From Wembley to Moss Rose, Stuart Gray is set for a FA Cup culture shock when he leads his Sheffield Wednesday troops into third-round action at non-league Macclesfield Town today.
For the Owls caretaker-manager’s last FA Cup game was at Wembley in May when Wigan Athletic – now rivals in the Championship alongside Wednesday – pulled off a shock by beating Manchester City 1-0 in English football’s showpiece occasion.
Gray was there that day, when Ben Watson’s stoppage-time header clinched victory, as a fan but today it is purely business for the 53-year-old.
Moss Rose is a sell-out for Wednesday’s first competitive game there, and many outside S6 are hoping for a giant-killing act, with the Cheshire ground a ‘million miles’ away from the glamour of Wembley.
While Wednesday will be seen as a massive scalp for the Conference side, it is over 20 years since Trevor Francis took the Owls to the FA Cup final in 1993.
Gray insists he will warn his Owls players before kick-off against being complacent against Macclesfield.
“I am not being disrespectful to Macclesfield, but some of our players won’t know their players,” he claimed.
“My job is to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Application is the most important thing.
“I have never been to Macclesfield before. But they are doing well, are a strong team at home and the surface will be good.
“People say it could be a banana skin for us, but, at the end of the day, we will be ready physically and tactically but it’s the application which will need to be spot on,” he said.
Macclesfield are certainly enjoying impressive form at home. They are unbeaten in their last 12 games, including a 4-0 FA Cup thrashing of League One side Swindon Town in a previous round, having won 10 and drawn two matches.
Even an Owls side high in spirits after an unbeaten festive run which saw them climb away from the Championship drop zone will face a severe test of their character.
There has been little time for Gray to bask in exiting the bottom three, after Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Blackpool.
“It feels great but our focus is now on the Macclesfield game,” said Gray.
“Unfortunately, the games come round pretty quickly so you can’t enjoy it too much.
“It was a nice feeling waking up in the morning, though, with three points, a clean sheet and being out of the bottom three.
“Any football club would love a cup run, including the excitement of being in the hat for the next round. As daft as it sounds, if the draw can be favourable to you, it’s probably the easier cup to lift because there’s only six games to win.
“More often than not, it’s one of the top-four teams who win it, but as Wigan showed last season there is an underdog that can get there.
“Last season, Wigan beat Manchester City and they actually played them off the park. I was at the final and Wigan thoroughly deserved it.
“It’s a cup that is valued and appreciated all around the world, not just in this country.
“A few teams have probably been a bit disrespectful to the cup over the seasons, rotating squads and not knowing the importance of the FA Cup, what it means to the British public.
“It was great being at Wembley last season with the atmosphere generated by both sets of fans. It was a fantastic day out and it would be a nice to involved with a team out on the pitch.
“I love the FA Cup. Growing up, watching the final in May each year, watching the build-up from noon. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I never had the luxury of playing in an FA Cup final, but I have been to a few.”
Gray is forced into two changes today, with centre-back Roger Johnson back at Wolverhampton Wanderers after his three-month loan expired and top-scorer Connor Wickham unable to play due to his loan deal with Sunderland.
Wednesday are in negotiations with Wolves and Johnson is expected to return to Hillsborough next week on loan until the end of the season.
“Roger wants to stay, which is a bonus, and it’s just a case of thrashing out a deal,” said Gray. “Him and Glenn (Loovens) look a fantastic partnership and long may it continue.”
The Owls have agreed with Arsenal to extend the loan deal of goalkeeper Damian Martinez until the end of the season. He is eligible to play today.
Gray also wants goals from other areas of the team, not just Wickham, who has netted seven goals in nine games.
He has challenged players like right-back Liam Palmer and midfielder Kieran Lee to find the net, while he believes that the aerial threat at set-pieces from Roger Johnson, Reda Johnson and Loovens should be reaping them more goals.
“Liam needs to start chipping in, I think most full-backs tend to get one or two goals.” said Gray, a former player with Nottingham Forest, Barnsley and Aston Villa. “I keep testing Liam, saying I want to see what his goal celebration is.
“I see him scoring in training, but want to see it at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.
“Kieran is a good footballer, puts a shift in and can manipulate the ball, but again he’s another one who needs to start chipping in with a goal.
“Everyone has got to start scoring, we just can’t keep relying on Connor.
“If not, teams will probably start doubling up or trebling up on Connor.”
Positive news for the Owls is some respite on the injury front. Injured duo Lewis Buxton and Kamil Zayatte could return in a fortnight, while Michail Antonio made a welcome return as a substitute on Wednesday after six weeks out with a knee injury.
“It was a great boost for Michail, to get out of the treatment room, but we just have to be wary with him as he’s only just had one training session. He needs to regain his sharpness.”