If further evidence were required as to why Louis Van Gaal should soon be jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean, never to wander the corridors of Old Trafford again, it came at full time after Saturday’s absolutely pulsating FA Cup semi-final victory over Everton. Having watched two formerly great boxers give every last drop of energy trading huge punches in a desperate bid to end the fight within the twelve rounds, with his fighter landing a stunning knockout blow seconds from the final bell, one would expect to see a manager with a spring in his step and a smile from ear to ear. Fergie lived for moments like these, a late winner in a huge game would without fail leave the Scot resembling the most self-satisfied of Cheshire cats. This was victory the ‘United way’, stealing a game in ‘Fergie time’.
But when Van Gaal appeared on our screens, being interviewed soon after the final whistle by the BBC, there was no such glee. Instead a distinctly non-plussed manager spent the majority of his minute or two on screen complaining about the referee giving Everton unwarranted free kicks, before responding to the congratulations and thanks of his interrogator by refusing to acknowledge either sentiment and snootily wandering off. It was an interview as backwards as his entire year at United. When his team have been dull, cautious and ineffective the Dutchman will declare that they had played well, and when he has witnessed an open, vibrant, attacking encounter he will bemoan his side’s openness. Whilst he may take credit for introducing a number of promising young players it is clear that he really doesn’t get what United is about at all. The idea of his team being adventurous, brave, risk-taking and playing with pace and directness is his worst nightmare. Too many performances of that ilk would probably prompt anaphylaxis.
The ridiculous thing was that there was much for the quite rightly under pressure manager to gloat about on Saturday. His selection of Marouane Fellaini in a more advanced position had been highly successful, whilst his vastly expensive forward signing Anthony Martial had flicked the bird to those in the English press who criticised the fee and side-footed home a brilliant winner. Tony Martial scores again. There was so much over which to drool and yet all Van Gaal wanted to do was moan. Such a breathless, pulsating game is his worst nightmare.
For the fans, however, this was a reminder of how things used to be. Perhaps not every week, but regularly throughout the season, we would applaud attacking endeavour, have our hearts in our mouths as matches remained in the balance until the denouement and then explode with uncontainable joy or the release of atavistic tension as United stole the game at the last. This is how life was before Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ took hold and sucked the joy out of watching United. The side have beaten Liverpool twice this season, City at the Etihad and Arsenal at Old Trafford, but all were met with measured joy. Only the Arsenal win was truly exciting and the fans have grown wary of positive results leading to little more than misplaced optimism. Winning has usually been at the expense of entertainment and for United and United fans that just won’t do. The game is about so much more than the result. It is about the adrenaline, the tension, the ups and downs, the passion, the release of joy when it goes your way or the miserable next few days when it doesn’t and the chance to go through it all again a few days later.
That is what Van Gaal has taken from us. But for one day, whether by accident or design, we got it back. Faced with a chance to return to Wembley for an FA Cup final for the first time since 2007, in an otherwise wretched season, many set aside at least some of their tired cynicism and the players (and possibly the manager) rewarded us with an absolute treat. For forty-five minutes United flew at Everton, attacking their depleted, dispirited ranks from all angles. Rashford, Martial, Lingard and Fellaini caused havoc, whilst Rooney controlled the game from his midfield role. Only poor finishing meant that the game was still in the balance at half time.
At the break, however, Van Gaal did was Van Gaal does and sucked the life out of his team. United were suddenly flat and second best, on the ropes and glazing over. The goal felt inevitable, even after De Gea’s glorious penalty save following the harshest of awards for a ‘foul’ by Timothy Fosu-Mensah. The manager promptly ‘disappeared’ his young full back and probably locked him in the same rancid dungeon that Gullermo Varela has inhabited since the Europe League defeat to Liverpool. After Smalling’s unfortunate own goal Everton looked the more likely winners, but at the death Herrera (who should have been brought on far earlier for Lingard, not Fellaini) toed in Martial, who finished beautifully. United. Bedlam. Bodies everywhere. United. The buzz was sensational, the perfect ending to a game many of us were invested in to a degree we haven’t experienced in two years. We had forgotten football it could be this good.
The fans were delirious, the players unable to contain their delight. This felt similar in so many ways to that night at Maine Road in 1990 when Mark Robins scored late to take United to the final and was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of the fans. If security were now not so tight Anthony Martial would no doubt have got a similar escort to the tunnel. That was the last time an FA Cup semi final meant so much, save perhaps for the 1-0 win over Arsenal in 2004. In a strange parallel United face Palace again in the final, although the implications of a win are likely to be slightly different. For the fans victory would be huge, as it was in 1990, a trophy secured once more after a barren three years in which it has felt like the club has been slowly slipping into the abyss. Whilst Lee Martin’s replay winner most likely kept Fergie in a job, a victory in May is unlikely to save Van Gaal. It would, however, allow him to leave with his head held high, having won a trophy at every club he’s ever managed. That is clearly a record that means a lot to him, which makes you wonder why he was so miserable in victory on Saturday. Perhaps he knows his goose is cooked. Who knows? But the win over Everton was a reminder of why it should be. That is what United is all about, and Van Gaal still doesn’t seem to get that at all.