A new dawn at Old Trafford

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Manchester United ended their brief championship drought on Saturday night as they lifted the FA Cup for the 12th time, equalling the record set by Arsenal just last year. While Arsene Wenger had to wait almost 10 years to end his side’s dry spell, United needed just three, albeit a very uncertain three years.

As it was often repeated prior to the final, United had faced-off against Crystal Palace 26 years ago in near similar circumstances. An under-fire Alex Ferguson led his side to a 4-3 play-off win over the Eagles in 1990 to lift the FA Cup. Then, as the rest of the football folklore goes, the Scotsman was allowed to keep his job, stamped the beginning of his rise to the status of legend for club and sport, and began the revival of a dormant giant.

If the latest reports are to be believed, the serendipitous events of Saturday night would only go so far as United’s victory. Unlike Ferguson, Louis Van Gaal will be looking elsewhere to continue his legacy.

Cruel as it may seem, the spectre of an early departure for the once-feared Dutchman has been in the making from the moment Jose Mourinho took leave from his Stamford Bridge post earlier this season. Talks of a pre-contract agreement with ‘The Special One’ and United were bullishly brushed aside by Van Gaal, who insisted his fate was being decided by those in the media and in the stands.

“I show you the Cup and I don’t discuss it (my future) with my friends of the media, who already sacked me for six months,” said Van Gaal at the post-FA Cup Final news conference.

“Which manager can do what I have done?”



Oddly enough, Van Gaal’s dejected plea for objectivity sounds none too dissimilar to the words that came from one too many of Chelsea’s revolving door of managers, post and pre-Mourinho.

Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez all won honours for Chelsea but found their contribution too little to warrant a further stay.

Manchester United long took pride in being the anti-Chelsea. Focus on youth development, long-term planning and stability were all marked and crowed as cornerstones for success at the club. But with Ferguson and his hand-picked successor out the door, United find themselves having to give up on their own virtues.

A first FA Cup title in over 10 years means little now even as the team continues the celebrations of a season deemed mediocre by historic standards.

But Louis Van Gaal’s case for a stay, to at least see through the final year of his contract at United, lies on shaky grounds nonetheless, and it was all too evident at Wembley against a Palace side that has managed just two wins in the league in 2016.

The Eagles went ahead with 12 minutes of regulation time left and looked set to rewrite their own dismal history in the tournament.

It took the individual brilliance of a resurgent Wayne Rooney who crafted Juan Mata’s leveller, and Jesse Lingard’s efficient finishing in extra-time to seal an unlikely win.

Unlikely in not just having already been reduced to playing with 10 men, but in that United looked uninspired for most parts. Chris Smalling’s bizarre last-ditch rugby tackle that led to his sending-off in the second-half of extra-time, was symptomatic of a side that looked unassured and ill-prepared for success that beckoned.

United registered just three shots on target at Wembley (two of which found the net), a figure that is only compounded by the fact that it came from a total of 24 attempts. In comparison, their less stellar opponents managed twice as many shots on goal, from just 14 attempts.

The FA Cup Final was an extension of the problems that have haunted Louis Van Gaal in his second year at the club. A paltry tally of 49 goals in the Premier League this season marked United’s worst showing in front of goal since the aforementioned catalytic 1990 season that catapulted Ferguson to success from the same stage.

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Football has been uninspiring, but there have been a few bright spots. The FA Cup triumph came at a time when United needed to reassert their relevance as a top club to attract (and keep) the best, with Champions League football no longer a bait for next season.

The rise of youth players coming through the club’s own ranks once again (and looking more than just a flash in the pan) in the shape of Marcus Rashford and FA Cup hero Lingard, who had been at the club since the age of seven, is another sign that United might be returning to its roots. One needs to go back to Darren Fletcher to find the last true product of United’s famed academy making a mark on the first team.

None of this will soon matter anyway. A new prophet in the shape of Mourinho will likely arrive within the week if the reports hold true. The Portuguese is hardly known for building for long-term success, with a career littered with two-year stays, but not short on honours. Perhaps that might be enough.

The FA Cup victory will fade into the background with the inevitable circus that will soon ensue upon Mourinho’s unveiling. But it signals a new dawn at Old Trafford as it looks to rewrite a denouement that has now, for certain, departed and diverged from the legacy built on by the analogous triumph of Ferguson and co. 26 years ago.

Bhas Kunju

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