It is the middle of May of 1987 and the J2 class of St Peters Primary School are heading north on the M6 motorway back to Preston.
The kids on the bus had spent the day having a school trip visiting some local landmark, the kind of day the children looked forward to for months, an escape away from the classroom setting.
At the back of the bus the boys, aged 8 and 9, are getting rowdier but none of the discussions centre around the museum they found themselves at earlier.
Instead, the topic of conversation is the upcoming FA Cup Final at Wembley. It is the biggest football match of the season and even the pale, skinny kid with glasses has an opinion on it.
Tottenham Hotspur are the favourites and no one on this bus is giving their opponents, Coventry City, a chance. Well, no one except me. I think they will win. I am laughed at almost as much as when my dad took me to get my hair cut two years earlier and it was the shortest cut in the school.
It took a while for the hair to grow back and the laughing to stop but this time the laughing wouldn't last nearly as long.
In less than two days, every one of those boys would be in front of the television on Saturday afternoon watching the great Wembley Stadium set the stage for another team to climb the stairs and lift the famous cup.
The year before, the boys had all watched Ian Rush and Liverpool beat Everton in a wonderfully entertaining final. It was a game that would stay with them forever, whether you supported either of the team teams or not.
Tottenham versus Coventry turned out to be even better. Spurs led 1-0 and 2-1 but were pegged back twice, sending the game into extra time before the underdogs scored the fifth and final goal, that deflected off Spurs defender Gary Mabbutt and into his own net. The Sky Blues had won the FA Cup and I had won a tremendous amount of respect.
There were no cell phones or email. Yet, everyone had watched it and in Monday morning assembly you'd have thought I was playing for Coventry that day. Perhaps, I thought, I have a brain for this game.
Twelve and a half years later I am on a bus again. This time I am heading south on the M6 motorway. It is November 1999. I am a journalist travelling with tiny football club Bamber Bridge, an amateur club that has reached the second round of the FA Cup for the first time ever. Brig, as they are affectionately known by the 500 or so fans who watch them each week, had started their FA Cup run months earlier and had found their way past the pre rounds, through the first round proper (as it is known) and into the second round, where they have been drawn at Cambridge United, members of the fourth tier of English professional leagues.
Bamber Bridge might have been playing FA Cup games since September but the big teams, from England's top two divisions, wouldn't enter the competition for one more round. Win this game and tiny Bamber Bridge are in the last 64 with the giants of English football.
The players' bus, where I sit alone close to the front, is full of spirit and the senior players come up one-by-one to tell a story of inspiration. Brig's star striker includes me in his speal, but it is far from positive. Turns out the part-time footballer, full-time postman wasn't too happy with the message I had delivered to my readers about his poor form earlier this season. Now the team was headed to the lofty heights of Abbey Stadium he had chosen his moment to pick on the young writer.
The four hour journey turns out to be more entertaining than the match, endless amounts of buses cross paths at junctions and traffic lights, some full of fans, others full of players, all headed in one direction - towards FA Cup glory.
Later that day Bamber Bridge lose 1-0 to a penalty that should never have been awarded. The full-time postman misses a sitter. I deliver that message to my readers.
Brig haven't come close to the second round proper since. Cambridge draw Crystal Palace in the plum third round draw and beat them, marching all the way to the last 16 where their dream would die against Bolton. They have never been near that round since and are no longer good enough to be in the top four leagues of professional football.
At least both teams have their FA Cup memories.
And that is where the FA Cup is most fondly thought of. Stuck in the minds of people like a special vault, sending them back to a time less complicated, the FA Cup has become a modern day victim battered aside by the influx of the Premier League, satellite television and the breathtaking growth of the European Cup, now named after champions that doesn't feature just champions.
Of course, it still delivers special moments each year and it currently resides in Wigan, of all places, after the relegated Premier League side stunned Manchester City last May in the final. I am sure some nine-year-old boy somewhere picked Wigan to win that day and got laughed at. What I am not so sure about, however, is that those who laughed at him watched the game.
The streets of England on FA Cup final day used to be full of women shopping. Men and boys were in front of the television. These days the game comes as an inconvenience to some, no longer always placed at the end of the football season when the league campaigns are finished. The fact that it is the traditional closer to this season again is romantic but it has been moved once and will be moved again.
