Remembering the brilliance of the FA Cup..

Eric Cantona scores in the FA Cup final
Eric Cantona helps Manchester United towards the double in 1994

“Que sera sera whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley – Que sera sera!”. Yes, the famous chant that has stood the test of time for clubs throughout the land and Manchester United are gearing up to do battle with Crystal Palace in what is a mirror fixture of the 1990 FA Cup final. When Louis van Gaal’s men take the field today, United will have featured in the FA Final more times than any other club (although Arsenal hold the record with 12 wins), taking the club’s tally to twenty. In those finals, the United faithful have witnessed a Billy Meredith inspired performance in 1909, despair at losing the 1958 final and the euphoria of Norman Whiteside bending one past Neville Southall.

1871 marks the first official FA Cup final. It is quintessential British occasion, an institution that reminds us all of a different time in football – a more innocent time. With the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 and the launch of the Champions League (also in 1992), football became more of a business, more about profit and ultimately – more about money. The FA Cup became a casualty in a football world that saw transfers and wages soar. The football bigwigs, and a small number of fans, would prefer a top four finish over an FA Cup victory – simply to qualify for the Champions League and face up against a Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. There is no doubting the importance of a Champions League place finish for a club and fan, both from a financial point of view (club) and from a mark of success point of view (fan) – but in order to achieve such a feat, perhaps United need to be victorious in a competition that has seen the likes of Eric Cantona, Jack Rowley and Denis Law leave the famous twin towers as winners.

The twin towers may be no more, the lingering memories of the Frenchman’s flair and swagger confined to a discussion over a few pints in the pub and the Champions League has accelerated past at Usain Bolt pace, leaving the FA Cup struggling for breath – but the 2016 FA Final provides an important reminder of what has come before and what lies ahead for the victor.

Brazil. 2000. FIFA Club World Championship

Lets get this out of the way. It was a travesty that Manchester United did not compete in the 1999/00 competition due to the FIFA Club World Championship in the January of 2000. Any United fan I have ever spoken to was absolutely gutted that the club didn’t field a reserve team for the 4th round proper, which fell over the weekend of January 8th/9th 2000. Whilst other football fans had settled down to watch Match Of The Day and the highlights of the fixtures, United had their pants well and truly pulled down by Brazilians Romario and Edmundo. Edmundo, who had a pet monkey that would get drunk, pulled off an outrageous piece of skill to leave Gary Neville bamboozled in the United defence.

There was no doubt that United’s weak attempt at a winning a tournament that could potentially have turned out to be football’s equivalent of the Royal “Its a knockout”, ensured many non-United fans laughed long into the night at the misfortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s men having pulled out of defending the cup they won eight months previously. It should be noted, which is sometimes forgotten, it was indeed The FA that put pressure on United to participate in the tournament, believing this would aid England’s 2006 bid. As it turned out, FIFA had other ideas and United’s attendance at the tournament was as useful as this innovative DVD rewinder.

How could any football fan that remembers so many great things about the FA Cup, be pleased with their club opting not to compete – especially as holders! United’s withdrawal did not help at a core time when the Champions League was evolving rapidly (inclusion of more and more teams, which eventually killed off the once competitive UEFA Cup as well) and it would be four years before the club would win the tournament, which of course – is the last time United picked up the trophy.

The FA Cup memories – 1994

Looking at the article’s imagery at the top, it is hard to believe that day was twenty two years ago. United had won the league title for a second year on the trot, following a twenty-six year wait the season before, pipping Alan Shearer’s Blackburn Rovers and would face Chelsea in the final on the 14th May. The west London club had beaten United home and away, with Gavin Peakcock scoring the winner in both games – to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory in both fixtures. In the Stamford Bridge fixture, Eric Cantona had struck the bar from the halfway line, which had everyone on their feet applauding – especially after Dmitri Kharine’s comical retreat to recover the ball as it bounced softly against the bar.

Although United were heavy favourites, there was a nervousness that Chelsea could do it again and beat the Champions of England. Peakcock, a thorn in United’s side all season, struck the bar from outside the box – with Peter Schmeichel well beaten. Despite Chelsea’s better first half, it was thankfully third time lucky, as United ran riot in the second half. Chelsea midfielder Eddie Newton, brought down Denis Irwin midway through the second half, on a very wet Wembley pitch, in the penalty area, which gave Eric Cantona the perfect chance to score his first goal in an FA Cup final.

Chelsea captain Dennis Wise bet Cantona £100 that he would miss from the spot, which of course was an extremely risky bet, considering United’s number 7’s composure from the spot. The Frenchman duly converted and United were 1-0 with an hour played. Six minutes later it was deja vu as Cantona had another chance to extend United’s lead from the spot following Frank Sinclair’s shoulder barge on Andrei Kanchelskis. History repeated itself and United were two goals in front. Mark Hughes, who would later go on and play for Chelsea, smashed in United’s third in nine minutes before Brian McClair tapped in the fourth following great work from Paul Ince.

Manchester United won their first ever league and cup double – a record that was long overdue for a side that had pioneered English football into Europe. Those days, us fans knew and understood the importance of the FA Cup, which has sadly diminished over the years due to the creation and expansion of the Champions League. The financial lure of a 4th place finish outweighs the glory of a FA Cup win, however – we should never forget the brilliance, magic and memories of the oldest domestic cup competition in the world. If the FA Cup is the posted letter to the Whatsapp of the Champions League – using the evolution of communications as an analogy – the reliance and interest may have sadly declined in an ever changing evolving world – but it is still there, and United are in the final once again.

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