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Cup's lustre dwindling as Ferguson's misfiring reserves stumble past Crawley

Romance died on the crossbar, if not before. That was the difference between Manchester United progressing to the quarter-finals and another episode of the FA Cup rom-com that was Crawley Town.

But let us not get carried away with the idea that the visit of non-League Crawley to the Premier League leaders somehow reprised an ancient FA Cup tradition.

Alex Ferguson suggested that the Crawley experience had been a lesson for some of his players in what the FA Cup is all about. Tut, tut, Alex. If a lesson were needed, perhaps it was you who required the reminder, not the team.

Ferguson had an excuse, though a lame one, when United chose not to defend the trophy 11 years ago, citing some vague notion about supporting the FA's bid to host the 2006 World Cup by contesting the Club World Championship.

Here he showed what he really thought of the old pot and the opposition by fielding a fringe XI that would have stretched credulity in the early rounds of the Carling Cup.

In professional terms Ferguson was vindicated. It is not his fault that the oldest knockout competition of them all has lost much of its lustre. This was a gift for Ferguson with the fixture schedule he has coming up; four away days on the spin, starting in Marseille on Wednesday and including trips to Chelsea and Liverpool.

So out for a Saturday gallop went the likes of Bebe, Gabriel Obertan, Anders Lindegaard and Darron Gibson under the captaincy of Wes Brown. Michael Carrick and Rafael started, Wayne Rooney appeared at half-time and Darren Fletcher had 20 minutes at the end at full-back. This, ultimately, was Ferguson's judgment on Crawley.

That he had his tail pulled in the second half was a consolation of sorts for the neutrals and a moral victory for the visitors.

It is a pity that United could not afford to give Crawley the respect they deserved by sending out a full-strength team. Then it would have been a proper fifth-round tie, one to tell the grandchildren about.

There will be a story told by some firesides down the line, but not in United households. The likes of Sergio Torres, heroic captain Pablo Mills, Matt Tubbs, Dannie Bulman, Dean Howell, et al, all of whom ran their hearts out, deserved better than United's second string.

It reflects our desire to hang on to the historic meaning of the FA Cup that we talked up the achievement of Crawley on Saturday night. But even had Richard Brodie's header dipped beneath the United bar to take the tie to a replay, it would not have compared with, for example, the achievement 39 years ago of Hereford, who took Newcastle back to Edgar Street to write a chapter in gold leaf.

Ronnie Radford's equaliser is still played out in the memories of millions whenever a non-League club are pitched against a member of football's elite; the mud, the drive, the brushing aside of John Tudor, the one-two, and then the 25-yarder screaming into the Newcastle net.

It was not only the technical quality of the strike that elevated Radford's goal into the all-time FA Cup list, but that he had to get past Malcolm 'Supermac' Macdonald and the Toon all-stars to score it.

The colour at Edgar Street was provided by both sides. Here, only one team was properly engaged. The fixture had meaning for the Blue Square Premier's big hitters and for 9,000 supporters who followed them up the motorway.

Afterwards the Crawley flock told MUTV how their team had played the English league leaders off the park in the second half. Apart from the 15 minutes before half-time following Brown's headed goal, Crawley were at least the equal of United and for most of the second half the better team.

There was the obligatory bottle of wine between Fergie and his opposite number and Glaswegian compatriot, Steve Evans, and probably much mutual admiration.

The two now go their separate ways, Fergie to Marseille in the Champions League, Evans back to Crawley for the visit tomorrow of Southport in the Blue Square Premier. Ferguson will not have cause to reflect on much beyond, perhaps, what to do with Bebe and Obertan, both of whom appeared to have found their level in this match.

Elite football is as much to do with mental attributes, attitude and character. Bebe, the fans forums tell us, looks a reserve-team player. Obertan may have been a youthful phenomenon at Bordeaux but neither would have looked out of place in a Crawley shirt on Saturday. Now, there is an idea, Fergie. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent