SO, it was Man United against lower league opposition in the Cup, and it was a six-goal winning margin to boot but, really, it was the mud what done it.
As the bespattered red shirts gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer some shelter from the storm by thrashing Tranmere Rovers last weekend, it was the more-muck-than-grass pitch, hemmed in by a crammed-to-bursting point Prenton Park, which almost made it seem as if the last 50 years had never happened.
Squint just a little and it might have been the County Ground in Northampton in 1970, on that famous occasion when United beat the Cobblers 8-2 and, back from one of his periodic trips to the sin bin, George Best had a ploughed field day, scoring a then record-breaking six goals of which the coup de grace became iconic, as an almost nonchalant shrug of one shoulder was enough to put ‘keeper Kim Book on his backside and allow the great man to pretty much walk the ball into the net.
“It’s been a joke on the circuit ever since,” Book would later recall. “You know, I’m on one side of the street, George Best is on the other. He nods to me and I dive under a bus.”
Of course, it didn’t take much to snap out of the reverie last Saturday — even with his spectacular shooting boots on, nobody is ever going to mistake Harry Maguire for Georgie Best — but, for a brief while at least, you could almost kid yourself into thinking that this match, in all its gory glory, meant as much to the big guns as it did to the minnows.
You don’t have to be old to love the Cups — but it helps. To channel Ted instructing Dougal, it also helps if you are small or faraway.
Small as in somewhere well down the leagues, or far away as in much higher up the totem pole but still nowhere near those lucrative Champions League spots.
Hence, those pitch invasions which briefly bridged the gulf between Villa Park and New Meadow, as Aston Villa snatched a late, late winner against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup semi-final and Shrewsbury Town came from two goals down against Liverpool to set-up an FA Cup replay at Anfield this coming Tuesday.
For Villa, the significance of a victory which puts them through to a Wembley final was evident not just in the wild celebrations on the pitch and in the stands but in the way in which the normally reserved Dean Smith lost the run of himself on the touchline.
You don’t hear much about the magic of the cup anymore, still less about the magic of the League Cup, but there was no mistaking how much this shot at glory meant to a club for whom survival is the height of their ambition.
Now, instead of the rest of the season being a slog, they get to meet Man City in a final on the grand stage, hardly a matter of life or death for Pep’s people, perhaps, but a gift from the gods for the likes of Jack Grealish — and all those of us who still love watching him play football even as we continue to mourn the loss of his extravagant talent to the green cause.
The back from the dead heroics of League 1 Shrewsbury against the champions of Europe and Premier League champions-elect — or, at least, a version of same — ostensibly fitted neatly into the grand tradition of FA Cup fairytale. “It’s what football is about, it’s what the FA Cup is about, a club like ours holding them to a 2-2 draw,” said the manager Sam Ricketts.
“Everyone has to enjoy that.”
Well, everyone apart from Jurgen Klopp, of course, who promptly announced that, in protest against having to play a game during what passes for the winter-break, neither he nor any of his senior players will be gracing Anfield when the Shrews come calling for a replay on Tuesday.
Instead, Liverpool’s U23 manager Neil Critchley will take charge of a youthful side, as he did for the League Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa in December when the seniors were away on Club World Cup duty in Qatar.
You might recall that Villa benefited from their opponents’ dual strategy to the extent of romping to a 5-0 win in that one, which is perhaps worth bearing in mind when you hear Dean Smith — citing fixture overload and player welfare — saying he can “empathise” with Klopp on his decision to sit out next Tuesday’s sequel.
Certainly, the Liverpool manager has been keen to present this as a principled stand, albeit a slow-burning one.
“It’s necessary that these boys, these ‘all-time’ players who constantly play, get their time off,” he said.
“We are a football team and we are a group together. We are all or nobody. We had to make the decision and we made it.
“Of course, we thought we would win (the first game), but we didn’t and although it was not in the beginning it is now a principle thing.”
Which, though he might not have intended this interpretation, is really only another way of pointing out that, far from the mean old Football Association imposing a replay on Liverpool, Liverpool imposed one on themselves, the unhappy consequence of an approach which, while sufficiently adequate to see off Everton, was not enough to land the killer blow on the Shrews, even when the small guy was on the ropes.
It’s probably inevitable that cup replays and maybe even the League Cup itself will soon be consigned to the scrap heap, as the zero-tolerance, members-only policy of the world’s most powerful clubs extends its zone of influence.
In the meantime, we have this shaming of the Shrew.
All the more reason, then, to cherish the minnows’ cup exploits while we can.
Should they manage to get past the Liverpool kids at Anfield on Tuesday, the achievement might not qualify as ‘giant-killing’ in the traditional sense but at least it will give us one more little reason to cheer the cup that used to cheer so much.