For all kinds of reasons, Francis Lee seems like the man to cast a historical perspective on this afternoon's FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and his beloved Manchester City.
He was in the team when City last won the Cup, in 1969. No City player has scored more goals than he did in Manchester derbies (including a hat-trick at Old Trafford in 1970, prompting suggestions from the Maine Road faithful that a statue might not be out of order). He was the chairman who signed the agreement with Manchester City Council that the club would move into the Commonwealth stadium, effectively fuelling City's propulsion into the financial stratosphere. Lee is also the chairman of the Former Players' Association, and speaks rapturously, as far as any blunt Lancastrian ever gets rapturous about anything, about the stewardship of the club under Sheikh Mansour.
"The owners are brilliant with all the old players," he told me this week. "They have been nothing but first-class, absolutely fantastic. If old players want tickets, or need help in some way, no problem. In the Peter Swales era, the former players were shunned. There was nothing in the stadium, no photographs or anything, to suggest that City had ever had a good team."
They had, of course. The team that won the championship in 1968 and the FA Cup the following year was very good indeed, though not so good that Lee wouldn't insert "four or five" players from the current squad if invited to play that irresistible game and form a composite XI. "Maybe the goalkeeper," he said. "And with apologies to Tommy Booth, probably Vincent Kompany. And De Jong is a terrific, old-fashioned midfield player, who reminds me of Dave Mackay. Dave was a tremendous tackler but boy, could he play. De Jong is the same. And Tevez and Silva would get into any side in any era."
That might mean dropping himself, but we didn't get into that; in fact, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to wane when it dawned on him that he might just offend some cherished old pals. As for today's match, he predicted a cagey first 45 minutes, and a 0-0 scoreline at half-time. "But we're certainly due to beat them," he said. With the wily, endlessly opportunistic Franny Lee of 42 years ago, City would stand a substantially better chance. He certainly never wanted for motivation in the FA Cup. "It was more an ambition to win the Cup than to win the League," he told me. "The greatest day of any football year was the first Saturday in May, the Cup final. That's changed now. But there's an obvious way to bring back the glory of the Cup, and that's by making the fourth Champions League place available to the winners." Well said. Although, ironically, nobody would stand to lose more from such a policy than City, should they go out of the Cup today.
An act too hard to follow even for the Special One
Today's FA Cup semi-final doesn't need any added dimensions to make it more intriguing, but here's a thought anyway: could it be that one of these two great clubs will have Jose Mourinho in charge next season?
If Manchester United go on to win the treble, Sir Alex Ferguson might just decide that there could be no greater flourish with which to stride into the sunset. But if Fergie stays, and if Manchester City fire Roberto Mancini in the summer, then some of those Abu Dhabi millions might be flung in the direction of the Bernabeu, in the form of an offer that Mourinho, and Real Madrid, can't refuse. That latter scenario seems to me the more likely. With the Special One having declared the Premier League his natural habitat, what challenge would appeal to him more than filling the trophy cabinet at Eastlands, which at the moment groans only with anticipation? He is the bookmakers' favourite to succeed Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea, but even if Roman Abramovich would have him, Mourinho is surely too shrewd to try to reheat a soufflé.
All that said, the prospect of succeeding his friend Ferguson, of becoming the first man to have managed the world's two biggest clubs, must be an enticing one. But the smartest cookies in football management know that following Fergie could amount to a chalice less of pinot noir than of prussic acid. "I wouldn't want to be next in, I'd want to be next but one or two," one of Fergie's protégés, now a fine manager in his own right, recently and unattributably told a small gathering of journalists. Even Mourinho might feel the same.
Some own goals deserve sympathy
A few days ago, in Manchester, I saw a new Lamborghini reverse into a concrete litter bin. I confess I smirked. It isn't the British way to feel sympathy for multimillionaires, especially when they are the authors of their own misfortunes. But which of us gave in to that impulse as poor – yes, poor – Rory McIlroy's public torment unfolded last Sunday? And, while it might place me in a rather smaller group, I also felt deeply sorry for Heurelho Gomes when he gifted Real Madrid their goal on Wednesday. I've met Gomes, he's a nice man, and I couldn't help thinking of his two young, football-mad sons watching their dad drop such a desperate clanger. Maybe I should toughen up.Reuse content