Villa Park brings out the best in United

 

Aston Villa, their ambitions faltering in the Premiership, could do with a Cup run to keep their spirits up but they will have to break the extraordinary spell cast over Villa Park by Manchester United in the FA Cup for the past 75 years. United have made 10 visits, including semi-finals, without losing once. Their last Cup defeat at Villa Park was in 1927 when Reading won 2-1 in the third round after draws at Elm Park and Old Trafford had taken the tie to a neutral venue.

From time to time something comes over United in Birmingham B6 in the FA Cup and it is more likely to involve Ryan Giggs darting and swerving through Arsenal's defence to score the winner in the 1999 semi-final than Roy Keane getting a red card for stamping on Gareth Southgate, then with Crystal Palace, four years earlier.

Tomorrow will be the first time they have played Villa there at this stage since 1948, when United won 6-4 in a match with strong claims to be the greatest ever FA Cup tie.

Matt Busby's first great United side set a standard of attacking excellence. In Jimmy Delaney, Johnny Morris, Jack Rowley, Stan Pearson and Charlie Mitten, United had a forward line which combined verve with versatility, teamwork with individuality.

As the London Times' Geoffrey Green recalled: "They thought as one man and moved as one at top speed. Here was the sort of football one dreams about . . ."

Villa were a fair-to-middling first division side with an attack led by Trevor Ford and solid all-round ability in Sailor Brown, Dicky Dorsett and George Edwards. A crowd of 65,000 watched Villa take the lead in 13.5 seconds without United touching the ball, but by half-time United were 5-1 up.

The second half, however, all but stood the tie on its head. The pitch became a bog, United were bombarded from the air and by the 81st minute the score was 5-4. Pearson's late goal ensured victory for Busby's players but on that day no one deserved to be a loser.

Green remembered Johnny Carey, Manchester United's captain and still the most exemplary leader on the field Old Trafford has seen, responding to Villa's opening goal with a "wide courageous Irish smile". "If ever there was a tonic, that was it," he wrote. "If ever there was the touch of captaincy, that was it."

Older United fans may still seethe at the memory of Peter McParland's reckless assault which broke Ray Wood's jaw in the 1957 final when Villa denied Busby's babes the first Double of the 20th century with a 2-0 victory, McParland putting both goals past the stand-in goalkeeper Jackie Blanchflower.

Happily this kind of challenge is less likely to be repeated tomorrow than a Cup tie which may at least pay part-homage to its most illustrious predecessor. Another 10-goal thriller would be too much to expect. Five would do.

 - Guardian Service