Victor Torp’s torment: the greatest ever FA Cup moment that wasn’t

Estimated read time 5 min read

Afterwards, and in perhaps their first act of restraint all afternoon, Manchester United had the judgment and basic dignity not to celebrate too vigorously. Rasmus Højlund offered a few fist pumps after his winning penalty and Antony cupped an arrogant ear towards the Coventry fans, but for the most part United’s players headed for their beaten opponents in the centre circle, clasped hands and slapped shoulders, consoled and commiserated. Respectful of the gulf between them, these two footballing worlds collided, briefly dissolving into each other, and eventually going their separate ways.

How unevenly football’s joy is parcelled out. The United end was empty within seconds of the final kick, their fans already heading back to the tube station in anticipation of a fifth trip to Wembley in the space of 15 months. For Coventry’s fans, meanwhile, the memories of this game, and this day, and this comeback, will sustain them for decades. Fans who are now young will grow old still remembering those 90 seconds of unimaginable bliss at the end of extra time, those golden moments after Victor Torp’s winning goal hit the net and before it had been ruled out for offside. No wonder their end of the stadium was still packed 15 minutes after full time, trying to eke out every last moment, gulp in every last breath. Who knows when they will feel this way again?

Perhaps the most poignant sight of all was the weeping dads with their weeping children: middle‑aged men in classic Peugeot and Talbot shirts, their offspring in the newer King of Shaves model, all bonding in their torment, a common well of disappointment from which every new generation of Sky Blues must eventually take a drink. Grief is the price you pay for love. Crushed hope is the price you pay for having the audacity to nurture hope in the first place. This is the beauty of the FA Cup: it means nothing, right up until the point when it suddenly means everything.

And for all United’s dysfunction it was Coventry who made this semi-final, Coventry who turned this game into an occasion, Coventry who actually had more possession and more shots than United in the second hour. Mark Robins led Erik ten Hag a merry dance, shifting from a back five to a back four at half-time, shifting the tempo of the game with his substitutions.

How easy it would have been for this club to crave a little stability after everything they have been through: relegations and promotions, displacement and disgrace, malign owners and the threat of extinction. Instead Robins knows that the only coping mechanism in a sport in constant flux is to be that flux: remaining flexible and elusive, always striving for new edges and new angles.

Coventry fans celebrate their third goal, which took the semi-final into extra timeView image in fullscreen

And the madness of the modern United is that they are quite happy for you to do this. Your perfect game plan is also theirs. Coaches often talk about opponents being “horrible to play against”. Their individual quality notwithstanding, is there a lovelier, more encouraging team to play against than United? The spaces are plentiful, the challenges mid-strength, there’s always a defensive howler or collective head loss in them. This is a mood ring of a team and you rarely have to wait long for the colours to change.

So Scott McTominay poached an opening goal. Harry Maguire rose imperiously to make it 2-0, head blotting out the sky like a vengeful moon. Bruno Fernandes scored a scruffy third. But already the plates were beginning to shift. Kobbie Mainoo had quietly shut down Callum O’Hare all game, forcing Coventry to go long, but he was withdrawn on 72 minutes and replaced with the more passive Christian Eriksen. Ellis Simms reduced the deficit to 3-1 before O’Hare popped up on the edge of the area with a big deflected shot. Finally, in injury time, a slightly fortunate handball penalty and no mistake from Haji Wright.

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It was remarkable, unfathomable, beyond belief or the limits of reason, and yet somehow and by the same token entirely foreseeable. Extra time passed in a blur of red blood cells: Simms smashing the bar from close range, the incredible Milan van Ewijk still barrelling up the right-wing with 120 minutes of football in his legs, the heroic Bobby Thomas basically unable to stand up and yet somehow doing it anyway. And finally the greatest ever FA Cup moment that wasn’t: Torp’s winning goal, a goal that everyone will remember despite not technically existing.

Perhaps the most egregious thing about modern football’s era of grotesque inequality is the way it has perverted the very meaning of winning and losing, of sadness and happiness. United win feeling rotten and empty; Coventry lose feeling like champions. Ten Hag lives to fight another day and Coventry do not. And still, despite everything, you would probably choose 90 seconds of pure joy over none at all.


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