Here's a quick trivia question: what links United's first-ever FA Cup triumph on 24 April 1909 with the first of Sir Alex Ferguson's era?
No, it isn’t a jinking, evergreen Welsh wing wizard. Though the great Billy Meredith was a key member of the team that beat Bristol City in 1909, Ryan Giggs was still eight months from his debut when the Reds saw off Crystal Palace in 1990. It isn’t a Palace connection either, despite the fact that the 1909 final was won at the venue bearing the same name.
Give up? The answer is that both cup successes came during seasons when the Reds finished in a lowly 13th spot in the league. Unlucky for our cup opponents as it turned out.
Ernest Mangnall’s team entered the first cup-winning season of 1908/09 as league champions, having cantered down the home straight in '08 in a manner befitting Usain Bolt. The club's first title was won with a record 52 points (two points for a win), nine more than runners-up Aston Villa. Goals were also in bounteous supply as United were the division's leading scorers with 81, Sandy Turnbull (25) and George Wall (19) leading the way.
But if Mangnall’s best-laid plans had not hit the skids, they’d certainly suffered a wobble as 1908/09 unfolded. Five straight league wins to start the season had suggested another procession could be in the offing, but that was followed by a bout of wholly unpredictable form including nightmare defeats at Sunderland (6-1) and Middlesbrough (5-0). No wonder the FA Cup became a welcome distraction from the faltering champions' league travails.
The route to United's first FA Cup final started at home to Southern League outfit Brighton (1-0), continued with another home win over Everton (1-0) and then gained momentum with a 6-1 thrashing of Blackburn Rovers with Scots Sandy and Jimmy Turnbull (unrelated) notching a hat-trick apiece.
There was to be no accompanying bounce in the league - the Reds won only one of the last 14 league games - but at least Lady Luck was smiling on the Cup run. With United trailing 1-0 in the quarter-final at Mangnall’s old club Burnley, referee Herbert Bamlett – who would later manage the Reds – called a halt to the game when a blizzard obscured the pitch markings. In the rematch, United were far better, Turnbull (2) and Halse doing the honours in a 3-2 win. Newcastle, closing in on the title and in pursuit of the first Double of the century, were then defeated 1-0 in a nervy semi-final at Bramall Lane, to set up a first FA Cup final