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May 20, 2004

David, meet Goliath

It is fair to say that Millwall and Manchester United are not the most popular teams in English football.

But while the two clubs are seldom listed as fans' second favourite teams their meeting in Cardiff on Saturday, where they contest the 123rd FA Cup final, should provide enough history, intrigue and spectacle to elicit interest from even the most hardened of neutrals.

A little something for the stat fans: The two clubs have only met 13 times before in their history and, quite frankly, if you want to read into these things, it doesn't look good for Millwall.

Of those 13 meetings three have been draws, Millwall have won just once and United have chalked up wins in the remaining nine, including a 1-0 win in their only FA Cup encounter back in 1953.

If it's stats you like, then read on. Concerns over Roy Keane's fitness have abated as the week has progressed and it is now all but certain that the 32-year-old will start the match and become the first player since the Second World War to play in six finals.

More stats? Ok. Millwall player-manager Dennis Wise, another star midfield turn who has had injury concerns this week, is in line to make history as the first player to win the FA Cup with three different clubs, after previous triumphs with Chelsea in 1997 and 2000 and with Wimbledon in 1988.

And one more for good measure: In Millwall's 109-year existence they have never reached the FA Cup final, despite three appearances in the semis.

If that sort of historical significance isn't enough for you (and if it isn't check your football pulse) how about the excitement of the final being contested by a Premiership team and a First Division club, David and Goliath stuff!

They should even be lining up against each other in red and blue strips, surely the quintessential FA Cup final colours!

If you haven't already twigged I'm up for the final, I'm a fan of neither team but am looking forward to this game more than any FA Cup final I can recall.

There is a risk that I am guilty of having built the game up disproportionately. But given Manchester United's desperate need to finish the season with some silverware and Millwall's desire not only cause an upset, but also to make history, the match has the potential represent the FA Cup final in all its glory.

Strange then that an event so tarnished by Manchester United could enjoy one its finest hours with the same club involved.

Back in 2000, when United were at the very zenith of their powers, fresh from the triumph of the treble and valued at over £1billion, they dealt the FA Cup, the oldest football competition in the world, a devastating hammer blow by deciding not to defend the trophy as reigning champions.

Whether United were right to pull out of the FA Cup is a moot point, they should never have been used as pawn in the three-way political chess match between the Football Association, FIFA and the then football-friendly government.

But used they were, and in order to curry favour for England's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to land the 2006 World Cup United were coerced into competing in FIFA's inaugural World Club Championship and therefore found themselves unable to compete in the FA Cup.

Traditionalists gasped, purists gulped, the FA shuddered and TV executives reached for the gin. It was bad time all round.

It is only over the past two years that the FA Cup has managed to regain its former grandeur and it is a pleasure to get swept along by the pomp and ceremony of it all again.

A competition is only as important as the significance given to it by the players and clubs involved.

Perhaps this year is an anomaly. Perhaps if United were gearing up for next week's Champions League final a 90 minute battle with Millwall would be of less significance.

Instead the match is of great importance, particularly for United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

Millwall boss: Wise old head?
Millwall boss: Wise old head?

For Ferguson things have come full circle since 1990. Then he was under pressure, he had joined the club in November 1986 and had yet to land a piece of silverware, there had been disappointing results and many were calling for his head.

But United's FA Cup win over Crystal Palace in a replay at Wembley that year proved to be a catalyst for his success as a United manager, and he has never looked back.

By United's own extraordinarily high standards this season has been disaster. Third in the Premiership (having lost nine games), defeat at the second round stage of the Champions League and a raft of new players largely failing to perform does not a good season make for the Red Devils.

Add to that takeover rumours and unseemly horseplay causing a stir at home and abroad, which made the front, back and middle pages and it has been a tough year all round at Old Trafford.

The pressure is not as intense as it was back in 1990 for Ferguson - the sort of success he has given United tends to buy a little time - but United could certainly do with a fillip and this is their last chance this season.

For a club of Millwall's size, reaching the final is the stuff of schoolboy daydreams and, as a result, pressure for the Lions will be not to let the magnitude of their achievement or the spectacle of FA Cup final day overwhelm them.

Regardless of the result they have a place in next season's UEFA Cup to look forward to.

The challenge for Millwall must be to alter the perception the football community has of the club.

The transformation will begin in Cardiff when they take a bow on one of football's biggest stages, but it must continue next season as the Lions sample European competition for the first time.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.