There is a little something about Manchester United’s renewed relationship with the FA Cup this season. It has been a love affair not always on solid ground over the past decade, but after the Reds’ comfortable victory over Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday evening, thoughts have turned once again to a Wembley final in May. Eight and a half long years since United last lifted the 140-year-old trophy, the hunt appears to be on once again.
True, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has appeared in two finals – losing both – since the Scot’s side secured the FA Cup in 2004. Two further defeats at the semi-final stage, to Manchester City in 2011 and Everton in 2009, has brought scant comfort in a decade of cup disappointment.
But United’s long affinity with the FA Cup – a tournament the club has secured on a record 11 occasions – has been weaker in the past decade. Troublesome draws, bad luck and eyes on greater prizes has played a part in United’s relative sack of success since 2004.
While Ferguson selected a strong side to face City at Wembley two years ago, other priorities took precedent to United’s semi with Everton in 2009. Although, admittedly, there was genuine ill fortune in final defeat to Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea two years later.
Yet, the past decade is in marked contrast to the earlier part of Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford that brought much joy in the Cup. United claimed the trophy four times in the 1990s – part of two doubles and the 1999 treble.
However, there is a real change in mood at Old Trafford this season, with Ferguson and his players insisting that the Cup is once again a priority despite the heavy workload at home and in European competition.
That Ferguson, together with his senior lieutenants Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, are the only members of the current squad to have tasted Cup glory says much for the barren period. Perhaps, too, the squad’s desire to rectify a perceived imbalance.
“We’ve not done as well as we should have done in the last eight, nine years,” said Giggs in the aftermath on Saturday’s.
“There’s a lot of players desperate to win it. With the history we’ve got in the competition, we should be there, we should be getting to finals, so hopefully this will be the year.”
Safely through to the fifth round after an almost embarrassingly comfortable win on Saturday, United will now face struggling Reading at Old Trafford in three week’s time.
The Reading tie is yet another in a long line of fixtures United has faced against Premier League opposition in recent years. Eight of United’s past 10 FA Cup fixtures have been against top level opponents – including 20 of the past 25 – and each of the last seven ties: Reading, Fulham, West Ham, Liverpool, City, City and Arsenal.
Still, with the Royals in the bottom three and staring into the abyss of relegation from the Premier League the year before a new TV deal kicks in, Ferguson’s side should comfortably progress. After all, Brian McDermott’s side can ill afford to concentrate on anything bar league salvation.
History is with the Reds too – the sides have met 12 times before in the competition, with United having lost just one of those fixtures.
However, Ferguson’s resolve to field strong sides in the competition will be sorely tested in the coming weeks, with United hosting Reading just three days after a physically and emotionally draining Champions League tie against Real in Madrid.
Indeed, a packed schedule up to the European ties surely ensures changes will be made in the FA Cup. United host Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, before travelling south to meet Fulham in the Premier League next weekend. The international break will the disrupt the squad before Everton come to Manchester in early February.
The schedule may be packed but at least the rate at which Premier League teams have fallen in this season’s competition – 13 of 20 by the fourth round’s conclusion – should make United’s passage a little easier, although Chelsea, Arsenal and City remain in the competition.
And should United continue to progress in both cups supporters’ dreams of another treble, 14 years on from the original, will grow – unlikely as the achievement may have seemed last August.
“We want to win all three. We want to win the treble. It is in our minds,” admits striker Javier Hernandez, who’s brace against Fulham proved decisive.
For now fans can enjoy the potential of another FA Cup run – it has, after all, been far too long since United’s captain has climbed Wembley’s steps. Regaining the Premier League, conquering Europe even, may come first, but the Cup still retains a special place more than a century after a first victory in the competition.
“The FA Cup is an important trophy for us this season,” concludes Ferguson. “We haven’t won it for almost 10 years, so we really need to have a big performance this year”
There are few fans that will disagree with that sentiment.
FA Cup fifth round draw:
Huddersfield or Leicester v Wigan Athletic
MK Dons v Barnsley
Oldham v Everton
Luton v Millwall
Arsenal v Blackburn
Manchester City v Leeds
UNITED v Reading
Middlesbrough v Chelsea or Brentford