In 1990, when Manchester United played Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Final, the competition carried more prestige than it does now, especially for United. This isn't to say the Reds aren't determined to beat Palace this Saturday - they are - but 26 years ago the final was an annual event in the life of the nation. At three o'clock on Cup Final Saturday, millions of people sat down to watch, regardless of which teams were playing.
The 1990 final was my initiation into this ritual. I was nine, thrilled that United had made it to Wembley and especially pleased they were wearing the white away strip with red trim, which I owned, and which made me look, I thought, like a can of diet Coke. As for Crystal Palace, I had no idea where that was but it sounded magical.
The match was a thriller. Gary O'Reilly put Palace 1-0 up before Bryan Robson headed an equaliser. In the second-half, Mark Hughes made it 2-1 to United. Then Ian Wright came off the bench to score twice. Then Hughes struck his second, meaning it ended 3-3 after extra-time. For all the excellent finishing, however, the finals of 1990 were, for me, all about United's goalkeepers.
The commentator John Motson said during the 3-3 that United had endured "a season of torment and tribulation." Their goalkeeper Jim Leighton's poor form epitomised their struggles and his performance in the final was once of his worst, as he demonstrated why United fans called him "Dracula" by failing to deal with crosses which lead to two Palace goals.
In spite of jittery Jim's errors in the 3-3, I was still shocked four days later when I switched on the TV to watch the replay and he was gone. In his place, stood a tall dark stranger whose name, I learned, was Les Sealey. He was 32, on loan from Luton Town and had made only two previous appearances for United. Picking him was, for under-pressure Alex Ferguson, a huge call.
There were many key moments in the genesis of Ferguson's success but his decision to drop Leighton for Sealey was the first time that United fans truly witnessed their manager's ruthlessness. It paid off, Sealey becalmed his back four and pulled off smart saves, including a fine block with his legs from Andy Gray's free-kick.
On the hour, with the score still 0-0, United left-back Lee Martin stole into Palace's box, chested down Neil Webb's pass and lashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of Nigel Martyn's net. United, who were back in their red, white and black home strip for the replay, held on to win the first trophy of Ferguson's reign. Sealey, more than Martin in my view, was the hero of that 1-0 victory but he gave his winners' medal to Leighton. What a gent.
In 1990, United stood on the precipice of change and so did the rest of English football. More than a quarter-of-a-century later, at the end of another "season of torment and tribulation", the hope is that, regardless of whether it's enough to save Louis van Gaal's job, winning their first FA Cup for 12 years might herald another new dawn for United. I'll take 1.865/6 on them winning and, as Palace failed to beat David de Gea in both league fixtures this term, I reckon that, like Sealey, the Spaniard can keep a clean sheet. United to win 2-0.
Sealey made 55 full appearances for United, including the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup Final which the Reds won 2-1 against Barcelona. He left the club the following season but returned for a second spell in 1993. Sadly, Sealey died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 43. Whatever the result on Saturday, I hope fans will chant the name of the hero of 1990.
Back Manchester United at 1.865/6
Back 0-2 at 7.87/1