It is a competition badly in need of being loved again yet it continues to be cast aside for the bigger, flashier Premier League encounters.
The draw for the last 64 used to be another special moment, circled on the calendar for all football fans. When giants could be given minnows or even fellow giants. Yet, this season the draw for the third round of the FA Cup took place when Arsenal were playing Everton in a highly entertaining Premier League match at the Emirates.
The eyes of the football world were placed on that game and not even a draw that pitted Arsenal and Tottenham together could overtake Everton's comeback to the main story in newspapers and websites the next day.
It was a fitting moment. The FA Cup isn't in the shadows of the league, it is hiding around the corner trembling at the very site of it. And yet when it gets its moment in the sun it has sadly become an awkward distraction from the weekly rolling circus known worldwide as the Barclays Premier League.
This season the FA Cup's rounds 3 through 5 has been set aside dates on the weekends of January 4-5, January 25-26 and February 18-19. Three weekends that have been kept free completely by the Premier League. Three weekends out of the first seven weeks of 2014 that no Premier League matches will be watched by the billions who tune in worldwide. Not exactly ideal. Three weekends that will see crowds down everywhere as football fans, forced to pay extra money on top of their season ticket price, decide against going to watch FA Cup matches. Last January, eventual winners Wigan Athletic drew 1-1 at home to Bournemouth in round three and just over 8,000 fans showed up to watch the game. An-all Premier League third round game between QPR and West Brom was watched by 8,984 people. Less and less people are caring every year and if it continues along this path it won't be long before it becomes similar to its far poorer off cousin, the league cup, who, despite its name changes for sponsors, remains the same; a competition for the reserves until the real later stages.
The FA Cup badly needs an identity change before it is too late.
Next week the Premier League embarks on its busiest period. Teams play four games between December 21 and January 1. While leagues in Germany, Spain and Italy take a short winter break, the Premier League marches on, asking their teams to play a moronic schedule that suits nobody. Squads are tested to needless limits with some teams having to play four high intense Premier League games in nine days. A winter break at this time in England should not be implemented, despite statements by Arsene Wenger and others suggesting otherwise. Playing games over the Christmas period is a tradition English football should keep, a tradition that looks after fans actually in the stadiums (a rarity in an era dominated by television revenue) and able to go to games on special days like Boxing Day and New Year's Day.
No one, however, can argue that the current crowded fixture list is good for the game. That's why a solution to fix the FA Cup, and save the stress on the Premier League teams, should be implemented.
In the four upcoming windows of matches - Dec 21-22, Dec 26, Dec 28-29, Jan 1 - the FA Cup should play rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6. By the end of January 1 they should have their semifinalists. No replays, all games end that day. The draw should be made up so the teams know in advance who they will be playing. Think March Madness style for NCAA Basketball in the United States. A 64 team bracket draw is made and if you win on the first weekend, you instantly know who you will face in the next round and so on and so forth.
It is a system that can benefit all. If Wenger and his colleagues want to give key players a winter break, go ahead. More teams will get a break by the very fact that only eight teams, from the original 64, will play four matches during that time. The police will know the schedule and can plan ahead of time (a necessary when planning games) for when a certain team may be at home that day. Crowds will be bigger for FA Cup matches because football fans in England love to go to games at this time of year. Some fans will not get to see their teams play on Boxing Day or New Year's Day, if they have been knocked out, but those days will still feature games involving teams from the two lower divisions of English football, who didn't make the 64, if you are craving a game to watch. The Football Association are constantly thinking of ideas to get Premier League fans to spend money to watch their local, smaller clubs and this is another way of achieving that. The Premier League can go back to playing regularly throughout January and February on the weekends it should and would also avoid a conflict later in round six when all Premier League teams are slated to play on the same weekend as the last eight in the FA Cup (March 8-9 this year). That causes the teams fixture congestion down the stretch, something else this plan avoids, sending the last four all the way through to the semi-finals, which can be played in their usual spot of mid-April.
Above all, this plan would bring the FA Cup back from the dead. Playing so many games around the country over such a short amount of time will keep everyone's focus on the knock-out competition.
Many people are in a great mood at this festive season and what better way to reward them than with a festival of FA Cup football, held over a span lasting less than two weeks.
It suits the FA, the Premier League and the players. And, of course, nine-year-old experts.