TONY Mowbray summed up the importance of a final-four Capital One Cup place with a neat trivia question.
“Who were last year’s semi-finalists?” he asked the gathered Press pack, football experts to a man.
We hummed and hawed before coming up with the winners who were Liverpool, then beaten finalists Cardiff City, and after a moment or so we remembered Crystal Palace lost to the Welshmen.
The one we didn’t get, and neither did Mowbray for that matter, was the club Liverpool defeated in their two-legged affair – Manchester City.
A strong Middlesbrough side will take on Swansea City this evening in one of the competition’s quarter-finals in South Wales and, who knows, could end up within touching distance of Wembley if they win.
But as Mowbray’s to-do list has ‘get back to the Premier League’ written on it and absolutely nothing else, then he is not going to go overboard about the possibility of nearly making a final.
He said: “My point is that you don’t really know who the semi-finalists were. You don’t remember last season’s FA Cup semi-finalists. It only matters when you stick your name on a trophy; only then can we talk about an achievement. Our main target is to win league matches. However, when you are this close in a cup competition, you don’t pick weakened teams, you pick the strongest team available.
“But you still need to be very conscious about the Saturday game and that’s why we are staying over in Swansea after the match so the players can get a decent night’s sleep. We will travel back on Thursday and then we’ll train for Wolves on Friday.”
Managers from the top to the bottom of English football view this cup competition as nothing more than an inconvenience.
Even last year’s winners Liverpool, fortunate to beat Cardiff on penalties, ended their season with Kenny Dalglish, that club’s greatest icon, being sacked.
But while promotion is what this season is really all about, Mowbray has never taken this competition anything other than seriously. He said: “I made 11 changes for a tie at Preston, which had we lost then I would have been lambasted for changing the whole team. You guys in the Press would have wondered what I was doing, as would our supporters in terms of me respecting the competition. But the team we put out at Preston got the job done for us.
“I think we have shown it respect. I like cup competitions and my record in them generally has been pretty good. I have always played strong teams and tried to progress. That has continued here at Boro.”
Of course, all this talk of semi-finals, Wembley and what-not is premature to say the least. This is a superb Swansea side that will fancy getting their hands on some silverware for themselves.
Mowbray said: “When you look at the task in front of us, it does temper the excitement.
“We have Swansea City away who have just beaten Arsenal at the Emirates and also an excellent West Brom side 3-1 who were going for their fifth win in a row.
“They have some excellent players and nobody in the Premier League is better at ball retention.
“I would imagine they are odds-on to beat us.”
Cardiff City are the perfect example of what can happen to a Championship team who have to handle a prolonged run in the Capital One Cup.
The Welsh outfit’s extra games en route to Wembley clearly had a detrimental effect on their hopes of getting into the top flight.
So while tonight’s side will be strong, half an eye will be on the home match with Wolves on Saturday.
He said: “Any one of our strikers might not play at Swansea and that would mean he will probably start against Wolves.
“It’s not a case of a player being left, it’s just we need everyone and the league games are vital.”
Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele, however, didn’t attempt to hide his excitement at the prospect of a cup final.
But then players are allowed to show less restraint than their managers. Steele said: “It’s a big occasion for the players. It is one of my biggest games for Boro and hopefully we can reward the fans and get to Wembley. All our games in this competition have been away from home this season so that has given us a lot of confidence that we can travel to anywhere and get a result.
“We beat Sunderland and Preston away from home, which gave us extra belief.
“Sunderland was 1-0, but we were pretty comfortable there when no-one gave us much of a chance, and we beat them deservedly, so we have shown we can win away from home against Premier League clubs.
“We are within touching distance of Wembley and we have to use that as motivation.”
Steele wasn’t in Cardiff to see his club beat Bolton in 2004 to lift the only trophy in Boro’s history.
He recalled: “I was 14 and watched it on television. I remember Bolo Zenden’s penalty very well, but not much of the rest of the match.
“I was already at the club and some of my year went. There were only a few limited tickets available and I missed out.
“I would have gone to school the next day saying my team has just won the cup, but I was only a little kid back then.”
Steele is a bit bigger now and would love to say once again that his team won a cup.