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Aston Villa star Paul Merson
"Your legs feel like jelly and you feel heavy"
 real 28k

Friday, 31 March, 2000, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Forty years of hurt

Gregory and Villa's FA Cup top-scorer Benito Carbone
The first of this season's FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday sees two of the competition's illustrious names bid for a first final in over 40 years.

It is 42 years since Bolton Wanderers defeated Manchester United in the final played shortly after the Munich air crash.

Cup history
Bolton's four wins include the first Wembley final in 1923
Villa's seven wins are only bettered by Man Utd and Tottenham
Yet neither has been to a final since the 1950s
A year previously Aston Villa also beat United - the full Busby Babes side before the plane crash which claimed eight of their lives.

Had the clubs been meeting in a late-1950s semi-final favouritism would have rested on current form rather than anything else.

But with Villa an in-form Premiership club and Bolton currently in the division below, the side from Birmingham are expected to make it to a first final since 1957.

Both clubs already know what semi-final defeat is like having experienced the demoralising experience in this year's Worthington Cup.

It was the lowest point of my managerial career. I can't think of anything worse than that - and I and the boys want to put it right on Sunday

John Gregory on semi defeat at Leicester
Villa boss John Gregory still feels the disappointment of the second leg loss at Leicester, describing it as the "lowest point" of his managerial career.

"The defeat at Leicester will without question be at the front of our minds. It was a terrible feeling in the dressing room afterwards.

"It really hurt our squad and staff that night. We just never performed and when you lose in a semi-final you can't erase the memory. It stays with you for a long time."

Dublin enjoyed his 10-minute run-out last week
Skipper Gareth Southgate is set to return to Villa's defence after an Achilles injury.

Gregory says he is "tempted" to select striker Dion Dublin, who had 10 minutes as a substitute last week just three months after breaking a bone in his neck.

But the Villa boss says his biggest selection dilemma is in midfield, with Paul Merson and George Boateng likely to start and Lee Hendrie, Ian Taylor and Steve Stone battling for one remaining place.

"There are one or two players who do not deserve to be out of the side who have found themselves on the bench," he admitted.

Villa's cup run
Darlington (h) 2-1
Southampton (h) 1-0
Leeds (h) 3-2
Everton (a) 2-1
"But I can only pick three from five in midfield."

Gregory says Merson has been a crucial figure in Villa's revival since December, alongside Benito Carbone and Ugo Ehiogu.

"He's been a massive player for us in that time," said the manager.

"He has been turning in nine-out-of-ten performances quite regularly and seldom has dropped below seven."

`Come on lads, this is it. Go out, do your best and let's come back here for the final' - that's all I'm going to tell them

Nat Lofthouse
Bolton have beaten Premiership opposition in the shape of Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday this season, although their FA Cup run has been against sides from the Nationwide League.

Their star this season has been striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, and the Icelander is bidding to be the first player to score in every round since 1970.

Gudjohnsen has emerged from a career-threatening injury to rattle in 18 goals this season.

Gudjohsen: Has distinguised admirers
One of his admiring supporters is Bolton president Nat Lofthouse, the Icelander's 74-year-old who starred in the 1958 final.

"He's just got that striker's knack of putting the ball away," says Lofhouse of Gudjohnsen.

"He's always alive and looking for goals and has a great shot. And if he doesn't score he still plays his guts out."

Lofthouse plans to give Bolton's players a Wembley pep-talk 15 minutes before kick off.

"`Come on lads, this is it. Go out, do your best and let's come back here for the final,' that's all I'm going to tell them," says Lofthouse.

Bolton's cup run
Cardiff (h) 1-0
Grimsby (a) 2-0
Cambridge (a) 3-1
Charlton (h) 1-0
"I never usually speak to the players on the day of a game. But I will make a point of going down with the chairman to pop my head around the door on Sunday to wish them all the best."

Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce has concerns about the fitness of Paul Ritchie and Allan Johnston, who were injured playing for Scotland against France on Wednesday night.

Dane Claus Jensen also picked up a knock playing for his country.

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See also:

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Harley scores as Leeds crash
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Carbone magic kills off Leeds
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Bolton hold their nerve
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FA Cup final rescheduled
Links to other FA Cup stories are at the foot of the page.