Twenty-six years ago I sat down with my dad to watch Manchester United play Crystal Palace in an FA Cup final.
We drew 3-3 on that day, a thrilling match that was like water and light to the seeds of support for this club that my dad had sown over the preceding eight years.
United’s eventual victory, after a replay -for which I came home early from a cycling proficiency lesson – and the sight of that team lifting the FA Cup, sparked my lifelong love for this club and, indeed, the game itself.
Heroes were born. I cut out newspaper clippings and photographs and stuck them in a newly started scrapbook. The names of Lee Martin and Les Sealey were forever etched on my mind. In short, I was hooked.
On Saturday, the same two teams meet once again in an FA Cup final and I will, once again, sit down with my dad to watch it. Only this time my own son, who will have turned eight the day before, will be there too.
Alfie, my little boy, was born the day before United’s 2008 Champions League victory over Chelsea in Moscow. Coming home from the hospital with your first child and almost immediately sitting down to watch the team you love in a Champions League final was, I have to say, emotionally draining. Indeed, by the time John Terry slipped and the trophy was ours, I was a wreck.
Saturday will not reach those levels of anxiety and emotional exhaustion for me, for numerous reasons – 1. The FA Cup, however romantically you view it, is not the prize it once was. 2. My wife won’t have spent 27 hours prior to the match giving birth. 3. This season has been an excruciating slog, to the point where it’s become difficult to muster any level of excitement whatsoever. 4. We’re not Arsenal. At least not yet. The day we parade a sole FA Cup on an open-top bus through the streets of Manchester is the day we should probably all give up and take up another hobby.
Having said all that, winning a trophy – any trophy – is what football should be all about. Qualifying for the Champions League is, of course, great. We all want those glamour ties against Europe’s leading lights to look forward to but, let’s face it, this season’s brief return to that competition was an unmitigated disaster. We failed to make it out of the group stage and, thus, avoided any meetings with Europe’s true elite anyway. Probably for the best really. They would have toyed with us like Killer Whales flinging seals about on a David Attenborough documentary.
You see, when you scrape fourth place by the skin of your teeth, even when you then strengthen in the summer, the step up to Champions League football is huge. Manchester United should not bother with the thing if they have little hope of winning it and, as things stand, we are a long way behind the likes of Bayern Munich, the two Madrid clubs and Barcelona. Indeed, we are probably not even among the second group of clubs inhabited by the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Paris St Germain.
So, while it would have been nice to finish in the top four, United is not a club that should settle for such lowly expectations, however much our current manager pathetically claims otherwise. Arsenal fans may have grown used to negotiating the group stage of the Champions League only to be mercilessly whipped into submission by the first decent team they face, but United fans rightly demand more.
So you can stick your top-four finish and you can stick your embarrassing celebrations at finishing one place above your fiercest rivals, as Arsenal fans did when they leapfrogged Spurs on the final day. Such a mentality is cringeworthy and complete anathema to United fans who are seething with rage at how far our club has fallen in the last three years.
Besides, in twenty-six years, would my little boy, and all the other little boys and girls who will be sitting down with their parents to watch an FA Cup final on Saturday, remember whether we finished fourth or fifth in 2016? No. But, should we beat Palace, they’ll certainly remember who scored the winning goal at Wembley. Because that’s what football is all about.