Cup run could add steel to Reds’ fight for survival

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THE FA Cup will always be extra-special to Barnsley goalkeeper and captain Luke Steele.

After all, it is not every day you make your debut for your new club at Anfield, of all places, let alone celebrate a famous win at the end of it.

Or then lock horns with the Cup holders in a televised quarter-final with the world and his wife watching and send them packing as well in another major upset.

Steele achieved all that and certainly has a lot to thank the world’s oldest domestic Cup competition for. To say it put his career on the map is somewhat of an understatement.

Yet for Reds supporters and Steele, those heady days when the Oakwell outfit stunned big guns Liverpool and Chelsea en route to reaching the cup semi-finals in 2007-08 – for the first time since 1912 no less – must already seem like an eternity away.

Most definitely given the club’s recent alarming downturn in the past 12 months with the Reds currently without a manager and propping up the Championship table after just one win in their last 15 matches – and with no home victory in over four months.

But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And on one of the most blue-riband days in the footballing calendar – FA Cup third-round day – Steele is drawing inspiration from those famous Cup days of just five seasons ago ahead of a quest which if successful will make Barnsley players heroes once more.

Namely staving off relegation when not many are currently giving them a chance.

Steele, expected to lead out the Reds against Burnley at Oakwell this afternoon, told the Yorkshire Post: “I love the Cup and have some really fond memories of it. I definitely feel it can be a good distraction and can inspire us to kick on in the League.

“I would definitely say this is the toughest time of my career. But I have been thinking to myself a lot recently and would say it is the biggest and best challenge I have been presented with in that being captain, I do feel added responsibility.

“I have got a love for this club and want to do well and am so proud to be captain. Being bottom of the league is a negative thing, but I also think: ‘What a challenge to get out of it and proving my worth to help drag the lads out of the relegation zone.’ It will take a joint effort from us all.

“I have a lot of responsibility, but I like having the captain’s armband and the pressure.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, these are the best set of lads at the club since I have been here. It will mean so much for each of us to do it for each other and not just the staff and the fans. That is a big enough incentive for us.

“It will be a tough challenge, but we are not down and out by a long way. We are only five points out of it (safety), which is two wins. It’s a good challenge.”

Heroes, to a man, will be needed if the Reds are to be smiling in May after securing their second-tier status for a seventh successive season.

Just as a young Steele made a heroic name for himself back in 2007-08, right from the moment he was named as Player of the Round following his wondershow in the 2-1 win at Liverpool in February, 2008, shortly after heading to Oakwell on loan from West Brom.

Incredibly since reaching the last four in that famous run, Barnsley have failed to win a single FA Cup tie, suffering successive round three exits to West Ham – twice – Swansea City and Scunthorpe United.

Steele feels it is high time that changed, with the custodian – transferred to Manchester United from hometown club Peterborough for £500,000 in 2002 – seeking the warm embrace again from a competition which he has labelled “beautiful”.

He added: “I have been so disappointed in the last few years in failing to get past the third round, although we have had some tough games against Swansea and West Ham. Hopefully, this season we can do it. It’s not just about the League; the FA Cup is a massive competition we want to do well in.

“That cup run at Barnsley was the stuff that dreams are made of. I remember it was a time where I wasn’t playing at West Brom and had to prove myself.

“Being at Anfield was like a trial at one of the biggest and best places you can imagine. Ever since then, I feel I have kicked on and improved and I do feel you can generate a career out of one Cup game, as I did.

“It’s a beautiful competition and while we did not go on and win it, it started me out making a name in the footballing world. Since then, I have played up to 250 games in the Championship and the competition has been great for me.”

It is arguably correct in assuming that the majority of Barnsley fans will be glad the priority business of league survival takes a back seat today and the emphasis switches to a cup assignment with divisional rivals Burnley, just over a month after hosting the Clarets in the league.

While precious points may not be riding on its outcome ahead of 20 ‘Cup finals’ to save their Championship skins, Steele feels this afternoon’s Roses clash can have a positive effect.

And the 28-year-old is urging his team-mates to take the chance to express themselves – with the pressure slightly off – and claim a much-needed shot in the arm.

For Barnsley, that does not come much bigger than the arrival of Leeds United next Saturday afternoon when they hope to have a new permanent boss in place.

Steele said: “Whatever the players have been feeling, hopefully they will be lifted for today and feel it’s a time to express themselves and play with more freedom.

“It’s so important for us to start pleasing the fans at home as it spurs you on and can provide a snowball effect.”