While in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era it is becoming increasingly normal for Manchester United not to win silverware, it remains a curious fact that the record 20-time champions of England have not lifted the FA Cup in 12 years. Indeed, since they last claimed the trophy in 2004, all of their major rivals—Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City—have tasted victory in the world’s oldest cup competition.
The surprise really hits home when thinking of the career of Wayne Rooney. Despite being England’s record goal scorer and approaching 12 years of his career in the league's most successful club, the 30-year-old has yet to add an FA Cup winners’ medal to a collection that includes five Premier Leagues, two League Cups, one Champions League and one Club World Cup.
On Saturday at Wembley Stadium, Rooney will hope to make it third-time lucky, having lost out in the final to Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea in 2007. Remarkably, only one of Rooney’s teammates has been on the winning end in a final—Juan Mata, with Chelsea in 2012.
It means there is significant motivation for all involved to beat Crystal Palace, even beyond the well-trodden narrative that only lifting the FA Cup can salvage something from what would otherwise be a disastrous season.
The FA Cup has unquestionably declined in importance in recent years, and no player would even dare pretend that winning it would mean as much to them as landing the Premier League or Champions League. It would also not make up for the disappointment of not qualifying for the Champions League. Yet to this club and these players it has particular relevance. After all, a win would bring Manchester United back level with Arsenal for the most FA Cup triumphs, with 12.
To get a hint of what victory would mean, one only has to look at the reaction to Anthony Martial scoring an injury-time winner in the semifinal against Everton. No Manchester United goal this season has been celebrated more enthusiastically. Although for those who control club finances, a top-four place means a whole lot more, for players, the thrill of winning a final is hard to match.
Winning a first trophy since Ferguson departed three years ago would mean plenty. And for several of Louis van Gaal’s squad it could even be a last chance to land silverware in a Manchester United shirt.
Michael Carrick, who played alongside Rooney in the 2007 final defeat, will turn 35 in July, by which time his current contract will be expired, with no word yet on a fresh one being offered. As with several of his teammates, Carrick’s future could depend on who the manager is at Old Trafford next season, a factor that could yet rest on the result against Crystal Palace.
It is Mata who will surely most fear the impact of Van Gaal’s departure, given that Jose Mourinho is the heavy favorite to replace the Dutchman. Mourinho, of course, swiftly sent Mata packing to Old Trafford upon returning to Chelsea in 2013, despite the Spaniard having been voted the club’s player of the year for the past two seasons.
One would also have to think that Memphis Depay’s future would be under threat, given that he is just the sort of young, inconsistent player that Mourinho doesn’t exactly have a history of nurturing.
On the other side, it has been reported that David de Gea, who almost left for Real Madrid last summer, will once again push for an exit if Van Gaal remains in charge. With Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini also linked with moves away, for many, Saturday’s final could represent both the first and the last opportunity to get their hands on the FA Cup in a Manchester United shirt.