Goalkeeper David De Gea scooped United’s player of the season award and the players’ player gong but it was van Gaal who hogged the spotlight with an address that included claims that his side was “very close” to Chelsea this season and “could have been the champions”.
In a rare show of humility, the Dutchman did admit his confidence had been rocked by United’s uncertain start to the season.
“When you start a season with 10 matches and 13 points and you are a manager of that club, the most world famous club, and you play at home and I am also a human being and I have the experience with other clubs.
“When you have that result you are not very beloved by your fans and I came in the stadium of Old Trafford, 10 matches, 13 points, and I saw by myself how I have to behave myself and then the public are applauding, standing up and I thought how is it possible that the fans are supporting me?”
Van Gaal credited that supporter backing as well as team spirit for United’s climb to the Champions League places.
“Thanks to that we could continue. Not only me, my staff but especially the players. It’s very difficult and with all the injuries of the first part of the season and then we continue with a spirit in the team, unbelievable, and that’s the credit of this team, the spirit. We come from I thought in my memory 13th place to third position in the league.”
Becoming increasingly euphoric, van Gaal also recalled a team gathering in which Wayne Rooney reset the club’s targets for the campaign. “I remember the meeting with the players with the captain Wayne Rooney who’s saying ‘we go for the second position in the league.” Punching the air and rousing the attendance in Old Trafford’s Manchester Suite, van Gaal roared: “I said yes. We go for it!”
Rather than recall the FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Arsenal as one of the season’s lows, van Gaal cited it as another turning point.
“You remember the game against Arsenal. We were the better team and the best player on the pitch in my opinion makes an error and we lose that game and I forget the meeting. And then you have to remember that we win six games in a row.”
Then he came to the 1-0 reverse at Stamford Bridge, which stalled the side’s growing momentum. Indulging in another spot of cheerleading, he implored the crowd. “Who are the better team then?”
He went on: “We lost that game but can you imagine when you have 80% ball possession you have 10 big possibilities and they have three, they have three, and they win the game?”
That spot of reverie sparked a little creative mathematics that is likely to be wryly received in west London.
“When we win that game, count the numbers of points we could have won because after that we lost three games in a row. But when you see that we have 13 points and Chelsea have 83 points and we could have been champions.
“What I want to say to you, we are very close.” Clearly in exuberant form all night, in an event that was screened live on MUTV, van Gaal was seen slapping Ryan Giggs on the back of the head and soon demanded centre stage again. “Hello, hello, pay attention to the manager!”
Once he had his audience in thrall once more, van Gaal appealed to “the best fans in the world” to give “big applause” to “a lady who plays the saxophone”.
But there was no competing with the best trumpet blower in the house.
Meanwhile, despite United missing out on his second-place target, Wayne Rooney insists the club has achieved its primary goal for the season.
“The main aim was to get back into the Champions League,” Rooney told the club’s website. “It was very important because one year [out of the competition] was far too much for this club. So that was our main objective, to bring Champions League football back, and we’ve done that.
“Now we want to go and win the last game of the season and then next season we really want to push for silverware. We’re establishing a very good squad who I believe can go on and win silverware next year.”
Rooney believes United’s slow start was a symptom of adapting to Van Gaal’s ’tough’ regime, but said the benefits were clear by the end of the season.
“The manager has come in and been excellent,” he said. “It’s a different way of working to what we’re used to and I think the players have embraced that. In the first few months it was different, we found it tough, I think that probably showed in our performances.
“But since then I think everyone has seen the quality of football that we’ve been playing and I’m sure with the experience the manager has got we’ll all kick on, we’ll learn a lot and it will benefit us.”