One is supposed to approach an FA Cup final in a spirit of Corinthian sportsmanship, so permit me the indulgence of starting with some fence-mending bonhomie.
A few years ago, I carelessly described Crystal Palace in these pages as: “a suburban joke of a club...where nothing of interest has happened since Malcolm Allison bowled up for a spell in charge, the most incongruous partnership since Elizabeth Taylor married her builder.”
A miffed James Murphy, leader of the Clonakilty Super Eagles Massive, was sufficiently unamused to pen a missive of complaint which the editor suggested I might care to address.
“Never complain, never explain,” I replied, full of the arrogance of the champions we then were.
So, Mr. Murphy, let me make amends, and thereby may a state of truce exist between my Red part of Manchester and your purpley stripey patch of West Cork.
Crystal Palace are clearly no longer uninteresting, nor a joke; moreover, they are threatening to make today no laughing matter for us United fans.
Palace and United have been here together before, in 1990.
United, then as now, had been through a traumatic season, with the manager’s job thought to be seriously on the line from November onwards.
Indeed, it was a home defeat against today’s opponents that had initially brought the pot to the boil, and the bedsheets to J-Stand.
Then, as now, we had been woeful upfront, struggling to hit even a half-century of goals; then as now, the tempting gleaming vision of the FA Cup had emerged on the horizon at our darkest moment to guide us home towards some sort of final partial redemption.
But Alex Ferguson, famously, saved his job and turned his whole career around by winning at Wembley.
One doubts victory today would have any such dramatic effects on Louis Van Gaal’s professional journey, which is surely coming to a limping halt, come what may this evening.
Lifting the Cup would mean some welcome face-saving for all concerned.
Louis could walk off into the sunset over his Portuguese villa with his head held...well, if not held high, then at least with his chin off the ground.
Or perhaps he would even be tempted to take the ambassadorial-cum-technical sinecure that I understand United would be prepared to offer him in exchange for “going quietly”.
That scenario would also allow Ed Woodward to salvage something from the wreckage of the misguided appointment he made in 2014.
Nevertheless, the FA Cup could only ever be seen as a barely-merited consolation prize at the end of three failed seasons of the Woodward régime.
And if United lose? Perhaps unjustly and bitterly? After all, United’s FA Cup final history is one littered with robberies, lucky escapes and barely-suppressed traumas.
Let me concede right now, for example, to Mr Murphy that Palace really ought to have won that madcap six-goal first match of 1990 final. United had been similarly fortunate in 1983, when “Smith must score!” immortalised our lucky escape from Brighton’s clutches.
But the rest of United’s ‘wrong result finals’ constitute a litany of woe: fouling injury misery in 1957 & 1958; blatant offsidery in 1976; near-criminal cruelty in 1979; and the unfathomable travesty of 2005.
Palace fans would no doubt say we are owed some more of the above, due to bad karma. Grudges borne since both 1990’s final and the ill-tempered 1995 semi-finals linger on with some at Palace, partly reciprocated at United from those who went through the Cantona Wars that kungfu-kicked off at Selhurst Park.
Granted, Super Eagles supporters developed quite a reputation in recent years, thanks to the work they’ve done on the atmosphere at their once dismal ground.
But to some Reds, the image of Matthew Simmons will always loom large in the folk memory, and with it the (un)popular archetype of the lairy ‘Sarf Landan’ white suburbanite wideboy.
Some United fans training back up North after the first 1990 final will recall the sight of flashily-attired Palace supporters on the opposite platform, waving bunches of tenners at us and tauntingly yelling “Loadsamoney!” at what they called the “farck-ing Nor-vern monkeys!”
The image of an unpleasantly Thatcherite club was bolstered by the loathsome presence at the club helm of chairman Ron Noades, purveyor of boot-straps cod-philosophy and racially-charged motormouthery.
Those leaner meaner days at the fag-end of the Maggie Years are long gone, and I don’t suppose there’ll be much in the way of class-war and general aggro to be had at Wembley today.
“More’s the pity,” some older heads might say, and I know what they mean.
But, as we contemplate our €100 match tickets, consult the “menu” selection of shellfish-based sandwiches, and peruse the distressing array of half ‘n’ half friendship scarves, at least that will mean there will be peace enough to allow Mr Murphy and I to lean across the divide, shake hands, and wish each other a good game.”
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