Louis van Gaal
Tears will be shed. Thoughts will be shared. A month of mourning will be designated for Manchester United fans. Remember when Phil Jones took a corner? Or when Marouane Fellaini started the season as fourth-choice striker? How about when Nick Powell made his first appearance in over three years during a crucial Champions League group stage match? Oh, leave the precious, delicate memories alone.
Saturday could be Louis van Gaal’s final match in charge of Manchester United. With a year remaining on his contract and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward clearly reluctant to hand the Dutchman his packed bags, it may well not be. But it certainly represents a chance of delivering the club’s first silverware since August 2013, as well as maintaining a proud personal record.
On more than one occasion Van Gaal has made reference to the fact that he has won at least one trophy at every club he has managed. Eleven came at Ajax. Four followed at Barcelona. At AZ came an unexpected Eredivisie title. Two years at Bayern Munich heralded three trophies. With his future shrouded in uncertainty, delivering his first silverware in England will be of utmost importance to the 64-year-old.
Would an FA Cup win alone save Van Gaal’s job? Simply put, no. The club would undoubtedly celebrate a trophy after a longer-than-expected barren run, and it would be United’s first FA Cup in 12 years. But the Dutchman’s future is intertwined with the club’s Premier League form. Whether he stays or goes is a decision that has likely already been made, and will be one based on his failure to qualify for the Champions League, and whether he is capable of returning the club to the stage they crave.
Saturday could represent Van Gaal’s final game. Alternatively, he could fulfil his contract and stay another year. What is certain is that, on a personal level, he will consider the showdown with Crystal Palace at Wembley to be the biggest game of his Old Trafford tenure. With 19 trophies won in three different countries, the Dutchman is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished coaches of his or any other generation. He will be determined to make it a nice round 20 in what could be his swansong.
Southampton. Stoke. Tottenham. Reading. Norwich. Watford. Stoke. Thus reads the list of the seven teams against whom Crystal Palace have recorded victories in 2016. A season that started with immense promise under Alan Pardew is in danger of ending in the disappointment of a 15th-placed Premier League finish, and the heartbreak of defeat at Wembley. As I wrote earlier this month:
‘Arrogance, self-belief or otherwise, Pardew has been fortunate to escape criticism. Sacking him would be gravely unjustified, but his role in this slump must be examined and questioned. The first murmurs of discontent have been heard at Selhurst Park this season – it is more than rational for Palace fans to discuss an under-performing manager’s future. Whether he should remain in the post has been the subject of hushed discussions as opposed to #PardewOut campaigns, widespread protests and plane-related banner banter, but such conversations are being held nonetheless. The goodwill from a remarkable 2015 and from his spell as a Palace player has almost expired.
‘Come May 21, it could be restored in style. Terrible league performance has been offset by the club’s run to the FA Cup final, where they face Manchester United at Wembley. Deliver a first major trophy since the 1994 Division One title and a season of disappointment becomes a campaign of success for the manager. The finest of margins separate the two.’
The evaluation of Palace’s season relies solely on the outcome of the FA Cup final. Win, and the dismal Premier League form is forgotten, European football is secured, and the positivity which surrounded Selhurst Park in 2015 is restored. Lose, and while Pardew will not suffer in terms of job security, it will mean that a thoroughly discouraging season ends on a particularly sour note. The King has suffered personal FA Cup final setbacks both as a player in 1990 and as a manager in 2006; there will be no individual more desperate and more driven to ensure an unwanted hat-trick is not forthcoming.
Five Premier League titles, two League Cups, three Community Shields, one Champions League and one Club World Cup. The absence of a Europa League or a UEFA Super Cup winner’s medal is unlikely to be as sorely felt as the lack of an FA Cup trophy is in the world of Wayne Rooney.
Two years ago, Rio Ferdinand completed an illustrious Manchester United career without ever having lifted the FA Cup. Rooney will lead the side out on Saturday desperate not to suffer the same fate. The 30-year-old has featured in two Wembley Cup finals since signing in 2004, yet ended on the losing side in both his first year and in 2007.
“I think it is a massive trophy,” Rooney said in March 2015. “It is a trophy that, growing up as a youngster, I used to love watching and I was fortunate enough to see Everton lift the FA Cup in 1995 when I was nine years old.
“It is something which I would love to do and hopefully it can be this year.” Within a matter of days, the club suffered quarter-final defeat against Arsenal. After one too many FA Cup failures, Rooney has his most presentable chance yet of securing that elusive piece of silverware to complete his collection.
‘By and large the United chapter of his life is over,’ wrote Jonathan Liew in an excellent piece for the Daily Telegraph on Thursday. As fair as the sentence reads, there is a lingering semblance of doubt. Wilfried Zaha may have left Manchester United permanently after a difficult 18-month spell, but the winger will always be inextricably linked to Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing; a player unwanted by David Moyes; a man cast aside by Louis van Gaal. Talk about having a point to prove.
Zaha was the £15million flop who became a £3million bargain in the space of a season and a half. He did not start a single Premier League game for United. There was no clamour for the 23-year-old to receive an England call-up for the European Championship squad, and while his form hardly forced Roy Hodgson’s hand, the Zaha brand has been undoubtedly harmed by his United spell. Now settled and back at Crystal Palace, he has the perfect chance for redemption. What better place and stage to show your former employers what they missed out on?
There have been no protests, no banners and far less clamour for the consummate, experienced professional to be awarded a new deal. Michael Carrick is Manchester United’s rather low-key answer to the John Terry contract saga.
After ten long years of metronomic passing and being under/overrated, the FA Cup final is likely to represent the final game of an accomplished Old Trafford tenure for Carrick. There is room for only two ageing, regressing central midfielders, and with Wayne Rooney’s future playing position seemingly residing in a deeper role, he and Bastian Schweinsteiger have those spots secured. The old dog Carrick will undoubtedly find a new home.
Some will lament the lack of fanfare surrounding Carrick’s potential farewell, but it is rather fitting that his expected departure has flown somewhat under the radar. A player whose influence on the pitch is often overlooked and goes unnoticed never needed grand gestures of goodwill to mark his exit. A first FA Cup victory will suffice.
These were the occasions Crystal Palace signed a player of Cabaye’s talent and acumen for. The Wembley stage is reserved for the Damien Delaneys and Connor Wickhams of this world for League One play-offs and FA Youth Cup finals. Such hallowed turf demands a player the stature of Cabaye for this particular event. The Frenchman’s season has mirrored that of his club – an excellent start followed by a disappointing second half – but if any one player will be expected to shoulder the responsibility on Saturday, it will be Cabaye. The 30-year-old must prove why he is the club’s record signing, and he will be all too aware that his country will be watching his every pass and monitoring his every tackle ahead of the European Championship this summer.
September: Made UEFA Youth League debut for Manchester United, scoring twice against PSV.
October: Becomes captain of the under-19s.
November: Named as an unused substitute for two Premier League games due to injuries.
December: Scores his first goal for the under-21s. Probably celebrated Christmas.
January: New year, new me.
February: First-team debut. Two games, four goals, one assist.
March: Regular starter. Scores winner in first Manchester derby.
April: Continues form with two more goals in six games.
May: Receives first England call-up. Plays first game at Wembley.
Not a bad year for the 18-year-old then. The forward will look to crown an incredible breakthrough campaign for club before aiming to confound yet more expectations on the international stage. ‘He will be a key figure in the FA Youth Cup campaign,’ reads the final line of his player profile on the United website. Nice work.
“I’ll be a fan for 90 minutes,” said Slaven Bilic earlier this week. “We want them to win – we’re hoping that they’re going to win the game because I think we really deserve to be in Europe the way we’ve played this season.”
Manchester United hold not only their own fate in their hands, but that of West Ham. Win the FA Cup, and the Hammers host European football in their inaugural season at the Olympic Stadium. Victory for Crystal Palace and seventh-placed West Ham will reflect on an excellent campaign, but one of missed opportunities. After being so warmly welcomed to the Boleyn Park recently, United will surely be more than happy to oblige.
“They thought we could get into Europe and thought they might be able to get to a cup final, and that wasn’t in the format of the job description when I started.”
Whether that job description changed upon Bilic’s appointment, the above quotes provided by Sam Allardyce in August 2015 do not reflect too well on the former West Ham manager. Within a season of shedding his skin, the Hammers are on the verge of packing their bags for a European adventure. They just need one final push from United. Or perhaps former boss Pardew will burst their bubble?