LET us look forward, not back, dear reader. And that’s not just to avoid discussing Goodison. (Which is easily summed up: an ongoing makeshift defence; a Rooney off-day; the post-Milan hangover. Move on.)
I’m writing before the West Ham game, the result of which no-one is taking for granted, given the madcap, defeat-heavy nature of this increasingly marvellous 1975-revivalist season.
But we have a final this weekend, and we may thus put aside the concerns for a moment to revel in the anticipation of An Event. Even if it’s ‘only’ the League Cup.
I suppose most historical cup final defeats have their element of bitterness but the two we have suffered against Villa (1957 and 1994) had more than most. Mention Pete ‘Punchy’ McParland to any old Red, for example, and watch him growl. And 1994 was a horror show for us: the Treble collapsing at the first big fence, Andrei’s red card, an absent brooding Cantona much missed... fleetingly, we thought Big Ron might have vengefully derailed his successor’s bid for immortality. But just two months later, a restored Eric had put Chelsea to the sword to complete our first Double, and the pain of the previous Wembley visit was all but forgotten.
Villa once inflicted far more serious damage on us in this competition too: back in 70/71, during their shameful Third Division sojourn, they stunningly beat us in the semi-finals, and thus signed Wilf McGuiness’s managerial death warrant. It was a critical staging post during both the relegation-bound decline of United, and the rebirth of Villa that, a decade later, would find them lounging on the very throne of Europe that we had then so recently vacated.
Granted, Sunday is hardly going to be fit to rank alongside these historical landmarks. It is almost inconceivable to think of any way it will matter so hugely in hindsight to United, anyway, unless Rooney breaks a leg or Fergie chokes to death on his bile.
Martin O’Neill, of course, has much more at stake as he seeks his first Villa trophy – and there is also the matter of it being part of his ongoing audition to manage United one day. His main UK rival David Moyes, as you will have noticed, passed his latest one well enough the other day, and I know he continues to be Fergie’s personal preference.
Incidentally, the Scotsman’s case was hugely boosted by the public announcement of his reconciliation with Rooney last week, the status of that relationship being the one question mark on his job application. As we discussed here only the other week – and as the Milan and Everton games amply demonstrated – Rooney is now embarrassingly dominant at United (and with England, come to think of it), to such an extent that articles have begun to appear worrying about how unhealthy this is for both club and country. Yet what can be done about it?
Nothing. You pray twice as fervently, and perhaps consider the odd animal sacrifice, to appease the gods.
Reds have long been accustomed to this scenario, as befits a club whose tradition has always been more one of star-studded flakiness than machine-like cohesion. I remember Cantona and Robson being equally central for most of their time with us, and Keane at certain junctures too. Even Martin Buchan in the 70s sometimes came close to it: his rare injury absences were devastating to us, with one during 1976/7 taking us from top of the table to near the relegation zone.
Some players bring more to a team that just their actual physical contribution on the pitch. You can’t measure it in Opta stats, or follow it on ProZone. It just is. And Rooney has it coming out of his ears.
Mention of 1977 reminds me that the season ended with both Villa and United claiming Cups at Wembley.
If Villa win their FA Cup reply tonight, then I suppose there’s a very good chance history will repeat itself, albeit with the trophies swapped. That’s not a prediction of a United victory, mind. For as 2009/10 just keeps on delightfully proving, forecasts are for fools...
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