When the FA Cup was won - and lost - in Wales

Tuesday 23 January 2024 12:20

Manchester United travel to Wales in the FA Cup for the first time in 19 years this Sunday.

The upcoming fourth-round fixture at Newport is actually our first away game in the principality since the 1950s, as the Reds’ most recent visit was for the 2005 final.

Younger readers might baulk at that statement, as the showpiece event traditionally takes place at London’s Wembley Stadium, of course.

Every final from 1923 to 2000 was held there, bar a replay in 1970, when Old Trafford stepped in due to the poor state of the pitch in the capital.

By the turn of the millennium, the national stadium was in dire need of refurbishment, though and, in October 2000, after hosting England’s World Cup qualifier against Germany, the original venue closed for good and was demolished two years later.

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The new version, with the Wembley arch replacing the famous Twin Towers as its most visible landmark, was opened in 2007, when United played Chelsea in the cup final curtain-raiser, but in the intervening years the deciding match of the world’s oldest football tournament was decided over the border, in Cardiff.

The newly built Millennium Stadium – now known as the Principality Stadium – hosted six straight finals during that Wembley hiatus.

It was also the destination for other big matches and United travelled to South Wales at least once per season between 2001/02 and 2005/06, playing two League Cup finals and three Community Shield ties there, in addition to two FA Cup finals and a semi-final.

After we eliminated Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ in the 2004 semi-final at Villa Park, thus ending their dreams of a Treble, Championship side Millwall lay in wait at the Millennium.

Dennis Wise – the last captain to hoist the cup aloft for a winning side at the old Wembley – was player-manager for the Lions, who held out for 44 minutes but were ultimately no match for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, who just expected to win trophies at this point.

A young Cristiano Ronaldo tormented the Londoners, heading United in front before Ruud van Nistelrooy’s second-half double clinched a then-record 11th cup success.

The Reds were back to defend our crown a year later, after hammering Newcastle 4-1 during the only set of semi-finals held in Cardiff.

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In arguably the closing chapter of our great rivalry – it was the final time Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would go head-to-head – Arsenal stood in the way of United and back-to-back cup wins.

We’d beaten the Gunners twice in the league and utterly dominated on the big occasion, managing 20 shots on goal to their five and forcing 12 corners to one.

Try as we might though, there was no way through during the 90 minutes, or in extra-time, even after the dismissal of Jose Antonio Reyes for a second booking right at the end.

A penalty shootout was required, for the first time in final history and, unfortunately, Paul Scholes was the only player to blink, as his shot was parried away by Jens Lehmann.

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That allowed Patrick Vieira to step up and convert to win the cup in his last appearance for the North Londoners – he joined Juventus later that summer.

It was a heartbreaking result at the time and that feeling has only barely faded in the intervening two decades, as United have played 80 games in the FA Cup – all in England – while lifting the trophy just once, in 2016.

There have been further final disappointments back at Wembley, to Chelsea in 2007 and 2018 and Manchester City last June, plus several semi-final defeats.

Now, as we finally make a return to Wales in the competition, the cup is the remaining chance of silverware for the campaign, providing an opportunity for glory that hopefully can be taken come 25 May.