NEVER tell Dean Ashton that reaching an FA Cup final is anything but special.
The world’s oldest competition has been accused over the years of losing its sparkle, of missing that special ingredient that made it the pinnacle of the football calendar.
Others have claimed that the riches of the Premier League’s “big six” have seen it become predictable and boring, with the underdog story a thing of the past.
Ashton told SunSport: “I hate people who dismiss the FA Cup.
“It is so hard to get to and so many players never actually get to experience it. You are very fortunate if you get to play in an FA Cup final. It is something very special.
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“My generation would probably be one of the last that still saw the FA Cup equal to if not bigger than a European cup. I always saw it as the biggest knock-out final you could play in.
“And it certainly has not lost any of its competitiveness, which is what makes it so unique.”
Should Liverpool get their revenge against Chelsea who they lost to in 2012, it will be the first time they have lifted the trophy for 16 years.
That 2006 final against West Ham at the Millennium Stadium — a 3-3 thriller decided on penalties — is still viewed as one of the greatest in the FA Cup’s 150-year history.
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Ex-Hammers striker Ashton played his role as he scored to put his side 2-0 up inside 28 minutes before Steven Gerrard stole the show.
An outrageous assist for Djibril Cisse was followed by two worldies, with the latter being an injury-time thunderbolt from 35 yards for 3-3.
There is a reason it is called the Gerrard Final but it could have been so different.
Gerrard scoring “that” injury-time goal from 35-yards to send the final to extra-time[/caption]
Yet Ashton, 38, admitted: “I just wanted to win. There is nothing more devastating than having to walk past the trophy after the game and not get to touch it.
“It looked like it would be an unbelievable day but because of one person that all changed.
“I was sat on the bench in the closing moments and I let myself think about what it would feel like to lift the trophy, the celebrations. It didn’t look like they would equalise.
“Now I am older, I can appreciate that we were witnessing one of England’s best players. He was three or four levels above anyone else.
“If Liverpool didn’t have Gerrard that day, we would have won the final comfortably.”
West Ham almost did not have Ashton after manager Alan Pardew decided to name the entire team — except his second striker — until a few hours before kick-off.
Ashton explained: “I was really worried I would miss it when I tweaked my hamstring in the penultimate game of the season. I used oxygen chambers and ice baths and everything.
“The night before the final Pardew named the whole team except me or Bobby Zamora. He couldn’t decide and he had to sleep on it.
“When I got to the ground and did a lap of the pitch, I couldn’t tell my family because I didn’t know. It was an unusual build-up, but it clearly didn’t affect my game.”
As fate would have it, Zamora replaced Ashton in the 71st minute only to miss a penalty in the shoot-out as Rafa Benitez’s Reds narrowly came out on top.
Ashton added: “If you said back then it would be the last time West Ham would reach a final, I wouldn’t have believed you.
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“When you do it once you feel like you can do it again but it turns out for most of that team, that was their only ever FA Cup final appearance.
“That was never lost on me. I am very proud to have played in one.”