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Ten Hag must hope to invoke spirit of 1990 with FA Cup win over Liverpool

Ten Hag must hope to invoke spirit of 1990 with FA Cup win over Liverpool

Remember the days when the FA Cup could save a manager? Remember specifically 1990, when the assumption was that, after eight league games without a win, Alex Ferguson would be sacked by Manchester United if they went out of the FA Cup in the third round against Nottingham Forest, and how, with a grimly dogged performance, they won with a second-half Mark Robins goal?That goal is a key moment in the legend of Ferguson at United. After three unconvincing years, he had splashed out £7.5m on five signings the previous summer and had been facing fan protests as the likes of George Best and Emlyn Hughes called for his head. That season they lost 5-1 to Manchester City, when such things were all but unthinkable. For a couple of home games attendances dipped below 35,000. That was the winter of the “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie” banner at Old Trafford, when the frustration of more than two decades without a league title really began to be felt.The Forest game was the start of a classic run. United didn’t play another top-flight side until the final, nor did they play at home. They didn’t win any game by more than a single goal. The 3-2 win in the fifth round at Newcastle was a minor classic. In the semi-final against Oldham and the final against Crystal Palace, they required replays after dramatic 3-3 draws.It was thrilling, it was fraught and at any second it might have gone wrong for United and Ferguson. What if Jim Leighton hadn’t made that save at Hereford when everybody else stopped after a whistle from the crowd? What if Nick Henry’s shot in the semi-final replay that hit the bar and bounced down very near and possibly over the line had been given as a goal? What if Ferguson hadn’t been ruthless enough to drop Leighton for the final replay? Even with a three-year contract newly signed, even with Bobby Charlton’s support in the boardroom, Ferguson might easily have been dismissed as United faced a fourth season without a trophy. But Ferguson survived, won the Cup-Winners’ Cup the following year and by the end of the decade had claimed a Treble, two Doubles and two other Premier League titles.Erik ten Hag must be aware that he is unlikely to be granted the time Ferguson was. It’s highly improbable now that a manager of an elite club would be given such time, even if the drought since the last league title has now stretched to more than a decade. That Ten Hag won the Carabao Cup last season has almost been forgotten; certainly it has not left him much credit to offset against poor league form.More recent history suggests that the FA Cup is no longer a tournament that can save a manager. In 2016, Louis van Gaal was still celebrating on the Wembley pitch after United had beaten Crystal Palace in the final when news broke that he was about to be replaced by José Mourinho. In its modern diminished form, the Cup has become a competition that cannot save a career but can destroy one. Even Michael Beale discovered that at Sunderland this season: what appeared to be a free hit against a vulnerable Newcastle actually did critical damage to his reputation because of the tentativeness and timidity with which Sunderland played.Manchester United’s Mark Robins after a semi-final replay win against Oldham in 1990. His third-round goal against Nottingham Forest was a key moment. Photograph: Dan Smith/GettyAnd that, paradoxically perhaps, should give Ten Hag some hope.Individual moments, individual games, can take on immense significance. It would be hard to claim that United’s Cup run in 1990 gave evidence of a great side in waiting. Glory for United, even in the winter of 89-90, is not a 1-0 win at Edgar Street. But the drama and the sense of defiance, which may have been chimerical, reinvigorated the fanbase and made the squad believe. Winning the FA Cup this season, in itself, would probably not be enough to convince Jim Ratcliffe’s advisers to keep Ten Hag, but an impressive performance and result against Liverpool might.The problem is that, on recent form, such a performance is hard to conceive. United may be the only side to have prevented Liverpool scoring this season, but in the 0-0 draw at Anfield, they gave up 34 shots. Even allowing for the way Liverpool lost discipline in that game, pinging in shots from all ranges, that is not sustainable as a defensive strategy. But these days United always allow the opposition a high volume of opportunities: they’ve faced 198 shots in their past 10 games. Given that includes encounters with Newport, Luton, Forest and Everton, that is significant cause for concern.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionLiverpool, it will be remembered, put seven past United at Anfield last season with just 18 shots. That game felt like an outlier at the time, the scoreline inflated by a freakish second half, but with hindsight it looks fairly typical of Ten Hag’s United. They rarely control games and have a tendency to give up chances, which they get away with some of the time because of the attacking quality of some of their individuals. But it means they are susceptible to occasional drubbings, a flaw magnified by the way a number of their players seem to struggle when the game goes against them.United have lost only two of their past 11 games, but they have rarely convinced in that time. Tottenham, in fifth, lead them by six points with a game in hand. Sympathy is due Ten Hag because of United’s lengthy injury list and, like all United managers in the past decade, he has been hampered by baffling recruitment decisions, although he bears responsibility for at least some of those. But there has been little sign this season of development from his first year in charge, little sense that the future may be positive.But that perhaps is what the FA Cup is now for: in a high-profile tie against a major rival, the opportunity exists, unlikely as it may appear, for a defining result that could stand in legend alongside the 1-0 at Forest 34 years ago.