Epic FA Cup win over Liverpool could buy ten Hag precious time

An animated photograph of Eric Ten Hag. Source (X)

Eric ten Hag’s next game as Manchester United manager will be his 103rd. For Louis van Gaal, his countryman and predecessor, that was the fatal number. Within minutes of winning the FA Cup final in 2016, van Gaal was given his ‘Dear John’ letter, with Jose Mourinho eventually taking his place. But whatever happens in the future, ten Hag will always have March 17, 2024, and a victory that United fans will recall for generations.

Since Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his team took charge of football operations at Old Trafford, there have been no unequivocal or emphatic statements in support of ten Hag. It’s no secret that the United hierarchy are scouring the international coaching market, looking to see who could bridge what is still a yawning gap to Manchester City, and even Liverpool.

United have never been a trigger-happy club, unlike the modern-day Chelsea. Sir Matt Busby was in the job for 1,120 matches, while Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary tenure spanned an incredible 1,500 games. It’s telling, though, that in the decade since he abdicated, no one has even got to 200 matches. Ole Gunnar Solskjer made it to 168, while Mourinho’s time was cut short after 144.

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But Ratcliffe and his crew surely recognise the enormity of the task that ten Hag faces. Forget City, who are currently on another planet to United. In the seven full seasons that Jurgen Klopp has been in charge at Liverpool, they have taken 86 league points more than United. This season, with ten matches remaining, they’re a whopping 17 clear.

No one who has responsibility for the football operations expects that situation to change in a jiffy. What they needed to see was signs of progress. And at a raucous Old Trafford on Sunday, they certainly got that. Liverpool were a couple of rungs below their usual standards, uncharacteristically sloppy with their passing and profligate in front of goal, but United kept scrapping and came from behind twice to thoroughly merit their victory.

You could scarcely call it a tactical masterclass, not when Bruno Fernandes finished as a centre-back and Harry Maguire played as an auxiliary attacker. But, having endured several humiliating defeats at Liverpool’s hands in recent seasons, there was no hint of defeatism about this United performance. Though they were overrun for much of the second half, they hung in there until the equaliser from the much-maligned Antony. And it was no different in extra time after Harvey Elliott had given Liverpool a 3-2 lead late in the first period.

The FA Cup may not have the prestige it once did, but it has a central place in the United-Liverpool rivalry. They may have played 180 league matches, but for generations of United fans, it’s a handful of Cup games that are most vivid in memory. In 1977, Liverpool were bidding to become the first English team to win the treble of league, FA Cup and European Cup. In a tense Cup final at Wembley, it was a Lou Macari shot that took a wicked deflection off Jimmy Greenhoff that settled it.

Over two decades later, in January 1999, with United chasing their own treble, Michael Owen gave Liverpool a third-minute lead. Despite Roy Keane hitting the post twice and United bossing the game, Liverpool looked set to hold on and claim a famous victory. But goals from Dwight Yorke (88 minutes) and Solskjaer (90) turned the match on its head. Solksjaer, on as a late substitute, had just three touches all game. But those were the key ones, taking the ball almost off Paul Scholes’s boot and shooting it through Jamie Carragher’s legs.

Perhaps the most cherished Cup goal, however, came in a 1985 semi-final replay, in the middle of an era of relentless Liverpool dominance. Bryan Robson, Captain Marvel in the team that Ron Atkinson had put together, gathered the ball near the halfway line, slalomed past several Liverpool players and then left fly from outside the box with his left foot.

United went on to win the Cup that season. It remains to be seen whether Amad Diallo’s last-gasp winner against Liverpool will have the same impact. Instinct tells you that ten Hag needs the Cup win to cling on to his job in the summer. If the season ends with no Champions League qualification, as looks likely, and no trophy, his card would surely be marked.

Atkinson lasted a little over a year after the 1985 Cup win, before making way for Ferguson. But no matter what happens between now and the end of May, the image of United fans bouncing up and down in the Stretford End as they seldom have for a decade will remain in the memory for a long time to come.

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