They say history goes in cycles, and there were some intriguing similarities between Manchester United’s dramatic FA Cup semi-final win over Everton and memorable United semi-finals of yesteryear. Just like against the Toffees, the fabled semi-final replay of 1999 against Arsenal was won by the same scoreline, 2-1, and involved a miraculous penalty save by a talismanic goalkeeper (Peter Schmeichel) and a wonderful late goal from an exciting talent by the name of Ryan Giggs.
The semi-final win also evoked fascinating parallels with the semi-final of 1990, which United also won 2-1, defeating Oldham with another late winning goal. In 1990 they went on to play Crystal Palace in the final, just as this year’s team will do. At the time, the manager – a certain Alex Ferguson – was under immense pressure from fans and the media alike as United faced the prospect of finishing another season trophy-less, and many considered him a goner should United not go on to win the FA Cup. United did go on to win the FA Cup, which saved United’s season, possibly Fergie’s job, gave him his first trophy, and the rest, as they say…
It’s been a while since United won the FA Cup; 12 years to be precise, and 17 years since their last Wembley win. Since their infamous pull-out in 2000 (a big mistake, as Fergie would admit retrospectively), the FA Cup appeared to have lost its allure for the club, and in the twilight years of his reign, Fergie didn’t seem particularly bothered about winning it. But with Saturday’s enthralling win, United are, once again, in an FA Cup Final at Wembley, and winning could, once again, save United’s season, give manager Louis van Gaal a much needed first trophy and possibly save his job.
Alas, that is where the similitude ends, if current newspaper reports are to be believed. Apparently Jose Mourinho is on his way to Old Trafford next season, so it appears winning the FA Cup will not save van Gaal’s job. Of course, irrespective of the managerial musical chairs, winning the FA Cup could still herald the dawn of a new era of domination. Or, it could create uncertainty and doubt about the wisdom of appointing a new – and divisive – manager just when it looked like van Gaal was starting to make things happen, and could, potentially, undermine the commencement of Mourinho’s tenure at the club. If United win, King Louis’ ghost might come back to haunt Jose Mourinho’s reign. If Jose doesn’t succeed straightaway, how soon before people start speculating what might have been had United kept faith with Louis? Mourinho is a factious figure, with many detractors who are adamant he is not the right fit for United. His short-termism, his penchant for parking the bus and his reluctance to take a chance on youth are all understandable concerns for United fans who demand that success be achieved ‘the United way‘. Jose, though, is used to a remit of success at any cost, so how will he cope with a caveat from United that success be obtained the United way?
Most importantly, what will he do with the current team? Will the kids be alright? Louis van Gaal may have played the kids only because of mounting injuries, but at least he played them. Would Mourinho have done the same in the circumstances, or would he have reverted to his default option of the checkbook? Thanks to van Gaal’s boldness (or desperation, depending on your point of view), the United team is brimming with youthful pace and pizzazz once more, and should United lift the FA Cup, there will be a greater sense of satisfaction in the achievement for United fans because they will have won it with the kids, reminiscent of the glory, glory days of the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings. And once we have returned to winning with kids fans will expect the tradition to continue under the new manager, and if he doesn’t play ball (so to speak) how long before the fans become disgruntled and start wistfully mentioning van Gaal’s name, conveniently forgetting that it was their dissatisfaction that got him sacked prematurely in the first place?
So, ironically, not winning the FA Cup might make life easier for United as van Gaal’s departure would then be unequivocal and prompt little opposition, even accounting for the polarising effect of the incoming manager. Either way, Jose Mourinho is never going to enjoy universal approbation again in the aftermath of his contemptible behaviour towards his own staff. In appointing him United will have picked a proven winner, but will they have also sacrificed long term prosperity based on stability for a short term trophy hoard?
As a die-hard United fan long enough in the tooth to remember with rose-tinted fondness those bleak years when our annual suffering at seeing the Scousers stroll to yet another league title was briefly assuaged by the magic of an FA Cup win, I desperately want United to emerge as champions on 23 May. Just because I love the FA Cup, if nothing else. But winning this FA Cup will not bring the same unadulterated joy as in the good old days. It’s just going to make things more complicated with our managerial situation. Winning the FA Cup next month will result more in questions and conundrums than champagne and glory.