Eric Lichaj has gone from complete ignorance of the world’s most famous domestic cup competition to having a constant barking reminder of its romance, to the point where he was cursing Rotherham United’s Michael Smith for scoring the winning goal at Solihull Moors.
With Huddersfield Town to come in the Championship on Tuesday, this evening’s televised visit from Chelsea is not even Hull’s most important match of the next few days, but one sentence from the American captain tells of its real significance.
“I don’t think I’ve played in front of a full house (at the KCOM Stadium) and I’ve been here a year-and-a-half now,” says the full-back and one-time Leeds United loanee.
Football has often been a hard sell in Hull, and even more so under Aseem Allam’s controversial ownership.
With Chelsea bringing 4,100 supporters, and despite a 5.30pm kick-off and the presence of BT’s cameras, the KCOM will be full for football for the first time in three years. It is nearly half-a-century since Hull has hosted such a big FA Cup crowd, drawing 32,290 to Boothferry Park for the 1973 visit of West Ham United.
As far as coach Grant McCann is concerned, that brings responsibilities beyond the result, even if he repeatedly stressed that Tuesday’s was the bigger fixture.
It will be a good gauge to show us where we’re at, the development of some of the younger guys and where I’m at coming towards the back end of my career. I think we’re all looking forward to it.Eric Lichaj
“It’s down to us to, hopefully, bring some fans back,” he says.
“The ones that have been with us all season at home and the ones that go away with us have been outstanding but if you speak to any of the players they will tell you that sometimes it can be a bit disheartening if you go out there at the KCOM and it’s a bit empty.
“We tell them to forget about that and focus on the football but it’s nice when there’s a crowd there behind us and backing us.
“Hopefully, they like what they see, the new fans and the returning fans, and they come back again for the Huddersfield or the Brentford game because, ultimately, the league’s the most important thing for us, we want to get out of this league so we can have games like Chelsea every week.”
Lichaj does not strike you as someone easily carried away.
“It’ll be nice to have a full house,” says the 31-year-old, who may be needed at left-back with Callum Elder injured and the fit-again Stephen Kingsley more likely to be held back to face the Terriers.
“Hopefully, we can get an early goal and keep that (atmosphere) going and roll that onto the league, where we want to push for those play-off spots.
“We’re more focused on winning games and if we’re winning games and if we can edge into those play-off spots, more fans will come out.
“It’s just trying to grind every day, get better in training and build. I think we’re a better squad than we were back at the start of the season.
“I go into it as a normal and I need to prepare myself as if it is, but on the pitch I think the guys will be found out if we make mistakes. We will probably get punished a little bit more than in the Championship so everyone’s got to be on their A game.
“It will be a good test for us because that’s where we want to be, playing in the Premier League. We’re playing against a Champions League-calibre team.
“It will be a good gauge to show us where we’re at, the development of some of the younger guys and where I’m at coming towards the back end of my career. I think we’re all looking forward to it.
“It’s a tough test against a really tough opponent but we always back ourselves, especially at home.”
Lichaj holds a small piece of FA Cup history, having scored twice for Nottingham Forest in a 4-2 win at home to Arsenal in 2018. It was the only time the Cup’s most successful manager, Arsene Wenger, was knocked out in the third round, and his final game in a competition he won a record seven times.
Lichaj had not really heard of the Cup when he joined Aston Villa in 1997.
“I didn’t know anything about it until I came over here and started playing in it,” admits the USA international. “It wasn’t part of what I did when I grew up, which was more the World Cup and Chicago Fire. I didn’t really know much about English football until I came over at 18.
“I was quite annoyed when Rotherham came back and beat Solihull 4-3 (in round two) because I’ve never played at Solihull so I wouldn’t have minded having a game there and seeing how it is but now we’ve got a chance to play against a really top side.”
The 2018 win had a lasting legacy in the Lichaj household. Eric scored twice to put his team in front but when Forest were awarded second-half penalties, first Ben Bereton, then Kieran Dowell, told him where to go when he asked to take them.
“My wife liked cats and I really liked dogs, I grew up with dogs and said I really wanted one,” explains Lichaj, whose nine career goals came before he moved to East Yorkshire. “She wasn’t sure but she said if I scored a hat-trick, I could get a dog.
“I ended up getting two, I could have got three. We had two penalties in the game but she ended up being nice to me and allowed me to get one.
“It’s called Gunner so, hopefully, we’ll soon have a dog called Chelsea but there’s nothing riding on it this time.”
Nothing in terms of canine contributions, perhaps, but winning over a few extra fans could be more important even than beating the Europa League winners.