With their rich heritage in the competition, it is about time Manchester United won the FA Cup again, writes Stuart Howard-Cofield. But, even if that happens, can we this season really be regarded as a successful one for Louis Van Gaal?
In the nine years between 1976 and 1985, Manchester United played in FIVE FA Cup Finals, lifting the famous old trophy three times in the process. The first of that run of appearances was in 1976 – a surprising 1-0 defeat at the hands of Second Division Southampton. United themselves had only recently overcome the shock of relegation in 1974.
The chastening experience of relegation is looked back upon as an enjoyable adventure into the unknown; an experience which allowed the club to perform something of a reboot. The Red Devils of the mid-70s—managed by the charismatic Tommy Docherty—built themselves a reputation as something of a cup specialist side. Docherty was outspoken and opinionated. His sides were a flamboyant on-pitch representation of his own personality and many United supporters talk with great fondness of his time at the club.
On their day, that United side were capable of beating anyone—as their treble-denying triumph over an all-conquering Liverpool side in the 1977 final testified. However, they were also perfectly capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: a trait which ensured that they would never bridge the gap to the champions of the era – Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and, of course, the aforementioned Liverpool.
The fallout from a well-publicised extra-marital affair eventually put paid to Docherty’s time at Manchester United. As his successor, the board turned to a man whose image was the polar opposite. The highlight of the quiet and reserved Dave Sexton’s tenure at the club would also be provided by the FA Cup. Defeat to Arsenal in the enthralling 1979 FA Cup Final was followed a season later by United missing out on the league title by just two points to Liverpool on the final day of the season.
On paper, Sexton appears to have a decent record but he is often, unfairly, remembered as a defensive manager. True, he did shore up a United defence which was leaky under Docherty – when the old mantra of “we’ll score more than you” reigned – but the goals-scored column actually stands up well in comparison to his predecessor’s team. His demeanour did not help matters – he was aloof with both the press and the Old Trafford faithful alike – and his fate was finally sealed in a goal-shy 1980-81 season which included a five-game spell in the league without scoring. (Ironically, his sacking came at the end of the season, with the club having just completed a seven-game winning streak.)
West Bromwich Albion’s Ron Atkinson took over in 1981. Another flamboyant character in the Tommy Docherty mode, he was charged with bringing back a sense of flair to Old Trafford. Two generations of supporters weaned on the attacking sides built by Matt Busby and then Tommy Docherty would accept nothing less. Again, it was in the FA Cup where Atkinson’s attacking ideals were ideally suited. Two wins, in 1983 and 1985, hinted at what might have been but – barring an extraordinary ten-game winning streak to start the 1985-86 season – any level of consistency in the league eluded him.
Although some within the United hierarchy were to deny it later, it was the FA Cup which famously saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s position as manager at Manchester United. Mark Robins’ winning goal against Nottingham Forest in the Third Round came in the middle of another inconsistent season for the Red Devils. They made it to the final where – following a thrilling 3-3 draw – they beat tomorrow’s opponents Crystal Palace 1-0 in a replay.
The 1990 cup win is now seen as the catalyst for two decades of near-dominance (in the domestic game, at least). Ferguson found the formula for consistency that his predecessors could not. His “good cup side” was eventually moulded into a great league side.
Following Ferguson was never going to be easy – and not only because of the incredible record he sustained over his time in charge. It could be said that Ferguson’s last side was far from one of his great United squads. His ageing Red Devils were in the last death throes; their title triumph was the improbable result of an angry reaction to losing the previous year’s title on goal difference to their hated cross-city rivals. The capture of a peak-form Robin Van Persie from Arsenal was an act which had the twin effect of immediately nullifying any challenge that the Gunners might have made and stifling Manchester City’s defence of their crown.
David Moyes’ ham-fisted attempt to follow Ferguson was hampered by his own – and the board’s – lack of ambition and confidence. A safety-first approach was adopted – both holistically and in individual games: Ferguson’s squad was hardly changed, save for the promotion of Adnan Januzaj and later addition of Juan Mata; and delayed substitutions coupled with inflexible tactics affected results.
Following Moyes’ short-lived tenure, any remaining fear factor left over from Fergie’s reign had dissipated.
Louis Van Gaal inherited a squad stripped of its swagger. This was Manchester United in name only. For the previous two decades, the mere mention of that famous old name would had been enough to win the mental battle; many sides were willing to cut their cloth, expect a defeat, and move on to the next game.
In the space of less than half a season, United were fair game. A lame, limping and ageing beast.
LVG’s job was simple. Another reboot. To rebuild and revive Manchester United. Restore the club to the Champions League, and have them competing for the title again. He has found that an intrinsic part of his brief, though, is to also bring back some of that old swagger which had been lost.
In his first season, he managed to qualify for the Champions League but failed on all other fronts. United have looked ponderous with the ball and impotent in front of goal. And, this season, he could not even deliver Champions League qualification.
This season has to go down as an anomaly. Every one of the usual suspects underperformed: Chelsea imploded, Manchester City didn’t care, Arsenal – well, they out-Arsenalled themselves. It was left to Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur to give us a title race, with the Foxes running out improbable champions. At the end of last season – without any reason to believe that any of the incidences above might happen – Van Gaal promised United fans a title tilt. This season can only be viewed as an opportunity missed.
Van Gaal said expectations are too high, but at the awards dinner last year said we were going to win the league this season, so… ?
— Scott Patterson (@R_o_M) May 17, 2016
Playing his own safety-first, possession-based game ensured that a still-patchwork defence kept United in contention this season – until a horrific December. Away form deserted his side, as the two standout 3-0 defeats in North London showed, his approach was only papering over cracks. More worryingly, a lack of consistency crept into performances and defeats to likes of Norwich City, AFC Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion highlighted a a stunted attacked.
Last week’s defeat at Upton Park to West Ham United told the story of the season in one match. A dull first half, with one United attempt on goal – although you’d struggle to recall it. The second half improved but, once the lead had been clawed back and turned around, the Reds’ inability to hold on bordered on farce.
It was a complete failure to reconcile a strong defence with a potent attack.
With that loss, the hope of Champions League qualification disappeared.
“Qualification is not a title…a title is the FA Cup, the championship,” Van Gaal stated this week. He may now be changing the goalposts a little but what he says is true.
However, in the past, a United FA Cup win has not only been seen as a sign of progress, but also as a sign of hope for the future.
Rumours persist that Van Gaal will not see out his three year contract. The latest suggestions are that he might even “move upstairs” to allow Jose Mourinho to take over the reins.
For tomorrow, though, Van Gaal will be concentrating on trying to add a trophy to United’s cabinet. It has been a long time – and it will, of course, be welcome. For the Dutchman, that will be seen as success. This is a fact which will enrage United fans as, unlike in the past, they have long given up hope that things will improve under his stewardship.
If, however, Van Gaal steps aside following the match, then they will happily allow him to take the glory.
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