When the phone call came a fortnight ago offering me an FA Cup final ticket, I didn’t hesitate. Well, you don’t do you? Of course I wanted to be there on June 3, watching my team in action. What joy, what fun. Except, in the intervening two weeks a feeling has grown ever stronger within me that this could well turn out to be the most miserable 90 minutes of my supporting life. Across more than five decades that I have followed Manchester United, never have I experienced such a gathering sense of dread ahead of a big game.
Because what is at stake is far more than a piece of silverware. Under threat is United’s place in history. They remain the only English club to have completed the Treble. Sure, others have won three trophies in a season: Liverpool did it with the FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup in 2001, Manchester City produced a domestic clean sweep of Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup in 2019. But only United, in that glorious few weeks in 1999 have done the big one of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. Now that record is in jeopardy. Serious jeopardy. And worse, the threat stems from the ever-noisier neighbours.
When Sir Alex Ferguson steered the Reds to glory back in ’99, City were competing in the League One play-off. In those long lost days of red certainty, the very idea that 24 years on they would be the club to be in a position to be the next to complete the Treble would have been laughable. But here they are, on Wednesday night sweeping aside the European champions with an ease bordering on contempt, now just three games away from securing the lot, poised to crush United’s uniqueness. And what makes things all the more alarming is that the principal obstacle standing in their way is United themselves. A stuttering, unconvincing, chronically inconsistent United at that.
Liverpool supporters still mourn the fact their team was within a couple of minutes of stopping United’s Treble in 99. But that failure to see out victory in the FA Cup fourth round was long before the concept of the Treble had properly taken root. This season, United know precisely what is up for grabs: they provide the final stumbling block. That is what makes this different. Last season, never mind a Treble, Liverpool almost completed a Quadruple. But there was nothing United fans could do about it except sit back and hope. This time, it is their team that stands last in the way of a footballing bulldozer. The jeopardy could not be higher; the prospect of failure is all-consuming.
My blue friends tell me I am wrong to be so glum. Anything can happen in a one-off final, they say. United have beaten City this season, they add. And you know City, they say, no-one shoots themselves in the foot with quite such alacrity. Except they are guys of my generation, who remember the old days. And this is not the City of a chairman with a comedy comb-over, this is not the City whose manager ordered his players to keep the ball in the corner when they needed to win a match to avoid relegation, this is not the City plagued with City-itis. This is the City turbocharged by oil wealth, the City blessed with the most charismatic coach of his generation, the City playing with the ruthless facility of a footballing machine. As for the idea that their concentration might be undermined by the prospect of a Champions League final: this City squad is so substantial, they could field a second XI for the cup final and it would still be stronger than United’s best.
The optimist would point to the fact United too have significant motivation. Not just lifting a second piece of silverware this season, but defending their club’s defining honour. Besides, they have done it before. In 1977, they stopped a Liverpool Treble, beating them at Wembley in a Cup final sandwiched between them lifting the league title and the European Cup. And how delightful it would be if Casemiro and Marcus Rashford could replicate Lou Macari and Jimmy Greenhoff’s double act that day and produce a comedy winning goal to stymie blue ambition. How delicious to chant at the departing City hordes as Bruno Fernandes went up to lift the Cup “Have you ever won the Treble?”
But pessimism is the prevailing trait of the football supporter: such thoughts are increasingly rare as the day approaches. What is occupying the mind is the immediate aftermath of defeat. The smirking texts filling my inbox from the blue mate who calls his dog Sergio; the leaked itinerary for a Treble celebrating open top bus trip round the city centre; the gloating sense of prevailing superiority. All topped off by the worst news of all: that the Glazers have decided to not to sell up. The horror.