LONDON – When Jesse Lingard lashed in what turned out to be the winner with 10 minutes of extra time remaining, Louis van Gaal stumbled from the bench, fists pumping as he careened to the edge of the technical area where he enfolded his assistant Ryan Giggs in an awkward, slightly mechanical, embrace. He had said several weeks ago that he dreamed, growing up in the Netherlands, of winning the FA Cup and, not that Van Gaal is the sort of man to say such things as platitudes, here was proof of just what the occasion meant to him. But perhaps there was additional depth to his emotion given this was his final game as Manchester United manager.
After a saga that stretches back to December, Jose Mourinho will finally be appointed United manager next week. From the moment Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea at the beginning of December, he seemed the likely candidate to step in at Old Trafford as Van Gaal’s side faltered.
Agreement was reached in the 48 hours before the final – it’s not clear whether Van Gaal knew before kick-off – but kept secret as the club sought to give Mourinho the maximum possible time to assess his squad and possible additions to it before the new season without disrupting preparations for the game.
When United had equalized, Van Gaal had remained immobile on the bench, as has been his wont throughout his time at Manchester United, merely making a note in his notebook, the contrast to the odd self-congratulatory dance with which Alan Pardew had greeted Crystal Palace’s goal three minutes earlier telling. But in the end, the emotion told, understandably so given the possibility that this will be Van Gaal’s last-ever game as a coach.
He is 64, has spoken of wanting to spend more time with his wife Truus and it is far from certain he will seek further employment.
After all, however diminished the FA Cup now is, this is a fitting way to bow out – particularly given the winner came from a substitute who is one of the less experienced players Van Gaal has championed this season. Flawed as he is, the Dutchman’s desire to champion youth chimed with United’s traditions; you wonder how many of the youngsters Van Gaal has given a chance to this season will see action under Mourinho. That’s not the only question about whether he’s the right man for the job but desperate times – and a second failure to finish in the top four in three season is desperate by United’s standards – call for tough decisions.
Van Gaal has now won a trophy at every club he has managed and won the domestic cup competition in four different countries. He has ended United’s three-year run without silverware and its 12 years without an FA Cup, making it tied with Arsenal as the most successful sides in the competition.
As he went up to collect his medal, Van Gaal patted United’s chief executive Ed Woodward on the cheek twice. Their relationship seemed cordial enough. There seemed something pointed, though, about the way Van Gall brought the FA Cup – minus its lid, which fell into the lower tier of the stand as Rooney and Michael Carrick lifted it – into the post-match press-conference with him. By then, he seemed weary, his mood far from jubilant.
He spoke of pride in his side, and revealed he had posed for a photograph with Alex Ferguson to mark winning the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era, but there was also defiance, bridling at questions about his future.
The truth is that success in the FA Cup changed little. United’s football this season has rarely convinced and, pleasant as any silverware is, finishing fifth in the league and playing in a style widely dismissed as conservative does not fit United’s self-image.
The singer Karen Harding had offered an inadvertent metaphor for United’s season, missing her cue and so standing around looking bemused for the first half of the national anthem before belatedly joining in. The game itself had followed that familiar pattern. United had a little more than two thirds of the possession but struggled to make the most of it while looking vulnerable on the break.
In fairness, this wasn’t quite the sterility that has so often blighted United this season. Chances were created, although perhaps not as many as should have been. United just didn’t take them.
Wayne Hennessey made a fine low save from Juan Mata, Anthony Martial had a shot blocked by Joel Ward before halftime, and Marouane Fellaini and Martial both hit the woodwork in the second half.
But it was Palace that took the lead after 78 minutes, Puncheon taking down a deep Ward cross and finishing with a ferocious shot. Superb as the touch and finish were, though, United should have played him offside. Within three minutes there was a reaction. Wayne Rooney had had a strange game, occasionally looking as though he could dominate from the back of midfield but too often hitting long slow cross-field balls that gave Palace time to reset. On this occasion he embarked on a long slow cross-field run, taking the ball from the left flank to the right of the penalty area then chipping a cross to the back post where Fellaini chested it off for Mata to volley in an equalizer.
When Chris Smalling was sent off for collecting a second yellow card in the final minute of the first half of extra-time, the momentum seemed to have shifted back to Palace. Soon after Dwight Gayle had a one-on-one saved by De Gea. Within three minutes, his miss had been punished, Lingard running on to a dropping ball at the edge of the box and firing a superb shot into the top corner. The last act of Van Gaal’s reign was successful but too much of what had gone before was staid.
In the end, nothing perhaps quite summed up Van Gaal's reign at United as his leaving of it.