You don’t need to be ABU to feel for March and Brighton, but that FA Cup final has all the #narrative

Dave Tickner
Brighton players console Solly March after his decisive penalty miss in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United

A Manchester Derby FA Cup final will be fun, especially if City are still in pursuit of the Treble, but we feel badly for Solly…


It had been a good game, but a slightly strange one. Both teams played well without either Manchester United or Brighton really being able to argue they’d done quite enough in 90 or 120 minutes to truly deserve to win this FA Cup semi-final.

Maybe it wasn’t strange. Maybe it only felt strange because two good teams playing competently was so wildly at odds with what we’d witnessed earlier in the day.

But both teams deserved credit. Brighton for stepping up and performing in such a huge game, United for the speed with which they’d put Thursday night’s Europa horror against Sevilla behind them.

Brighton saw more of the ball, and the fact that is a perfectly normal and predictable thing for them against Manchester United may seem a trite and patronising “look how far you’ve come” kind of observation but worth making nevertheless. This was a cat’s-arse-tight game between equals. Brighton weren’t the heroic plucky underdogs playing above themselves; they were the team they’ve been all season, except with a cruelly timed reversion to the xG banters of old.

Even here, though, more credit is due to United’s defending than blame attached to Brighton’s finishing. David De Gea – the worst offender on Thursday night – had a fine game across 120 minutes before once again turning into a hologram in the face of six admittedly fine penalties, while the resolute nature of United’s performance in the absence of three centre-backs was highly admirable.

Admirable felt like the word for this game. Everyone was admirable. Everyone was good. There needn’t need to be a figure on whom the result is pinned. Which is, of course, the cruel irony of any game that goes to penalties: by definition, the game has been close and by definition some poor sod is about to be the central figure in defeat.

And you really don’t have to be an Anyone But United hardliner to be a bit gutted it has to be Solly March, one of the stories of the season and whose career-defining season after a decade of service with the Seagulls will now always have this unwanted and undeserved asterisk against it.

He was a surprise absence from the first five takers and he took a honkingly bad penalty in a shootout full of quite strikingly good ones when forced to the spot in sudden death. As ever, though, while March’s place in infamy is assured there is a case for greater attention to be focused on those who don’t take them. The obvious eye-catcher here being the brilliant Kaoru Mitoma, who was also one of three Japan players to make a grisly mess of it in that rather lower-quality shootout against Croatia in the World Cup.

Brighton vs Man Utd: Man Utd players celebrate winning a penalty shootout

The nature of March’s miss will grate most powerfully. Like Harry Kane after the World Cup defeat to Hugo Lloris’ France, he will rue his failure to hit the target against a keeper whose qualities just don’t seem to extend to saving penalties.

Brighton will have little time to dwell on their disappointment, or ponder the agonising what ifs that will centre mainly on Robert Sanchez getting a good hand to Marcel Sabitzer’s penalty but not quite keeping it out. And that’s probably for the best. There’s a European spot to secure for next season and they should manage it. They currently sit eighth but unless today causes a full and unlikely unravelling they should reel in a very good Aston Villa with their games in hand and will surely finish above freefalling Tottenham. They could very easily still finish as high as fifth and should end no lower than seventh; it’s an excellent result no matter how painful today has ended up.

For United, a season of progress and promise continues. The tangible rewards are already in place thanks to silverware from the Carabao and a near certain return to the Champions League.

And now they’ve set up a spicy old Manchester Derby FA Cup final, which is nice isn’t it? Seems crazy that it’s the first one ever but there’s going to be no shortage of narrative, especially if City are still pursuing a United-matching Treble that nobody much cares about. It’ll be something, won’t it?

And if all else fails you’ve got United going for last season’s Liverpool Cup Double. United still have days when the travails of recent years return alarmingly to the surface but two trophies and a return to elite European football would represent a remarkable and unalloyed success of a first season for Erik Ten Hag.