Jesse Lingard came off the bench to score a stunning extra-time volley and win the FA Cup for 10-man Manchester United and crush the hopes of a first ever major trophy for Crystal Palace. Down a man thanks to Chris Smalling receiving a second yellow card just five minutes earlier, a penalty shootout appeared the best United could hope for, especially when Palace substitute Dwight Gayle missed a glorious chance to win the final for the underdogs. But after a cross was cleared straight into his path on the edge of the box, Lingard, at the end of his first season as a fully-fledged member of the United first team, hit an instinctive, perfect volley past an unmoved Wayne Hennessey.
Agonizingly for Crystal Palace, the outcome was a repeat of their one previous FA Cup final, against the same opponents 26 years ago. On that occasion, Palace led in extra time before going on to lose a replay.
And Palace looked headed for victory again at Wembley on Saturday. Manager Alan Pardew had done a dance of delight when another substitute, Jason Puncheon, had appeared to score the winner for his Palace team 12 minutes form the end of normal time. But Pardew’s theatrical celebrations were to prove painfully premature. Juan Mata equalized just three minutes later, drilling a shot through the legs of Joel Ward on the line after a fine run from captain Wayne Rooney and trademark chest down by Marouane Fellaini.
And with 10 minutes of extra time remaining, Lingard etched his name in FA Cup folklore. His memorable goal gives Manchester United a 12th FA Cup win, equalling the record of Arsenal, and their first in the competition and their first since 2004. Rooney, the only man who has been at Old Trafford each one of those two years was the first to get his hands on the trophy.
It is also the first trophy heading for Old Trafford since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to keep the man who delivered it, Louis van Gaal, in a job.
Reports in Spain on the morning of the final claimed that the decision had already been made to end Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford a year earlier than his contract decreed, with Jose Mourinho set to be officially announced as his replacement after the final. Having failed to garner a place in the Champions League and fielded a side that had produced insipid football for the majority of the season, the Dutchman could have few complaints were that to be the case.
But the FA Cup triumph will certainly make it at least a little tougher for the United board to dispense with his services. And on the balance of play, it would be difficult to argue that his side did not deserve the trophy.
It was United that made the brighter start to the final, with Crystal Palace beginning cagily. Yet it was Palace that had the ball in the net 18 minutes in. Connor Wickham turned Smalling out on the left before being hauled down by the United center-back. Wickham fell to the turf, upon which referee Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle for a foul, meaning Wickham’s efforts to get off the floor, cut inside and put the ball in the net, beyond a goalkeeper who had already stopped it has to be said, counted for nothing.
The yellow card Smalling received for the foul was to have consequences later on. But before then, United’s best chances in the first half fell on the head of Fellaini. On both occasions, though, the Belgian, making his return to the side after suspension, failed to make clean contact.
At the other end, Palace began to pose a growing threat on the counter attack, and it required a fine defensive intervention from Rooney, again playing in a deeper midfield role, to stop former United winger Wilfried Zaha from getting a strike in on goal.
The quality may not have always been the highest and the tempo often not up to scratch, but there was plenty to keep the fans who created a superb atmosphere at Wembley entertained. After the interval, Manchester United were twice denied by the woodwork, first when Fellaini smashed a shot against the crossbar after being found by a fine flick from the impressive teenager Marcus Rashford, and then when Anthony Martial headed against the post.
United were left more frustrated still when they lost two players to injuries inflicted by their Palace counterparts. Marcos Rojo limped off following a poor challenge from Damien Delaney and Rashford soon followed after his knee was trodden on, quite possibly deliberately, by Yohan Cabaye.
With United hobbled, it was a substitution by Crystal Palace that briefly swung the final in their direction. Puncheon would have felt aggrieved not to start, but took out any frustration in the best way possible by drilling a rising shot past David de Gea at his near post.
The Palace players and fans went wild with delight, but no celebration was as expressive of that of Pardew. And it may be one he comes to regret for some time to come. Indeed, it may have even helped spur on the United response that followed. When replaced by Lingard at the end of regulation time, Mata, who ensured extra time with a wave of his left foot, could be seen referencing the dance to his teammates on the bench.
Whatever the actual effect, it was Manchester United players left dancing with the trophy to start what one of the world’s biggest clubs will hope is the start of a new trophy-laden era.