STEPHEN WARNOCK is no stranger to the vagaries of Cup football.
On the plus side, the Leeds United defender has played at Wembley in a League Cup final and also been part of the run that took Liverpool all the way to Champions League glory and a place in one of English football’s showpiece occasions.
As a counter balance to those happy memories, however, is his Wembley appearance for Aston Villa against Manchester United in the 2010 final which ended in a controversial defeat.
Another regret is how Liverpool’s night of European success in 2005 came with Warnock sitting in the stand at Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium after being overlooked by manager Rafael Benitez.
“I think it is fair to say that I’ve experienced both the ups and the downs of the Cups over the years,” says the 31-year-old defender to the Yorkshire Post ahead of Leeds’s daunting FA Cup fifth-round trip to Premier League champions Manchester City.
“But that is what football is all about sometimes. You just have to get on with it, especially as you never know what lays around the corner. We’ve seen that this season more than ever with all the upsets, including Leeds beating Spurs in the last round.
“That has earned us a chance at getting something from Manchester City. It is a big challenge, but one we are ready to take on.”
Warnock’s first taste of knockout football came 10 years ago when on loan at Coventry City from Liverpool. A resounding third-round exit at home to Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup and a 3-1 replay defeat at Colchester United in the FA Cup were hardly ones to set the pulse racing, though Warnock did have the consolation come the end of the 2003-04 campaign of being named Player of the Year at Highfield Road.
A year later, however, and the young defender, by now back at Anfield and a part of Benitez’s plans, was about to be exposed to the contrasting emotions created by the Cups.
Warnock recalls: “That season was really exciting for Liverpool, as we did really well. The League Cup was where all the young lads really got their chance.
“The manager decided he wanted to give us all experience of first-team football and we did really well (to beat Millwall and Middlesbrough in round three and four respectively).
“Can you imagine how special it was to be winning important games as part of what was, basically, the group I’d grown up with? There was probably only (Stephane) Henchoz and (Igor) Biscan who were first-team players.
“The rest were all Academy boys and that was brilliant. There I was, playing with all the lads I’d known for years and winning games for Liverpool. I didn’t think life could get any better.
“The highlight was going to Tottenham one night and they had a really strong team out. (Freddie) Kanoute, Michael Carrick, Robbie Keane – they all played. But we beat them on penalties in front of a full house at White Hart Lane.
“That was a brilliant feeling and not just because we were through to the semi-finals. Pulling off a result like that with all the young lads in the team gave everyone a lift and a belief that we could go on and win it.
“Of course, the closer you get to winning a trophy, the club start to think they can win it, too. And that was when he (Bentitez) started to change the team.
“I’d started all the previous games but come both semi-final legs against Watford, I was on the bench and didn’t get on. And then I missed out on the final (when Liverpool lost to Chelsea after extra-time) completely.
“That was a bit hard to take, especially as we’d been told at the start of the competition that the further we progressed meant we’d be playing against better teams.
“Basically, we were told we’d stay in. But then once the club was close to the final, all that changed. That was a bit hard to swallow and I was a bit upset.
“But, now I am that bit older, I can see what the thinking was behind what happened. It was just a shame.”
If missing out on a place in the Reds’ side that strode out at the Millennium Stadium to face Chelsea was tough, it was nothing compared to what lay in store three months later in the Champions League.
Warnock had featured in Liverpool’s crucial qualifiers against AK Graz back in August, replacing Steven Gerrard and former Leeds winger Harry Kewell as the English club triumphed 3-0 on aggregate.
He also played in both group games against Monaco and the 1-0 defeat in Greece against Olympiakos as the Reds qualified for the knockout stage by finishing as runners-up to the team from the Principality.
Once Europe’s elite competition had come out of hibernation early in 2005, the defender then started as Bayer Leverkusen were beaten 3-1 in Germany to keep Benitez’s side on course for what turned out to be one of the all-time classic finals.
“As a Liverpool fan, seeing the club come back from three goals down at half-time to beat AC Milan was incredible,” recalls the Leeds defender. “I don’t think we will ever see a game like the 2005 final.
“But, on a personal level, I was gutted to miss out on even a place in the squad after playing quite a few times earlier in the run. That took a bit of time to get over in the summer.”
As for tomorrow’s tie against Manchester City, Warnock admits it will be tough due to the huge sums of money that have been poured into the Lancashire club in recent years.
The defender’s first four visits to Eastlands with Liverpool and Blackburn yielded two wins and a draw, but the last four, which have coincided with City’s meteoric rise, have all ended in heavy defeats.
He said: “The stadium is great, though the prospect of going there has changed a lot. Not so long ago, you’d go to City believing a win was possible.
“Now, though, they have moved on to another level as a club and a lot of visiting teams leave with nothing. But the win over Spurs in the last round shows what can be achieved and that anything is possible.”