Opinion: The FA Cup can be a springboard to success
Would you rather Manchester United finish top four this season, or win the FA Cup? For me, it’s a no-brainer.
The cup has been intertwined with the history of United ever since Charlie Roberts became the first Reds captain to lift the trophy, in 1909.
While that triumph was sandwiched between our initial two league titles, if you go back through the years, winning the competition has often proved to be the springboard for some of our most cherished and storied sides.
Back in 1948, Johnny Carey and co powered past Stanley Matthews’s Blackpool at Wembley, but Matt Busby’s team weren’t sated by a small portion of silverware; they wanted more.
Three successive second-placed finishes followed, before we finally won the First Division in 1951, paving the way for that decade’s most formidable side, the Busby Babes, to conquer English football.
After the tragedy of Munich, Busby set about building again and, if the apogee of the Scot’s last great team came at Wembley in 1968, that journey was set in motion by victory in the same stadium five years previously.
Future European Cup winners Tony Dunne, Paddy Crerand, Bill Foulkes, Denis Law, David Herd and Bobby Charlton (although Law and Herd did not play in the final against Benfica) all featured in a 3-1 win over Leicester City, which proved to Matt and his men that they were good enough to compete for trophies at the highest level.
More recently, Alex Ferguson masterminded cup success in 1990 after a tough first few years in the Old Trafford hot-seat.
Nottingham Forest, Hereford United, Newcastle United and Sheffield United were vanquished, all away from home, before victories over Oldham Athletic and Crystal Palace, both after replays, secured arguably one of the hardest-to-win Cups of all time.
We all know what happened next under Ferguson – namely, at least one major trophy in 18 of the following 23 seasons.
As Gary Pallister, a key figure in that 1990 win at the end of his debut season with the club, recalls, winning became a habit after Wembley.
“The manager used to say win a trophy and that breeds that confidence and gives you the belief you can go and do it again,
“ Pallister told us.
“The 1989/90 season was seminal. Getting to know your characters, getting an understanding of how we want to play.
“So that team was growing, the belief in the dressing room was incredible and I think it was only a matter of time before we won the title.”
In shades of 1990, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s young outfit have already navigated two tight and tense ties against Wolverhampton Wanderers, as well as a tricky trip to Tranmere Rovers.
90 in 20: Tranmere 0 United 6Video
This leaves us facing yet another away journey, this time to Derby County in the fifth round and that’s the fixture I’m most focused on as we proceed through this mid-season break.
As in 1948, 1963 and 1990, the hope is that an FA Cup win can help launch another successful era, this time under Ole.
While Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata all starred in our last success in this tournament, under Louis van Gaal in 2016, imagine the good a cup win could do for our younger cohort.
We’ve all seen the promise Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, Daniel James and others have shown in their breakthrough campaigns at Old Trafford.
It won't be easy, with Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal all still in the tournament, but to quantify that progress with a trophy, with those youngsters already having played a major part, would be a huge fillip for Ole’s Reds reboot.
That’s why, even though the narrative of football nowadays centres largely around the Champions League, the FA Cup is number one on my wish-list for 2019/20.