Asmir Begovic recalls a landmark moment in his career that came in the FA Cup, and fast forwards to the present day to discuss the set-up at Chelsea this season…
Asmir Begovic’s FA Cup story goes back a long way. All the way, in fact, to his first start in senior football in this country.
The goalkeeper had already played a couple of games for La Louviere in Belgium’s top tier by the time his parent club, Portsmouth, next loaned him out. Macclesfield Town of League Two was the then 19-year-old’s destination, November 2006 the date. He would not have to wait long before his first taste of English football.
‘I came on as a sub against Stockport,’ Begovic recounts to the official Chelsea website. ‘This is quite a trip down memory lane!
‘I had signed for Macclesfield the day before and then the goalkeeper got injured late on, broke his leg. My full debut was the following week, in the FA Cup.’
Though the two teams for that second-round meeting were in the same division, their fortunes could not have contrasted more sharply. Macclesfield were rooted to the foot of the table and had not won a home game all season. The visitors Hartlepool were flying high in the automatic promotion places, but as so often in the FA Cup, the form book proved irrelevant.
‘It was my first game, first start, and there was a good crowd. It was a lively atmosphere, I had people yelling at me, and it was a bit overwhelming, really. I was looking forward to it but was a little bit nervous, as you are at 18 or 19.
‘We won 2-1, I made a couple of decent saves. It was fun. It was my first taste of the FA Cup and you saw how much that competition meant to everyone.
‘Then we drew Chelsea in the next round!’ Begovic continues. ‘I was travelling up and down because I was still living on the South Coast, being on loan from Portsmouth, so I was back home when the draw was made.
‘It was pretty fantastic and it was a big deal for everyone at the club.’
Unfortunately for Begovic, he got injured in training before the third round tie at Stamford Bridge and that cut his loan spell at Moss Rose short. By the time he was fit again, Pompey needed him. Meanwhile Chelsea beat the Silkmen 6-1, a game notable for Frank Lampard’s first Blues hat-trick, and John Mikel Obi’s first goal.
"We've felt really comfortable at home, and that is due to the atmosphere. It's been a collective effort."
Fast forward a few years, to 2010/11, and Begovic had established himself as Stoke City’s number one. But his was a watching brief as the Potters reached the FA Cup final that season, Thomas Sorensen and Carlo Nash the ‘cup keepers’ preferred by Tony Pulis.
‘It was hard not to play at Wembley with Stoke but it’s impossible to have everything. The manager has to do his bit to keep guys involved and make these decisions. It keeps everyone involved which is the best thing about it.
‘It’s one of the unique things about being a keeper. As an outfield player you can come in for 20 or 30 minutes here or there, whereas we either play or we don’t, basically.’
At Chelsea, goalkeeper coach Gianluca Spinelli has played a crucial role in maintaining the player’s focus for when he is called upon.
‘He [Spinelli] came in with a big reputation, we had heard a lot of great things about him and the work he did in Italy, especially with the national team and during all those years at Genoa,’ says Begovic. ‘I was excited to work for him and it’s been a pleasure since day one.
‘He’s a really good guy, he creates a great atmosphere, and he really knows what he is talking about.
‘We’ve been blessed. I had Christophe Lollichon last year which was a great experience. Hilario has been with us on a daily basis as well so it’s been very good. We are very lucky to work with these sort of coaches.
‘When you get to our age technically you’re pretty set,’ the Bosnian adds, considering how in particular Spinelli has assisted him.
‘It’s about what he wants you to do, and how he wants you to impact the game. I’m almost 30 so there probably isn’t much you can change, but it’s the way he speaks, his experience of the game, talking about different situations, what he thinks and how maybe things could be done differently. It’s more the mental side than anything else.’
Spinelli arrived as a member of Antonio Conte’s backroom staff, and Begovic says the atmosphere that has been created at Cobham is excellent, with the players able to ‘pick the brains’ of any coach, any time, should they wish.
He pinpoints that and the great spirit in the dressing room as two reasons why we have done so well this season. Another is our outstanding form at Stamford Bridge which he hopes will help when we face Manchester United in our latest FA Cup chapter.
‘We’ve felt really comfortable at home, and that’s due to the atmosphere. It’s been a collective effort.
‘We want to finish the season strong and our home form will be key to that. It’s important we keep performing the way we are at Stamford Bridge. The fans have been great and if they keep up their support it’ll help us a lot.
‘Us players will try to keep things going the right way. Everyone has bought in to what we are trying to do and achieve, and we know that ultimately if we stick together we can achieve great things.’