The 2016 FA Cup Final: More By Accident Than Design
In the space of four minutes at Wembley Stadium yesterday afternoon, we saw a microcosm of Alan Pardew’s managerial career. There had been the solid adherence to an unadventurous plan which had worked reasonably well. Then there was a moment of fleeting success, which was followed by a show of hubris that bordered on the ridiculous, and then the puncturing of that hubris, swiftly followed by a low national snigger. It wasn’t that the neutral hates Crystal Palace, more that Alan Pardew being there makes loving them less than as straightforward as it should be, especially when they’re playing Manchester United in an FA Cup final.
Crystal Palace’s performance in this match was an object lesson in the failure of a game-plan. They were so set on sitting back, ceding possession and trying to pick up scraps on the break that they acted as though they’d only rehearsed the first part of it. It was as though any training ground sessions on the subject stopped with the goal. And from there on, a Manchester United win felt inevitable, even with ten men for the second period of extra-time. And yes, we all understand the appeal of reductionist football in an era during which the potential rewards for parking the bus have never been greater. Manchester United’s new manager has made a very, very successful career from it. But one couldn’t help but feel that Crystal Palace’s supporters, a riot of red and blue before the match, deserved better than this. That they deserved at least a little of the elan that they themselves had injected into proceedings.
The afternoon began with the Football Association attempting a pre-game thing that fell spectacularly on its face. With a huge flag wonkily draped across the pitch, singer Tinie Tempah appeared, dressed apparently as a life-sized tin foil FA Cup to sing to a disinterested crowd with the Wembley PA system apparently set to its “submarine engine room”. This was followed by rendition Abide With Me for which the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Trust Choir was in tune with but not in synch with – and this may be an issue related to the broadcasting of it – the marching band that were accompanying them, and then a television talent contest missed her cue for the singing of the national anthem. If the Football Association were trying for a Suerbowl-esque splash of glitter, they should perhaps be quietly reminded of the fact all of this more closely resembled a drunken uncle performing the Macarena at a wedding.
For the first seventy-five minutes, this match offered little but comparisons with the other worst FA Cup finals of all-time. Crystal Palace had set their stall out, secure in the knowledge that the early 2016 iteration of Manchester United is way too ponderous to do much of interest with all the possession that they could ever be given. And with thirteen minutes left to play, it looked as though their limited ambition would pay off when Jason Puncheon found more space that he could have expected that he would and lashed the ball past David De Gea’s near post. Four minutes later, however, Juan Mata forced the ball through a thicket of legs to bring Manchester United level, and Palace’s chance had gone, and they were unable to turn the pressure back up on their opponents, even when they gained a one man advantage with fifteen minutes left to play.
It’s not that Chris Smalling didn’t deserve his yellow card for his manhandling of Yannick Bolasie. The offence was one that the defender will likely believe that he had no alternative but to commit. It’s more that the Manchester United defender didn’t employ a little more sleight of hand in doing so. He gave referee Mark Clattenburg little and himself no alternative but to end up trudging back to the changing room to think about what he’d done. Five minutes into the second half of extra-time, Delaney could only half-clear a Valencia cross and Jesse Lingard belted the ball in, with the game’s only real moment of brilliance. And that was enough. The closing stages of big matches are often defined by One Final Chance, a moment that brings potential salvation for a losing side.
Perhaps it was the monosyllabic nature of Crystal Palace’s football over the previous one hundred and ten minutes that didn’t allow them to adapt. Perhaps they were just exhausted at the end of a long, hard season. The result was the same. They couldn’t come up with anything much, and Manchester United won the FA Cup for the first time in twelve years. It didn’t turn out to be enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s job, of course, and you’ll be hearing more of that om here next week. And, with further hundreds of millions of pounds now likely to be spent on rebuilding The House That Van Gaal Built, we will never know whether the psychological leap of winning a first trophy in the post-Ferguson era would have been enough to spur that particular squad onto anything greater than they’ve managed this season. Should success follow next season or the year after now, though, this win will most likely be forgotten as something of a footnote during a transitional stage in the club’s history.
The 2016 FA Cup Final will, should it be remembered for anything, will most likely be remembered as The Year of Pardew’s Dance. At the one moment that a Crystal Palace team in uncharted waters needed direction, a steadying head from the touchline at an emotional moment, the man with the job of doing this was turning in something that resembled a third rate John Travolta impersonation as an audition for a market town repertory company’s performance of Saturday Night Fever. Crystal Palace supporters can feel hard done by over this result. A couple of key refereeing decisions didn’t go their way and they held their shape for almost eighty minutes, yet they allowed a Manchester United team that has been at best moderate to snatch the win when it should, by any reasonable objectives, have been theirs. The Saturday Night Fever belonged to Manchester United.