This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Leicester City matchday programme – 19th March 2016.
When it comes to FA Cup semi-finals Joe Ledley has form, with a wondergoal for Cardiff City handing him the chance to play in the 2008 showpiece. After that ended in disappointment he is hoping that a second chance of glory could give him the winner’s medal he desires ahead of a big few months for club and country.
It’s been 21 years since the Eagles last made it to the FA Cup’s final four, and while memories of that 1995 encounter with Manchester United have decayed during two decades, Joe Ledley’s personal semi-final recollections are as vivid as ever.
Back in 2008 an unlikely Wembley pairing of Cardiff City and Barnsley faced off for the right to meet Portsmouth in the final, and a stunning strike from the Palace man just nine minutes into the contest would prove to be enough for the Bluebirds to edge the Tykes. If you’re looking for early omens ahead of the reunion with Watford under the arch, then that certainly is a good one.
“That day will stay with me forever as it was one of the best of my career,” the Eagles midfielder admitted. “Cardiff were my boyhood team and for it to finish 1-0 and myself to score the goal, you couldn’t have written a better story. After the game my family were so proud and loads of my friends had come up too and they were buzzing, so I didn’t have to buy a drink for a while!
“I don’t tend to score particularly great goals so it’s up there as one of my best. I just hit it on the volley and it looped over the keeper and found the top corner. It took us into the final which hadn’t been done for many years and it was my first time at Wembley. I’ve played there four times now and got two goals so I’ve not done badly!”
That record will be music to those Eagles fans’ ears who, having contracted cup fever, are already counting down the days until they see their side walk out at the iconic venue once again.
However there was no happy ending for Ledley eight years ago as Cardiff came so close to bringing England’s most famous trophy to the Welsh capital, but this time a single goal from Nwankwo Kanu was all it took for Pompey to snatch the silverware. From the high of a semi-final winner to the low of collecting a loser’s medal in six weeks, the 29-year-old will be hoping for a chance of redemption this season, having believed his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of cup success had passed him by.
On the 2008 final, he said: “The build-up and all the off-pitch stuff going into it was great but when you get onto the field it’s like a dream. Everyone wants to play in the FA Cup final and since I was a little boy I’d dreamt of it, so I was absolutely gutted to lose it – we were unlucky as it was a mistake from our keeper that led to the goal, but you need luck in the FA Cup so now we’re in the semis again hopefully we’ll get that this time and it’ll be our turn this year.
“It’s one of the best competitions in England and everyone wants to win it. You never think it will happen again but if it does then it’ll be remarkable and the icing on the cake for the career that I’ve had.”
Should he get a second shot at the silverware, then just three weeks later Ledley could add a further tier to that metaphorical cake as he hopes to line-up for Wales, alongside Wayne Hennessey, in their opening game of Euro 2016 in Bordeaux against Slovakia. Forget Palace’s wait for an FA Cup semi-final; on that evening a whole country will gather around their TV screens to watch the Red Dragons in an international tournament for the first time since 1958.
It’s a far cry from when Ledley was handed cap number one under John Toshack back in 2005. Fast-forward 11 years and a further 58 appearances, Ledley still can’t quite believe, let alone understand, what lies on the horizon for Chris Coleman’s squad upon their arrival on the other side of the English Channel.
“I’m very excited because it’s new to us all,” he said. “A few of the boys chat on WhatsApp and we admitted that we have no idea what it’ll be like. We can’t crumble under the pressure, we have to stay solid as a nation and thrive under it. It’ll be a very proud moment when we step onto that pitch and represent our country in a major finals.
“When I first started playing for Wales it was nowhere near as high-tech as it is now, I don’t even think we had a fitness coach back then! Everything changed when Gary Speed came in and Chris Coleman has taken it to the next level, so things have improved massively.”
Those behind-the-scenes tweaks have allowed a golden generation of footballers the chance to make Welsh sporting history. A fantastic start to qualification snowballed and resulted in just one defeat in 10 games, including a famous victory against a Belgium side then ranked number one in the world, allowing the underdogs to clinch a berth in France this summer with a game to spare.
With excitement levels already at fever pitch, they reached immeasurable levels when the draw pitted Wales in a group alongside the old enemy England. While seemingly three million people attempted to clinch one of the 41,000 tickets for the encounter in Lens, Ledley admits to initial trepidation about meeting their neighbours but his Palace teammates have been helping to change his tune.
“To begin with I was pretty gutted because I didn’t want too much hype as it was our first tournament,” he said. “But when you look at it, it’s going to be a remarkable occasion as it’s a derby game and both teams will be going at it so it’ll be interesting.
“No-one has been trying to take me out in training or anything like that, to be fair they’ve been winding Macca [James McArthur] up the most as Scotland are the only home nation that didn’t qualify so he’s had most of the stick!
“Yohan [Cabaye] bought me and Wayne some French aftershave after we qualified so that was nice! He’s told us all about the stadiums we’ll be playing at and said we’ll enjoy it, and
he knows his stuff so it’s been good to tap into his experience. He said it’s going to be massive so I’m looking forward to it.”
With Ledley and Hennessey virtually nailed on to be involved, and potentially Jonny Williams who featured in the qualifiers, there’s a strong Palace flavour to the Welsh squad, and when you take into account their manager was voted into the club’s centenary XI then even the staunchest Eagles and Three Lions supporter will be hoping for good things for Coleman’s side, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of English success.
On his national team boss, Ledley said: “He’s brilliant, I love Chris. He’s a fantastic manager who believed in myself and Joe Allen in midfield and hopefully we’ve repaid him. He gives us confidence and doesn’t treat us like children, such as telling us what time we have to be in bed by. He is one of the lads too as he likes getting involved off the pitch, plus the training is good.
“It’s become a club atmosphere rather than one where you just meet up for 10 days, stay in your rooms apart from training and don’t speak to anyone. All the boys get together for a coffee, or when we’ve finished eating everyone stays to chat. That’s what you need when you’re away from your family, but most of us have grown up with each other for over 10 years and we know each other inside out so that helps with the banter.”
That team spirit reached a crescendo when qualification was mathematically achieved despite a defeat in Bosnia. When results elsewhere confirmed the 58-year albatross could be removed, an outpouring of relief saw Ledley enthusiastically showcase some rather energetic dance moves, much to the hilarity of his teammates.
In the final dead-rubber against Andorra in Cardiff four days later, Aaron Ramsey’s goal celebration saw him grab Ledley from the bench to re-enact the routine, and he won’t rule out dusting off the shapes once again should Wales achieve their aim of getting out of a tough group.
“Rambo said if he scored he was going to do the dance with me but I didn’t believe him, especially as I wasn’t starting. Then when he scored and started heading towards me I thought ‘oh here we go’ and he dragged me from the bench so I had to do it! It warmed me up a bit so I didn’t have to stretch off down the sides of the pitch!
“It was all a good laugh, and hopefully we’ll see it again in France. If we can get through the group stage then anything can happen. First of all we need to be realistic and aim to do that, and then we’ll see.”
However Eagles fans will be hoping that those now-signature shapes will be displayed a little sooner than that, and rather than in the red shirt of Wales Ledley’s jiving will go down in Palace folklore, with the FA Cup in hand.