Published: 06 APR 2004
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So Arsenal, being a far superior side, were going to dump Manchester United out of the FA Cup Semi-Finals and confirm that the balance of power had tilted once more to North London. Another step towards the treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions League that would underline the genius of Arsene Wenger.
Sir Alex Ferguson banished to being yesterdays man. His struggling team sinking to obscurity. Some United fans unhappy with the newer recruits, wondering if he had lost the plot?
Think again. With a display of determination, effort and willpower at Villa Park, the Reds shattered the treble dreams of the Gooners and will go to Cardiff on May 22nd with their season still alive and silverware still to be claimed. Not bad for a season of transition.
Before the game, one stat caught my eye. In head-to-head encounters Wenger was 3 victories in front of Ferguson. Excluding one-off losses, perhaps the Frenchman is the only man who is ahead of Fergie in terms of victories. Had Wenger triumphed again, not only would he have romped another win ahead, a gap unlikely to be closed, it would also have intensified media hysteria for a change of manager at Old Trafford.
Now, Arsenals credentials are under more scrutiny after being held 1-1 at Highbury and denied a record 4th successive FA Cup Final.
Wes Brown at the heart of the defence was outstanding, as he was also the previous week at Highbury. Stand up the fickle element of 'fans' who made him a scapegoat a few weeks back when United began to leak goals. Brown's ability was questioned, which was ridiculous after being rushed back into first-team action following a long lay-off due to knee surgery. Short of match practice, Wes needed some time to bed in, and now is back to his best.
Roy Carroll made critical early saves to deny Bergkamp and Toure. Stand up those who lacked confidence in him, possibly because he was not flashy or spectacular in the mould of Schmeichel or Barthez. Carroll is safe and solid. A man who rarely makes a mistake.
The 'old guard' were allegedly past it. Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes disappointing being shunted around Fergusons tactical changes. How poetic that the three teamed up for the killer goal in the Semi-Final.
Darren Fletcher, not good enough. Ronaldo, no end-product. O'Shea a one-season wonder. All came good when the chips were down.
Defeating Arsenal in the FA Cup does not of course make up entirely for falling short in the Premiership or Champions League. But winning a trophy does not constitute a disaster either. This may seem hard to understand for younger Reds,brought up with the mindset that not wiining the Premiership for a season is failure. But think of the faithful who watched them between 1912 and 1947 with nothing to show bar relegations, promotions and near-bankruptcy.
Millwall will stride out alongside United in the Millennium Stadium in May, becoming the 55th team to contest an FA Cup Final. Will they become the 43rd to win it? After the horror show of 1976 against Southampton nothing will be taken for granted from United's point of view.
There will be a battle between Ryan Giggs and Millwall player-manager Dennis Wise to win a 4th FA Cup Winners medal. Giggs won his in 1999, 1996 and his first was earned against Chelsea in 1994, when Wise suffered his only defeat in 4 Wembley FA Cup Final appearances.
Wise's Assistant, Ray Wilkins, is pitched against his old club, having given United 5 years of service between 1979-84, memorably scoring in the 1983 Final against Brighton & Hove Albion and taking home a winners medal of his own after the 4-0 replay demolition.
Man United versus Millwall is not a regular fixture, in fact the teams have played each other just 13 times, United in front 9-3 as you would expect. The first meeting, in December 1931 went the Reds way, 2-0, as did the last, 2-1 at the Den in February 1990. It tends to be forgotten that the Lions boasted top-flight status just 14 years ago.
Anniversaries go hand in hand with football. 30 years ago this year I saw Millwall play United for the first time. The Reds were playing their first fixture at Old Trafford in the 1974-75 season, having slumped into the Second Division. Over 44,000 turned up and saw Stuart Pearson rattle in a hat-trick to give us all faith that our stay out of the elite was going to be a short one.
The last meeting at Old Trafford was in September 1989, when it was the turn of Mark Hughes to score three times in a 5-1 romp. The scorer for the visitors was none other than Teddy Sheringham...
But there is no doubt about the most important clash between the two clubs. A day that will continue to overshadow even the forthcoming FA Cup Final in terms of the history of Manchester United.
Exactly 70 years ago next month, the Reds were facing a desperate final game of the season. In 21st position in Division 2, they had to go to The Den and win, to save themselves and doom the Londoners to relegation instead. Defeat could have consigned United to oblivion, there may have been no Busby Babes, Fergies Fledglings, European Cup glories to come.
On the day, goals from Jack Cape and Tom Manley gave the visitors a 2-0 victory and survival. Within 2 years they were back in Division 1. Within 14 years Johnny Carey was holding up the FA Cup at Wembley.
Millwall's fans had the reputation of being English footballs worst hooligans in the 1970s and 1980s, but Manchester Uniteds followers were hardly whiter-than-white in that period themselves. Now in the sanitised corporate middle-class world of football, that it is mainly confined to distant memory.
The Lions supporters still sing their famous song "No-One Likes Us, We Don't Care." It is a tribute to them being unfashionable and disliked. Manchester United fans however, in the gaze of the ABU nation, can tell them a thing or two about being disliked.
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