Roger Alton

The perils of going to Manchester United

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Plodding up Wembley Way to the FA Cup Final at the weekend surrounded by a phalanx of well-refreshed Manchester United fans was not a savoury experience, but the game was something else. What was clear was how good United were, full of bite and high-throttle energy, ready to go for broke against the best team in the world, and playing in a way that hasn’t been seen all season. So Manchester City couldn’t pull off their ‘double-double’ – the League title and the Cup in two successive years. For the first time, United played for their manager, Erik ten Hag, and Pep Guardiola couldn’t do anything about it. On this occasion, the Dutchman showed superior tactical nous to outwit him.

You couldn’t blame Thomas Frank for coveting the United job but you do hope it doesn’t end in tears

Whether it’s enough to save his job is another matter. Jim Ratcliffe has been noticeably mute when offered the chance to support Ten Hag, so the decision to remove him has probably been made. Ratcliffe could get this very wrong, as Ineos’s sporting record, from cycling to sailing, is far from perfect. Who do the top branch want? And what sort of football do they want the team to play? Who will have to tackle the knotty dilemma of whether to accept a job offer at Old Trafford? Will it be Kieran McKenna (Ipswich), Thomas Frank (Brentford) or even England’s Gareth Southgate? There’s a big risk of ending up falling from a very great height, very quickly, possibly bringing your career to a brutal full stop.

McKenna has reportedly signed a contract keeping him at Ipswich, though I wouldn’t bank on his newly promoted club much enjoying life in the Premier League next season. You couldn’t blame Frank (who has the rare ability, as a middle-aged man, to pull off the V-neck sweater with nothing underneath look) for coveting the United job, of course. But you do hope it doesn’t end in tears.

Meanwhile, English rugby fans should be praying that manager Steve Borthwick finds it in himself to challenge the ruling about selecting players based overseas. The monumental flanker Jack Willis was jaw-droppingly fearsome in Toulouse’s epic victory over Leinster in the Champions Cup final in Dublin. It was one of the greatest games of rugby I have seen. Not a try was scored until extra time but the game could not have been more tense. And Willis, who joined the French aristocrats of the sport when Wasps collapsed, put in an extraordinary performance in defence. He was nearly as brilliant as Antoine Dupont, who was man of the match and is the best player in the world. What a loss that Willis won’t be able to tour with England to New Zealand this summer. Who wouldn’t want to see him take on the All Blacks?

Blink and you may have missed it, but British middle-distance running gets ever more dazzling. Scotland’s Josh Kerr took nearly a second off Steve Cram’s 39-year-old mile record in Oregon last weekend, beating his arch-rival Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Outside the Olympics, athletics is treated like some distasteful affliction, but these are exceptional times for the sport, every bit as inspiring as the golden age of Coe, Ovett and Cram himself. We have an eye-watering galaxy of talent to make the Olympic middle distance races quite unmissable, with Kerr poised to become a star of the Paris Games.

And if you’re searching for more excellence, look no further than Nelly Korda, a pre-eminent golfer about to tee off on the most important few days of her life at the Women’s US Open in Philadelphia. She is brilliant, beautiful, charming and has the best swing in the game (male players included). She has won six of her last seven tournaments and unless you are the partner or parent of one of her rivals, you can’t fail to be a fan.