suddenly there within touching distance of Wembley. You win six matches and you've won the Cup, any team can put a run together, you don't have to be a great side to win the FA Cup, you just need to be great on the right day.
Villa got a great result at Chelsea recently but then they were beaten comprehensively at home by Swansea, so I'm sure Alex will be going down to Bristol with some trepidation. On the one hand it's a game they should win to take a bit of pressure off, but at the back of his mind he will be thinking 'this is a game we can't afford to lose'. Alex has had a bit of a tough time winning the supporters over and from a personal point of view, a defeat would be disastrous for him.
I've been involved in giantkillings before, both on the winning and losing sides and the opportunity for them to happen is what makes the FA Cup so great. When I played for Scunthorpe, we went to Sheffield Wendnesday in 1970, who were in the top tier when we were a mid-table Fourth Division side. We beat them at Hillsborough in the fourth round and it was a major upset. On the other side of things, we had a shock with Manchester City one year when Oldham put us out, and I also remember losing in the German Cup with Hamburg to lower division opposition in Kickers Offenbach.
I'm sure Bristol Rovers will be plotting their own upset this weekend, but their build-up will have been affected by the departure of manager Paul Buckle. His assistant Shaun North has stepped in on a caretaker basis and will lead the team against Villa - what a first game for him! That doesn't mean they might not be able to put everything behind them, though, and I'm sure his team-talk will emphasise that all the pressure is all on Villa. The Bristol Rovers players should just go out and play with freedom, enjoy it and let Villa worry about getting a result.
It's a great tie and while it would obviously be a major surprise if managerless Bristol Rovers beat Premier League club Aston Villa - regardless of what side McLeish puts out - that's why we're there with the ESPN cameras: because they just might. We saw Stevenage beat Newcastle last year - the FA Cup is littered with giantkillings and Bristol Rovers will be aiming to add their name to the list. There will be a shock somewhere this weekend and Alex McLeish will be determined to ensure it won't be Villa on the receiving end.