Man United enjoy EFL Cup triumph, their first major trophy under Mourinho
LONDON -- Almost two hours after the final whistle, Manchester United's players waited around the team coach beneath Wembley's vast stands. The club secretary had already walked back to the bus, clutching plastic bags containing the players' EFL Cup trophies for safekeeping. Some players have never won medals again after such celebrations at Wembley.
Nearby, former manager Sir Alex Ferguson and scoring star Sir Bobby Charlton smiled, as did United vice chairman Ed Woodward, who made his way out of the stadium on crutches. Families and agents, who'd flown to England's capital for the weekend, were close by, with well-dressed partners smiling -- not just because United's players have a couple of days off as a reward for winning manager Jose Mourinho's first major trophy for United.
Mourinho, meanwhile, talked into his mobile phone, much as he did when he won Chelsea's first league title in 50 years at Bolton in 2005. He doesn't do convention.
Aside from the forthcoming international week, United could be playing two games a week until the end of May. It could stretch to three in order to fit in the two league games that need to be rescheduled against Manchester City and Southampton. Both teams, who were beaten by United in the EFL Cup, have reason to be vengeful. Southampton fans felt aggrieved after their team played so well in the EFL Cup final, but revenge was served cold 41 years after an offside Bobby Stokes goal won them the 1976 FA Cup final against United.
Southampton haven't won a major trophy since, and an EFL Cup win on Sunday would have meant more to them than it does to United fans, who see their club win trophies most years. But football isn't always fair, and as one of Southampton's players sighed when he told a journalist in the mixed zone: "They [United] know how to win."
The mark of great United sides has been a never-say-die attitude, the feeling that every player should continue until Ferguson had stopped arguing with the referee about time added on, but that dissipated under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. This sensation is back under Mourinho, and United keep finding a way to win, even in games where they scarcely deserve it.
Mourinho may not be the most popular man ever to set foot inside the Carrington training ground, but his players like him and he's brought a unity that was evident as the team celebrated the trophy win: even those who didn't get anywhere near the wet Wembley pitch and those who know they're likely to leave. The fans like Mourinho a lot, too, which isn't a bad position for any football manager.
Trophies breed confidence, but feet will be kept on the ground. Indeed, one young United player was advised that he should put his club tie on, while other players were whisked to planes or other modes of transport. Time is more precious to them than money.
As a midfielder was kept behind to do a routine drug test, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was still speaking to the many media who wanted to hear his always-captivating thoughts. He is United's most cocksure player since Eric Cantona described himself as a lion and revelled in his own self-assured arrogance. Ibrahimovic's intentions were obvious when he picked up the ball to take a 19th-minute free kick. No other United player had a chance of getting the ball that he slammed in; nor did Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster when United's No. 9 headed in the winner. Sixty seconds before the winner, Ibrahimovic had headed a Southampton corner away. He's far more than a goal scorer.
In an adjacent room, Mourinho urged United fans to go to the Swede's house and make sure he signed to stay at Old Trafford for next season. The last two times fans have turned up at players' houses in numbers? First, it was to remonstrate with Rio Ferdinand after he missed a drug test that led to an eight-month ban on full pay and then played hardball over a new contract. Ferdinand came down to speak to the fans. Wayne Rooney was not home when fans turned up outside his gates after he was linked with a move to Manchester City. He decided to stay at Old Trafford, and fans hope the Swede -- whose shirt sales dwarf the next-most-popular player, Paul Pogba -- will stay.
Six miles to the southeast of Wembley, Euston station remained packed with United fans boarding the trains (all of which had standing room only) for the two-hour journey back north to Manchester.
Euston station. Now. pic.twitter.com/P3PCMDgQFl— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) February 26, 2017
The large hall in front of Euston's departures screen -- trains were leaving every 20 minutes -- was filled with song. "Woke up this morning feeling fine," they sang. "I've got United on my mind, Jose's playing the way that United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I'm into something good." The song went on and on to the bemusement of any non-football fans present.
United fans have provided Virgin rail with much business in the last year: It was the fourth trip to Wembley in 10 months, and there could be two more before the end of the season if United reach the FA Cup final. With match programmes at £10 and Wembley's food long having a reputation among fans for being expensive, it's not a cheap day out. Nor is this season, with Sunday's game the 43rd competitive match so far -- and we're still in February. Chelsea have played 32.
Outside Euston, a man clutched a bottle in the rain as he staggered, tired and emotional, down Euston Road away from the station.
"The pride of all Europe, the cock of the north," he sang. With Southampton fans filling a different London terminus to the south, the mood around Euston would have been very different had Liverpool overcome the Saints in the semifinal, but fortune favoured United in London, much to Southampton's chagrin.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.