So much for ‘Alan Hardaker’s ginger stepson’, as I used to dub the unloved League Cup. Unloved by United, anyway. After yesterday’s gripping final, could we finally be said to be warming to this weird tri-handled pot?
It’s taken us more than three decades of final appearances, but we’ve finally reached the stage where we’ve won more than we’ve lost - five to four - for starters. After losing the 2003 final to a team whose name escapes me, we had been looking glumly at a record of one win in five; it wasn’t quite a curse, but it always felt like our ‘unlucky’ competition.
Times change, and there’s no doubt as to where almost all the luck lay yesterday. True, there was a possible Saints red card we could have furiously moaned about had we lost. But otherwise, it was Southampton’s turn to feel justifiably a little hard done by. So summoning up the spirit of 1976, when the boot was firmly on the other (offside) foot, all one can say to them is this: hardy-harr-harr, and a nurr-nurr-nurr. (Well, I was only nine at the time.) Most of the grovelling gratitude goes to Zlatan, of course, and it’s hard to think of another United player who came anywhere near to doing himself justice. Watching Saints balls repeatedly and alarmingly flash across the United goal made one wonder how this team could possibly have racked up such good defensive statistics these past few months.
(Incidentally, I am told José took a shine to one of St Etienne’s fullbacks during the Europa ties, who will duly be receiving the attentions of United scouts in the days to come. Probably not the best news Luke Shaw will receive this week, although he should be used to unwelcome tidings by now.)
One doubts anyone will have cause to remember any of those hairy moments in weeks to come, though. All that will stick in the memory will be yet another great last-gasp goon, and the overall glow of yet another surprisingly engrossing and thrilling Final successfully negotiated, just nine months after similarly beating Palace in the FA Cup.
Unused (and unwanted?) substitute Wayne Rooney did get to enjoya Moment of sorts when it came time to lift the trophy - but will that be the last time we’ll see him do that in red? He had wrongfooted many pundits in the run-up to the final by declaring he wouldn’t be immediately jumping on the fast boat to China after all - a decision I had foreshadowed last week (“I just can’t see Colleen welcoming a Shanghai surprise”).
Intriguingly, ex-player whisperers suggest that United’s suits definitely didn’t want him to quit just now in any event, despite Mourinho perhaps leaving the contrary impression. A carefully calibrated summer operation suits everyone involved, and Rooney’s statement should at least remove the sting from this issue for the rest of the season. Mourinho has certainly handled him brilliantly, as even the Joséphobe Reds have conceded.
More south coast opposition for us next in the shape of Bournemouth, who arrive at Old Trafford on Saturday. Post-Cup Final matches are notorious for slumbering drop-offs in performance but, given the way United sleep-walked through chunks of yesterday, one suspects José will be forcefully pointing out that any further snuggling into the metaphorical duvet won’t be tolerated.
It has been an ongoing complaint of many Reds this season that the side is worryingly prone to taking the foot off the pedal and generally arrogantly coasting, which is certainly not something one historically expected from Mourinho sides. It’s just one more aspect where that dread phrase continues to apply. All together now: ‘work in progress’...
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