“My personal wish is to win the FA Cup. ... I want to win a title in England. That is why I have come to this country, to make Manchester United champions or give them a title,” Louis van Gaal recently said, per the Independent.
The Dutchman might have assumed this was positive and uplifting talk, but those were words guaranteed to make most United fans wince.
Two years ago, Van Gaal was appointed to restore United to the top of the Premier League and win proper titles—and that has not included the FA Cup for a number of years.
It has been a long time since a Manchester United manager could buy themselves more time at the club by winning the FA Cup.
During the 1980s, the United board were willing to overlook Ron Atkinson’s failure to finish higher than third because of his FA Cup wins in 1983 and 1985.
After three-and-a-half largely disappointing years, Sir Alex Ferguson earned himself a reprieve by winning the trophy in 1990, which then ushered in a period of unprecedented—and almost unimaginable—success at Old Trafford.
This was also a time when the FA Cup was still shrouded in glory and romance and winning the grand old trophy actually meant something in itself.
But the 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues Ferguson went on to bring to Old Trafford have inevitably reduced the trophy’s appeal.
Over the last 25 years, the FA Cup became almost an accessory to win with a larger trophy, in 1994 and 1996 to complete a double and a treble in 1999.
Winning it on its own, even as far back as 2004, felt like a consolation prize.
Approaching the end of another desperate season, a trip to Wembley to see Wayne Rooney lift the FA Cup would be enjoyed by most United fans, but it would not be nearly enough to redeem Van Gaal.
During an earlier generation, United strived to shake off the label of being a cup team, and they are unlikely to be willing to embrace it under Van Gaal.
It is February. United should be challenging for the Premier League and in the knockout stages of the Champions League rather than where they find themselves, aiming for the lesser pair of the FA Cup and the Europa League.
Winning the FA Cup would prove nothing more than Van Gaal is capable of beating lower-league opposition such as Sheffield United, Derby County and, he hopes, Shrewsbury Town, who are 21st in League 1.
The FA Cup, after all, was won by Wigan Athletic only three years ago.
In 2016, Manchester United managers are not judged by cup runs but by Champions League progress and where they sit in the Premier League table.
Van Gaal made a dreadful hash of his Champions League debut at the club by failing to get his team out of a relatively weak group, and he has guided United to fifth in the table, 12 points from the summit and six points from fourth place.
This season has been a desperate failure for United, one so bad that even winning the FA Cup could not obscure the depths to which they have fallen.
Despite being given £250 million to invest in players and full control of the side, Van Gaal has delivered United the fewest points (41) and scored the fewest goals (33) after 26 games of a league season for more than a quarter of a century.
And he has done this playing the most horribly risk-averse and turgid football seen at Old Trafford in the modern era, typified by the revealing statistic that his United side went 11 consecutive home games this season without scoring in the first half.
Just when it didn't look like it could get any worse for Van Gaal, he presided over the insipid and embarrassing 2-1 loss to FC Midtjylland in the Europa League.
In the minds of many United fans, Van Gaal is already a former United manager, biding his time at the club until the end of the season.
Making David Moyes look good was not part of the plan when United appointed the experienced Dutchman in the summer of 2014.
There is a mounting and understandable fear at Old Trafford that they are turning into Liverpool and that their current malaise could be long-term decline.
In 2012, winning the League Cup and reaching the FA Cup final with Liverpool wasn’t enough to save club legend Kenny Dalglish and make up for an eighth-place finish in the league, and he was duly sacked and replaced by Brendan Rodgers that summer.
If cup success wasn’t good enough for Liverpool, who are still waiting to win their first league title since 1990, it is unlikely to be acceptable for United.
Van Gaal might still achieve his “personal wish” this season, but winning the FA Cup should not blind United to the obvious truth he has failed at Old Trafford.
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