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Apr 15, 2011

No-one remembers the semi-final losers

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 was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.

Nothing compares with the experience of playing in an FA Cup final, and for the Bolton and Stoke players it would probably represent the pinnacle of their career. As such, Sunday's semi-final will see the players subject to a unique kind of pressure. Nerves will be raw, and tension high.

Losing at this stage would be galling for either side. The FA Cup final is a wonderful day out: a national event, an integral part of the country's sporting history. There is a magic atmosphere and the build-up is unrivalled. But if you lose in the semi-final, there is nothing. No one will remember you.

Knowing you are just 90 minutes away from a final at Wembley ensures that players are affected by nerves on semi-final day. There is expectation and pressure, but also the nagging fear that if you lose, you will be so, so deflated. All those games you have played and all those places you have been to on your cup adventure will have been a waste of time. There will be no final to enjoy at the end of the season.

That fear can translate into a disappointing game and the temptation for both sides can be to err on the side of caution. If you get that sort of attitude, which is normal in semi-finals, you might see a cagey game, but what you hope for is an early goal to get the contest going. Then the team that has conceded has to come out of their shell, and that is when you get the great games that we all remember.

Thankfully I only have good memories of FA Cup semi-finals, most notably in 1974 when my Liverpool side defeated Leicester City. I scored one of my better goals, against Peter Shilton, as the ball came over my shoulder just outside the box and I hit it first time on the volley. It was instinctive and it just flew in. We went on to beat Newcastle in the final and I scored twice. But what made the game so special was that it was the great Bill Shankly's last game in charge of the club. I can still remember him on the touchline, gesturing, as I tapped in to make it 3-0. We put about 27 passes together in that move and he was mapping the game out with his hands as we played the ball around.

Win on Sunday, and whatever the result at the end of the season, either Tony Pulis or Owen Coyle will join the list of great names to have managed at Wembley in an FA Cup final. Though the victor of the other semi-final between Manchester United and Manchester City will of course be favourites, neither Bolton nor Stoke should be underestimated. They are not whipping boys; they are two established Premier League sides who have earned that status in recent years thanks to their hard work and no lack of quality. Expectations levels have risen among fans, players and the respective managers, who will both be thinking they can win this.

Owen is a young manager who has impressed at Burnley and now Bolton, while Tony is an experienced boss. He has been at Gillingham, has returned to Stoke for a second spell, has done the rounds and learned the trade. Both deserve to be in the final for the evolution they have overseen at their respective clubs, which have both grown immensely. Thanks to that tangible progress, Bolton and Stoke have got so many of the same qualities: they can both play a bit of football now, which was not what their critics said one or two seasons ago, and they can both mix it still, as they are both physical sides. It will prove a very interesting battle.

I slightly favour Bolton, just because I think they have a bit more football in them. That should not be interpreted as a criticism of Stoke - as they have real footballers like Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington as well - but Bolton are perhaps more adept in both aspects of the game: physical and artistic. I also have a link with Bolton because I signed Zat Knight for Fulham from Rushall Olympic. I think we gave them a few tracksuits and some balls to get him. He has come a long way and, like the other 21 players on display, is now just 90 minutes from a day to tell the grandchildren about.

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