Erik ten Hag’s strange day at Wembley: an FA Cup trophy, no socks and no sacking… for now Fitnessnacks

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    The sun was shining as Erik ten Hag walked into the bowels of Wembley Stadium just before 1.30pm on Saturday, but he could not escape the cloud of uncertainty that followed him as questions over his future dominated the build-up to yesterday’s FA Cup final.

    Several hours later, the Manchester United manager walked out of the stadium an FA Cup winner, his United side having beaten and outsmarted the imperious Manchester City, 2-1.

    This final was billed as his final hurrah, in a Paul Smith-designed club suit, before INEOS, United’s new co-owners who had been speaking to his potential replacements all week, sacked him at the end of his second season.

    But on a remarkable day in north-west London — where City, the newly-crowned four-in-a-row Premier League champions, failed to lay a glove on United until the game’s final 10 minutes — Ten Hag ensured he was the one having the last laugh.

    The look of love 🤩#EmiratesFACup

    — Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) May 25, 2024

    For all the scrutiny he has faced in recent weeks, which has involved answering questions on whether he thinks he will be fired, this was his day, and it was fitting that Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, two academy graduates he has helped bring through to become first-team regulars this season, were the United names on the scoresheet.

    If this is to be Ten Hag’s final match, then surely the sight of Mainoo and Garnacho lifting the FA Cup in front of the Royal Box will be his legacy, because they are undeniably the future of this team.


    — Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 25, 2024

    Ten Hag’s day started with the publication of an interview he conducted with Dutch magazine Voetbal International on Friday, May 17, in which he spoke at length about United’s difficult 2023-24 season, but the key point within it was him saying that INEOS “want to change everything but want to build with me”.

    Despite those comments, INEOS had been speaking to several managers in the build-up to the final and Ten Hag was unable to avoid the spotlight, especially as a report was published on the eve of the game that said United had decided to sack him and that a win wouldn’t change their mind.

    United left their team hotel, the Marriott in the Maida Vale district of north-west London, a short drive south of the stadium, and arrived at Wembley at around 1.25pm, with Ten Hag looking confident and relaxed, highlighted by the 54-year-old Dutchman engaging with the group of young mascots on his way to the dressing room.

    (Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

    As kick-off moved closer, Ten Hag completed his obligatory pre-match interviews and, when asked about his future, made clear that he was not thinking about that, saying his “focus” was on the match.

    Ten Hag had to make a late change to his matchday squad as Casemiro, who, United say, arrived at Wembley with a slight muscle issue, felt tightness in the dressing room and was unable to play.

    This came no more than 24 hours after The Athletic revealed he had been dropped to the bench for the FA Cup final.

    Ten Hag replaced the Brazilian with defender Willy Kambwala, saying Casemiro “is not 100 per cent” and that they need a “strong defence” in the “space around Phil Foden”.

    The former Ajax manager did not emerge again until leading United out of the tunnel in the moments before kick-off, greeting Prince William, as the future King of England shook hands with both sets of players.

    (Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

    He took a momentary seat in the dugout, but was quick to his feet once the whistle to begin play had been blown. He stood there on the touchline, hands in pockets, almost motionless for the first 20 minutes, the spring sun beating down on him — and his ankles, which he had on display between the bottoms of his trousers and his Karl Lagerfeld trainers.

    There was a stroke of the chin as Garnacho tested City goalkeeper Stefan Ortega early on and a swig of water as he tried to cool down in the heat. His first sign of frustration came when he approached the fourth official after City were awarded a free kick.

    Following that frenetic start, he took a seat for the first time since kick-off. And then as Garnacho latched onto a rare defensive error by City to open the scoring on the half-hour, there was the first sign of real emotion; Ten Hag, unable to hide his delight, clenched his fists, smiling, and punched the air. 

    His game plan of catching City on the break was working, and he knew it. Ten Hag was at his most confident when Mainoo doubled the lead nine minutes later. Again, he launched his arms into the air to celebrate.

    There was another sip of water to calm the excitement before quickly engaging with his players, instructing them to keep going.

    And as referee Andy Madley blew the whistle for half-time, it was Ten Hag who showed a bit of pace; immediately turning and jogging down the tunnel to ensure he was in the dressing room ready for his team to enter.

    The second half will have made for uncomfortable viewing for Ten Hag, with City dominating possession and threatening to score. But still, he stood there, switching from hands in pockets to arms crossed, motionless. Occasionally, he would take a few steps to the side to follow the ball’s direction up and down the pitch.

    (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

    Even when Erling Haaland’s shot ricocheted off the crossbar 10 minutes into the half, there was no reaction. He wasn’t even watching when Julian Alvarez came agonisingly close to beating Andre Onana just past the hour.

    But as Jeremy Doku wheeled away to celebrate a goal with three minutes of the 90 to play, Ten Hag dipped his head, expecting City to start an onslaught on Onana’s net… but it didn’t come.

    Seven long minutes passed in stoppage time, and before he knew it Ten Hag, who had taken a few steps onto the pitch, was being lifted into the air by jubilant United centre-back Lisandro Martinez.

    (Visionhaus/Getty Images)

    He had just guided United to an FA Cup final win and a player he was so desperate to bring with him from Ajax two years ago was the first to celebrate with him. Ten Hag, whether it was relief or pure joy, looked a combination of delighted and exhausted. 

    A weight had been lifted, and as he went to shake hands with Pep Guardiola, the City manager, the magnitude of what he had just achieved was beginning to settle in.

    There was a warm moment with long-term injury absentee Luke Shaw, who embraced Ten Hag and spent a couple of minutes in his company, and multiple hugs from other players — including from goalscorers Mainoo and Garnacho at the same time.

    (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

    And as United were about to make their way up to the Royal Box to receive the trophy, Ten Hag’s face was shown on the stadium’s big screens. Do United fans still want him to be their manager? The huge ovation he received suggested they just might.

    Ten Hag shook the hands of City executives, received his winner’s medal and then continued along the walkway where he was greeted by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the man ultimately deciding his fate, and Avram Glazer, whose family are still the club’s majority owners.

    The FA Cup was first hoisted into the air by United captain Bruno Fernandes before, player by player, it eventually got to Ten Hag at the end of the line.

    The @ManUtd players all wanted Erik ten Hag to have his moment with the trophy 🏆❤️#EmiratesFACup

    — Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) May 25, 2024

    Martinez, who had been the first player to congratulate him, peered forward, smiled and watched the United manager lift the FA Cup, his second United trophy after the Carabao Cup final win over Newcastle United last season. But it was fellow defender Jonny Evans who instructed Ten Hag to bask in his moment, with midfielder Scott McTominay equally enthusiastic.

    With the trophy celebrations completed, Ten Hag returned to reality.

    And while Ratcliffe was refusing to answer questions about his future, the manager himself faced the same line of questioning from the media post-match. He once again brushed off questions about his future, saying he has not been informed that he will be sacked and that he plans on being at Old Trafford again next season.

    The club will conduct a thorough post-season review, evaluating the performance and future of the 54-year-old. There will be a full assessment before a final decision on whether to keep him or make a change.

    When asked by the BBC if this was his last game at United, Ten Hag replied: “I don’t know. But the only thing I’m doing is preparing my team, developing my team, progressing my team and individual players, because this is a project for me.

    “When I came in (at the start of last season), I can say it was a mess. We are now better. But we are, by far, not where we want to be.

    “Football is about winning trophies. I want to play the best football, I want to play dynamic football, attacking football. But in the end, you have to win games and win trophies. That’s the mentality we brought in. We had only one opportunity (for a trophy this season): the FA Cup. I’m very proud of the players and the staff, because they did an incredible job.”

    When Ten Hag later walked into the written press conference, there was no trophy in tow as there was after United won the Carabao Cup at Wembley 15 months ago.

    He entered stone-faced, knowing what he was about to be asked. For a manager under intense scrutiny, he showed dignity and took it in his stride. But even if he wanted to talk about the significance of an FA Cup final win, he couldn’t.

    Amid all the questions about his future, Ten Hag ended his day at Wembley with a message for the club’s ownership.

    “I am in a project and we are exactly where we want to be — we are on our way to constructing a team for the future,” he said. “Two trophies in two years is not bad. Three finals in two years is not bad. We have to keep going. 

    “I’m not satisfied with it, we have to do better, and if they don’t want me anymore then I go anywhere else to win trophies, because that is what I did my whole career.”

    (Top photo: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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