For an individual whose side are at Wembley, one step away from their first FA Cup final since 2007, Louis van Gaal was not exactly the life and soul.
“I'm not living in the past. I'm living in the present. I don't remember too much of my childhood. I'm still young enough to see my future," the Manchester United manager declared, when pressed on whether he might have specific memories of the competition he says he watched back in his formative years, growing up in the shadow of Amsterdam’s Ajax training ground.
The prospect of that future belonging at Old Trafford is highly questionable even if United do clear the obstacle of Everton and progress to a final which they win. Van Gaal knows that he may be remembered, at best, as the man who discovered a way for United to win silverware again but who mislaid a philosophy along the way.
The cost of the anaemic brand of football he has brought is revealed in new figures which show United paid out more than £10.02m in agent fees between October and February this season - the highest figure in the Premier League and vastly more than Everton’s £471,000. David de Gea’s contract negotiations contributed to the size of the figure, which is 21.5 per cent of the overall spend on agents by Premier League clubs from 1 October 2015 to 1 February 2016. All the more reason why Van Gaal wears the look of a man who does not want to be talking so much.
Rarely have a weekend’s semi-finals been contested between four managers on such a negative trajectory. Roberto Martinez finds himself wading through an even deeper swamp this week, after the embarrassing nature of defeat to Liverpool in midweek. At least he can escape the penury of Goodison Park, where this has been the worst season in the club’s 138-year history.
Meanwhile, Alan Pardew’s nine wins before Christmas have been followed by only one win in the Premier League since December 19. Even Quique Sanchez Flores faces pressure. Watford’s owners, the Pozzo family, are considering his future, having dispensed of six managers in four years and watched the euphoria of the autumn subside. It says something for his shared experience with Martinez that Van Gaal cited United’s positive responses to defeat this season to demonstrate that there may be something to fear in Everton at Wembley.
"In spite of them losing zero-4, we have showed already this season that we have lost against Arsenal and the next match we won,” he said in that grammatically convoluted way of his. "That's the same after Liverpool, that we lost 2-0 there and then we played West Ham in the quarter-finals and drew 1-1.”
It’s a shame that the spark has gone out of these pre-match occasions, because even when the pressure was beginning to tell, the spectacle and the talk were of high value. For a time, Van Gaal believed he had the supporters with him, despite everything. His expression of that fact gave us the wonderfully absurd spectacle, earlier this season, of him raising his arms and his voice to mimic what the Old Trafford supporters sing about him.
"The fans are shouting each week 'Louis van Gaal’s army, Louis van Gaal’s army,'" he chanted. That startling moment seems a very distant memory now that colourful indignation has been replaced by cold irritation. He left Thursday’s press conference grumbling about how he had not had the chance to talk about Everton, when he’d just declined a request to do so.
To be fair, the request for specific memories of FA Cup ties was unlikely to yield an answer because he is not good when it comes to such small details. Van Gaal recently discussed managing the Dutch national side at Wembley in 2001. The stadium was closed at that time. It was at White Hart Lane that the Netherlands won 2-0. He did warm slightly to the theme of the tournament’s significance. "In the Netherlands and Spain, the Cup is not so highly valued,” he said. “In Germany, they have a fixed stadium in Berlin and they make a big event of it. I like the way the Germans do it and I expect that here it is much bigger…” And he did display an new piece of English colloquialism, when he declared that Everton would not be “a piece of cake.”
But the overall tone was one of unappealing self-absorption. His insistence, for example, that he should take credit for displaying the “guts” to field young players this season came in response to a question about the contribution of reserve team manager Warren Joyce and former under-18 coach Paul McGuiness. Joyce’s team lifted the Premier League under-21 competition this week. It would have taken just a second’s thought for Van Gaal to have acknowledged the fact.
He agreed when it was put to him that winning a trophy could be a catalyst to greater things, in the way that Liverpool’s James Milner said it could be, last week. But Premier League campaign stalks him to such an extent that even the prospect of his first United silverware does not hold the lustre you might imagine. "I think it is always a success when you win a [trophy],” he said. “But for the club it is more important to qualify for the Champions League because we have to show ourselves at the highest level.” Thus was an occasion for romance and fervour reduced to something monochrome and mechanical. United’s season, encapsulated in a press conference.