The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama | OneFootball

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Dan Burke·3 June 2023

The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama

Article image:The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama

Earlier this week, the hugely popular HBO television series Succession concluded in thrilling, satisfying fashion.

Succession will go down as one of the all-time great prestige TV dramas, and its critically-acclaimed climax brought to an end four seasons of Shakespearean struggle, where the fictional Roy siblings jostled for their father’s approval and ultimate control of the family-owned mega-conglomerate Waystar Royco.

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The show’s ending will leave a big hole in the TV schedule but drama fans need not worry too much, because football’s scriptwriters have something just as compelling up their sleeves for us this weekend.

Manchester United and Manchester City have over 140 years of shared history and 18 FA Cups between them, but on Saturday the two fierce local rivals will meet at Wembley in the competition’s showpiece final for the first time ever.

United’s legendary former manager Sir Alex Ferguson could be considered football’s answer to Succession’s Logan Roy. A titan of his industry, Ferguson like Roy was respected and feared in equal measure, owing to his acerbic wit, relentless drive to succeed and inarguable record.

“Nothing is a line. Everything, everywhere is always moving. Forever,” was a sentence uttered by Roy in season three of Succession, but it could just as easily have come from his compatriot Ferguson in the real world, whose ability to constantly evolve and adapt to the shifting sands around him made him one of football’s greatest and most decorated managers.

But like Roy, Ferguson’s succession plan has been unexpectedly complex and like Roy, some of his more bullish statements have come back to haunt him.

Ferguson was still United manager when he was asked in 2009 whether he could imagine his side ever going into a Manchester derby as underdogs. “Not in my lifetime,” was his withering, eye-rolling put-down, before he abruptly ended the press conference.

At the time, Fergie could have been forgiven for his hubris. City — the “noisy neighbours”, as he once dubbed them — had only been taken over 12 months previously, and their lavishly-funded project hadn’t yet begun to yield silverware, whereas United had just lifted a third successive Premier League title, and only Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona had been able to stop them winning the Champions League two years on the spin.

Article image:The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama

It’s fair to say the landscape has changed significantly in the years since, not just in Manchester but in English football as a whole.

The last time United lifted the Premier League title was in 2013, at the end of Ferguson’s final season in charge of the club. Since his retirement, City have finished above United in 10 consecutive seasons, with the title winding up in the blue half of the city on six occasions in that time. Last week, City followed United in becoming only the second club of the Premier League era to lift the title in three successive seasons.

And their ascent actually began while the Scot was still in office.

In 2011, City overcame United in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley before going on to beat Stoke in the final to lift the club’s first trophy in 35 barren years. A year later, City won the Premier League for the first time, with Sergio Agüero’s unforgettable injury-time winner against Queens Park Rangers snatching the title from Ferguson’s United with the last kick of the season.

It felt like United were once the biggest obstacle City would have to overcome in their quest for glory but as soon as that barrier was hurdled, the power dynamic in Manchester shifted inexorably. As Match of the Day commentator Guy Mowbray put it during highlights of City’s 6-3 derby victory earlier this season: “He [Ferguson] said ‘not in my lifetime’… now it’s every time.”

Article image:The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama

Though it may seem like the Manchester bragging rights belong to City in perpetuity, there is at least one accolade which currently belongs to United and United alone, and it might just be the biggest one of all.

Only one team in the history of English football has lifted the league title, the FA Cup and the Champions League in the same season, or what is widely known as The Treble.

Other clubs have won a treble, but only Manchester United in 1998/99 have won The Treble, and it is for that monumental achievement alone that many consider Ferguson’s team that year to be the greatest English side ever (any Invincibles, Centurions or Liverpool fans reading can argue about that among themselves).

Article image:The Manchester derby FA Cup final, English football's next prestige drama

There is therefore much more at stake than just the FA Cup this weekend. With their Champions League final against Inter also coming next week, City are aiming to make history, while United are out to preserve their heritage.

Both sides have reasons to be optimistic about achieving their goal. City’s dead-rubber defeat away at Brentford on the final day of the season brought a 25-match unbeaten run in all competitions to an end, but also enabled them to rest most of their key players ahead of the two upcoming finals.

Having effectively bullied Arsenal into submission in the title race, they then made Europe’s most successful club Real Madrid quiver with fright in a Champions League semi-final demolition which sent shockwaves across Europe and set up a date with destiny in Istanbul.

United, on the other hand, finished their league season with a victory over Fulham to secure a third-placed finish and qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Perhaps for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement, the manager in charge at Old Trafford looks capable of truly bringing the good times back, and with the EFL Cup already in the bag, the FA Cup would really put extra shine on an impressive debut season for Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman can already boast a better maiden campaign in English football than Guardiola managed.

Having bumped heads in a couple of Champions League finals towards the end of his United tenure, Ferguson and Guardiola enjoyed a mutual admiration and under different circumstances, the Catalan might well have found himself succeeding Ferguson in the Old Trafford hotseat. Instead, Ferguson chose David Moyes, and Pep ended up on the other side of Manchester via Bayern Munich.

City have so far won 10 major trophies on Guardiola’s watch but many would argue that the most glorious era in the club’s history should come with an asterisk due to the vast sums of money spent on achieving it, not to mention the 115 Premier League charges of alleged financial impropriety which currently hang over the club.

What’s for sure is they would not have been as successful over the last seven years were it not for the tactical innovation and winning mentality of their coach and as many clubs have proven, spending money offers no cast-iron guarantee of success. Like United in the post-Ferguson era, City’s period of dominance will likely end the moment Guardiola decides he’s won enough.

Just ask Ten Hag, who when asked about Guardiola and Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp in his very first United press conference, said: “I admire them both. They play fantastic football. But eras come to an end.”

The Guardiola era won’t come to an end on Saturday but unless Ten Hag’s team can put up a roadblock, perhaps Ferguson’s 1999 vintage and their legacy as England’s greatest ever side will soon be up for debate again. The FA Cup is up for grabs at Wembley but perhaps more importantly, so is The Treble.

In the words of Succession’s Kendall Roy: “We watch history, we make history and then, one day, we become it.”