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Ten Hag must hope to invoke the spirit of 1990 with FA Cup victory over Liverpool | Manchester United

A.do you remember when the FA Cup could save a manager? Remember specifically 1990, where it was assumed that after eight league matches without a win, Alex Ferguson would be sacked by Manchester United if they exited the FA Cup in the third round against Nottingham Forest, and how, with a performance relentless. , they won with a goal from Mark Robins in the second half?

This goal is a key moment in Ferguson's United legend. After three unconvincing years, he had paid £7.5 million for five signings the previous summer and faced protests from fans as George Best and Emlyn Hughes called for his head. That season they lost 5-1 to Manchester City, when such things were virtually unthinkable. During a few home games, attendance fell below 35,000. It was the winter ofThree years of apologies and it's still shit. It's 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 did not face any other top team before the final, nor did they play at home. They have not won a match by more than a goal. The 3-2 fifth round victory at Newcastle was a minor classic. In the semi-final against Oldham and the final against Crystal Palace, they had to play again after dramatic 3-3 draws.

It was exciting, it was difficult and at any moment it could have gone wrong for United and Ferguson. What if Jim Leighton hadn't made that save at Hereford when everyone had stopped after a whistle from the crowd? What if Nick Henry's shot in the semi-final replay, which hit the bar and bounced very close 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 newly signed three-year contract, even with Bobby Charlton's backing on the board, Ferguson could easily have been sacked as United faced a trophyless fourth season. But Ferguson survived. won the Cup Winners' Cup the following year and by the end of the decade he had won a treble, two doubles and two more Premier League titles.

Erik ten Hag must be aware that he is unlikely to be given the same time as Ferguson. It is now highly unlikely that a manager of an elite club will enjoy such time, even if the drought since the last league title now stretches to more than a decade. This ten witch won the Carabao Cup last season has almost been forgotten; it certainly didn't leave him with much credit to make up for the league's poor 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 partying on the Wembley pitch after United beat Crystal Palace in the final when news broke that he was about to be replaced by José Mourinho. In its diminished modern form, the Cup has become a competition that cannot save a career but can destroy one. Even Michael Beale found out at Sunderland this season: what appeared to be a free kick against a vulnerable Newcastle actually caused critical damage to his reputation due to the hesitation and shyness with which Sunderland played.

Mark Robins of Manchester United after a semi-final victory over Oldham in 1990. His goal in the third round against Nottingham Forest was a key moment. Photography: Dan Smith/Getty

And that, perhaps paradoxically, should give Ten Hag some hope.

Individual moments, individual games can hold immense meaning. It would be difficult to argue that the United Cup in 1990 was testament to a great team in waiting. United's glory, even in the winter of 89-90, was not a 1-0 victory at Edgar Street. But the drama and sense of challenge, perhaps quixotic, invigorated the fans and made them believe in the team. Winning the FA Cup this season, in itself, probably wouldn't be enough to convince Jim Ratcliffe's advisers to keep Ten Hag, but an impressive performance and result against Liverpool could.

The problem is that, in a recent form, such a performance is difficult to imagine. United are perhaps the only team to have stopped Liverpool from scoring this season, but in the 0-0 draw at Anfield, they allowed 34 shots. Even taking into account how Liverpool lost their discipline in this match, throwing shots from all distances, this is not sustainable as a defensive strategy. But these days, United are still allowing the opposition plenty of opportunities: they have faced 198 shots in their last 10 games. Given that this includes fixtures with Newport, Luton, Forest and Everton, this is a significant cause for concern.

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Liverpool, we will remember, put seven o'clock United at Anfield last season with just 18 shots. This game seemed like an exception at the time, with the scoreline inflated by a bizarre second half, but looking back it seems pretty typical of Ten Hag's United. They rarely control matches and tend to miss chances, which they sometimes get away with due to the offensive quality of some of their individuals. But that means they are susceptible to the occasional drubbing, a flaw amplified by the way a number of their players seem to struggle when the match goes against them.

United have lost just two of their last 11 games, but they have rarely convinced during that time. Fifth-placed Tottenham lead them by six points with a game in hand. The sympathy is due to Ten Hag because of United's long injury list and, like all United managers over the past decade, he has been hampered by baffling recruitment decisions, although he bears responsibility for at least some of them. But there have been few signs of development this season since his first year in charge, little sense that the future could be positive.

But perhaps that's what the FA Cup is now for: in a high-profile match against a major rival, the opportunity exists, however unlikely it may seem, for a decisive result that could go down in legend in the sides of the 1-0 at Forest 34. years ago.

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