Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the Camp Nou? Eric Cantona at Wembley? How about Cristiano Ronaldo in the Luzhniki? There have been many great and vital goals for United under Sir Alex Ferguson but the most important arguably came on afternoon in Nottingham in a seemingly run of the mill FA Cup third round tie against Brian Clough’s Forest side.
Mark Robins may not have any statues outside Old Trafford nor is he ever likely to be revered by the millions of fans that pay homage to Red legends past and present, but if it wasn’t for his winner that drab Winter’s day then there may not have been a Sir Alex Ferguson -era and the subsequent two decade dominance.
It was the FA Cup that saved Sir Alex’s United career, as the under-fire boss finally found some silverware to assuage the pressure and it may well be the same trophy that saves his successor’s successor.
Louis Van Gaal has claimed the FA Cup is either a priority or something of a distraction depending on which day of the week you catch him on. His opponent this evening Arsene Wenger has famously argued that fourth spot and the Champions League qualification that comes with it are as good as a trophy, which while not as daft a claim as many have suggested, is actually wide of the mark.
Last season just as Sir Alex faced in 1990, Wenger was under pressure as nine trophy-less campaigns- all of which had featured a top four finish- began to take their toll on the Emirates faithful- unless you’re a water swigging, mascot dressed type who tows the party line in between making cameos in Sky Sports adverts.
Finishing fourth is something of a necessity when you’re not completely bankrolled by rich sugar daddies as without ridiculous amounts of money how else can you attract the cream of Europe? The problem is that while it gives the fans something to look forward to the following season, the game that clinches a top four spot, isn’t quite the same as a cup final with all the pomp and ceremony that comes with it.
A trip to St James’s to secure Champions League football doesn’t quite match up to a day out at Wembley to lift actual silverware- no matter how many national anthems you listen to on the coach travelling up there.
This season sees the FA Cup given an added edge thanks to Van Gaal’s somewhat patchy stint at Old Trafford so far, coupled with United’s poor run in the competition over the past ten years. Arsenal have actually equaled United’s record of eleven wins- including beating the Reds in the 2005 final- the second one Sir Alex Ferguson’s men lost since they last lifted the trophy in 2004.
Liverpool meanwhile have simply underlined how insignificant Champions League qualification can be if you don’t actually get anywhere in the competition- or the Europa following it. All the compensation of missing out on the title last season has been swept aside by a string of poor results on the continent- baffling for a side so dominant domestically of late.
An FA Cup win would add some icing to Brendan Rodgers’ footballing cake and in case you’ve had your head in a hole for the past few months you probably know it’ll have some birthday candles on it.
Manchester City may be focused on title challenges and trips to Barcelona nowadays, but ask any fan who endured those 35 trophy-less seasons whether the FA Cup matters and they’ll wax lyrical of the glorious season they ended their drought while beating their derby rivals en route to the final.
For the so-called lesser teams the FA Cup will always matter, especially when you’re out of the promotion race or facing the grim reality of a relegation dogfight, but for all involved this season, football’s most famous domestic tournament, really is becoming the main attraction.
We can argue the value and necessity of making the Champions League until we’re blue in the face, but for many fans it’s the FA Cup not just finishing above fifth place that would really make our season.
Laurent Koscielny may have earned the Gunners the top four place with his goals against Newcastle in the past two seasons but if he bags the winner tonight that may be the goal that truly puts him in the pantheon of greatness alongside Mark Robins…
Written by Justin, who can be found on twitter @JayMotty as well as running Manchester United fansite TheFaithfulMUFC