Manchester United’s 12-year wait to win the FA Cup is over after Louis van Gaal’s men came from behind to secure a dramatic and exhilarating extra-time victory over Crystal Palace.
Jason Puncheon opened the scoring late in the second half, but the Reds mustered a display of fighting spirit and drew level three minutes later through Juan Mata. After Chris Smalling was sent off in extra time, Academy graduate Jesse Lingard hit a stunning winner that will be remembered for years to come.
Although it has been a disappointing season in the Barclays Premier League, after finishing fifth and missing out on Champions League qualification, success in the FA Cup has provided genuine cause for celebration among everybody associated with United. Particularly for the fans, who have craved this trophy in the dozen years since the club’s last success in 2004 when Millwall were beaten in Cardiff.
United and Palace famously met in the 1990 FA Cup final and the two managers from that time, Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Coppell, carried the trophy onto the pitch ahead of what was eventually a delayed kick-off at Wembley. That was due to a lavish and eclectic pre-match ceremony in which Tinie Tempah performed alongside a full brass band and choir, with members of the British military around them, while a huge firework display sent clouds of smoke billowing around the stadium.
Many pundits had predicted United would dominate the possession with Palace being happy to sit back, and that was exactly how the match began as the Reds controlled the opening exchanges, forging shots at target through Marcus Rashford, the recalled Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney.
Palace also displayed their counter-attacking threat when Connor Wickham thought he had scored on 18 minutes, after rounding Chris Smalling and Daley Blind to finish past David De Gea. However, the Eagles frontman was visibly angry upon his realisation that referee Mark Clattenburg had already whistled for a foul on the edge of the penalty area, in what was a moment of fortune for United.
Juan Mata forced a good save from Wayne Hennessey and Fellaini went close with another deflected header as the first half settled into an even contest. Rashford, so effective in the semi-final, also bamboozled Pape Souare with a series of brilliant stepovers to find Anthony Martial at the back post, but the Frenchman was thwarted when his drilled effort was brilliantly cleared off the line by Joel Ward.
The deadlock was almost broken on 53 minutes, when Fellaini wriggled past his marker to cannon a powerful shot off the post, as the Belgian continued to justify his recall following a three-match ban. That near-miss prompted gasps of frustration from United’s fans behind the goal and they rued their luck again seconds later, when Martial struck the other post with a well-timed header.
Saturday’s final became increasingly physical as the clock passed the hour mark and Marcos Rojo was first to pay the price, after the left-back suffered an injury from a collision with Damien Delaney. The Argentinian was replaced by Matteo Darmian and he was quickly joined on the bench by Rashford, who was forced off after Johan Cabaye’s studs landed awkwardly on the inside of the striker’s knee.
Disaster struck on 78 minutes as Palace took a shock lead when substitute Puncheon latched onto Delaney’s punt to produce a back-post finish past De Gea. The goal ironically bore some resemblance to Lee Martin’s winner in the 1990 replay, but it wasn’t as important as United thankfully drew level just three minutes later. The talismanic Rooney provided the inspiration, surging through the area to plant the ball on Fellaini’s chest ahead of Mata striking low through the legs of Ward.
Extra time was required and, after a brief team talk on the pitch, Rooney continued his cross-country performance by executing a superb sliding challenge to deny Wilfried Zaha in defence before quickly reappearing at the other end to curl a 25-yard effort wide. Yannick Bolasie also went close with a long-range effort and it was the Congolese forward who was later brought down by Smalling, which earned the centre-back his second yellow card and an unwanted red card.
Palace ramped up the pressure in the second half of extra time, going close through Dwight Gayle, but it was United who found a breakthrough from the right boot of substitute Jesse Lingard as the Academy graduate thumped a bouncing ball into the top corner. It was a goal that clinched the FA Cup and secured the 23-year-old’s place in Reds history, wrapping up a mesmerising and enthralling final at Wembley.