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Feb 26, 2009

In a League Cup Final of their own

The League Cup, to give it its intended title, before we associated with it milk, forgotten TV/hi-fi stores, pools companies, fizzy drinks, mass-produced ales and indeed, mass produced lagers, nears a half-century of competition. The brainchild of Alan Hardaker, then Football League secretary, it was set up as a midweek tournament in 1960 to fill newly floodlit stadia. It took a while to take on with the biggest clubs.

Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, then as now, two of the biggest names in the English game, took some time to take the tournament seriously. The 1960s saw it the preserve of lesser lights, with Rotherham United and Rochdale featuring in early finals and Third Division QPR winning the first one-legged final in 1967.

It was not until 1971, a decade into the trophy's lifetime that one of this season's finalists reached the final of England's by-now third-most prestigious competition. Often known as the "People's Final", on account of more fans being able to get tickets, as opposed to the multitude of dignitaries who deny the rank and file their place at Wembley for the FA Cup Final, Spurs and United have contested ten between them since that year. Sunday, though, will be their first meeting in a major final. Here's a potted guide to their appearances in the various guises of League Cup Finals.

1971: Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Aston Villa: Spurs were still footballing aristocracy in 1971. They had been one of the powers of the previous decade and were still managed by Bill Nicholson, the architect of their 1961 double. That team had been phased out but Nicholson could now call on stars like Alan Mullery, Pat Jennings, Alan Gilzean, Martin Peters and Martin Chivers. It was the last of those, striker Chivers, who was the difference between Spurs and Third Division Villa, whose brave effort was ended by two deadly and late strikes by the England striker with the deportment of a Roman noble.

1973: Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Norwich City:

This was the era of the "Glory Game", a fly-on-the-wall written portrait painted of Tottenham in the 1971/72 season by Hunter Davies. That had concluded with the club lifting the inaugural UEFA Cup and the next year saw them back at Wembley for yet another final; Nicholson's seventh. "Billy Nick" continued an unbeaten record in major finals with a hard-fought win over the Canaries, who were enjoying their first ever top-flight season. The hero this time was substitute Ralph Coates, notorious for a comb-over that dwarfed Bobby Charlton's in denial terms, who seized on a Martin Peters flick to drive home past a despairing Kevin Keelan.

1982: Liverpool 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur (aet):

Fast forward nearly a decade and Spurs had exited the turbulence that followed Nicholson's retirement in 1974. Relegation had followed in 1977 but rebirth had been achieved under Keith Burkinshaw, with the FA Cup being lifted in 1981. In Glenn Hoddle, the club had perhaps its most gifted player ever and were able to boast two World Cup winners in Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa.

Steve Perryman, the sole survivor of 1971 and 1973, was now club captain and has nominated this as his favourite season at Spurs. Though that must be as a result of another, successive FA Cup win later in the season. Steve Archibald looked to have won the cup for the Lillywhites before European champions Liverpool staged their archetypal comeback with a Ronnie Whelan equaliser. The Irishman again pounced in the second half of injury time and Ian Rush, the predator supreme, compounded the agony for an exhausted Tottenham.

1983: Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United (aet): United had suffered a chequered history in the League Cup, by 1983 known by the dairy-flogging moniker of the Milk Cup. Their best previous showing had been as a losing semi-finalist in 1970, 1971 and 1975; but a two-legged win over Arsenal took them to Wembley to meet Liverpool, by then in danger of monopolising the trophy having won it the previous two seasons (they would win it in 1984 too).

United suffered a markedly similar fate to Spurs the previous year when an early goal from Norman Whiteside, then just 18 and who promptly became Wembley's youngest ever scorer, was cancelled out in the dying embers. Goalkeeper Gary Bailey's fumble let in Alan Kennedy's drive and in extra-time, with United having to reshuffle after a Kevin Moran injury, they succumbed to Whelan, who scored an unstoppable bending shot to take the cup up the other end of the M62.

1991: Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 Manchester United:

United's manager in 1983 had been tandoori-tanned touchline raconteur Ron Atkinson. Twin FA Cup success had not done enough to compensate for a lack of a credible challenge for the league and, via an abortive spell at Atletico Madrid, he found himself at Sheffield Wednesday. His opponent in the Wembley dug-out was none other than Alex Ferguson, his immediate successor, who had saved himself from a similar fate by winning the FA Cup in 1990. With United all but qualified for the European Cup Winners' Cup Final and Wednesday then a Second Division club, this had a definite look of a foregone conclusion.

Yet Atkinson, not for the last time, enjoyed sweet revenge over his former employers. Manchester United fan and one-time Stretford End-er John Sheridan hit an unerring shot past Les Sealey and United failed to pierce a defence that looked unduly obdurate for an Atkinson side. Meanwhile, Wednesday fans watching on TV back in Yorkshire failed to see the celebrations of their first trophy in over 60 years as their local station chose to cut to a programme titled "War of the Monster Trucks".

1992: Manchester United 1-0 Nottingham Forest:

After two decades of misfires, United were beginning to get into the swing of challenging for honours. Though this, their first League Cup, will forever be overshadowed by the imminent collapse of their first credible pursuit of a league title in a generation. In Nottingham Forest and Brian Clough they faced four-times winners who had long enjoyed putting one over them. Ferguson adjusted his tactic accordingly, placing Mike Phelan in a man-marking role on Nigel Clough and United were able to dominate affairs.

The winner came by virtue of a mazy dribble from a stripling Ryan Giggs, then in his first season as a first-teamer, which set up Brian "Choccy" McClair. United had won the trophy for the first time but would have swapped it for an Easter Monday defeat to the same opponents which disastrously derailed their challenge for an elusive title.

1994: Aston Villa 3-1 Manchester United: By 1994, the ides of Easter 1992 had been forgotten at Old Trafford and United were back on top of the English game. The inaugural Premier League champions were all set to defend their title and going well in the FA Cup too. An unprecedented domestic treble was on. Yet who should lie in wait for them but "Big Ron" once more. United had pipped his Villa team in the league the previous season and so revenge was once again on the Atkinson agenda.

Namesake Dalian opened the scoring for Ron's team as United, who had been suffering a recent blip, continued their poor form and were unable to live with Villa. Dean Saunders looked to have settled things before United's own Wembley warrior in Mark Hughes set up a rousing finish. Yet United could not stage one of their famous comebacks and all was lost when Andrei Kanchelskis clearly handled on the line. The former Soviet midfielder protested his innocence while Saunders completed a double dish of sweet revenge for his bejewelled boss.

1999: Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Leicester City:

Many Spurs fans consider this their most hollow of victories. That's mostly down to the identity of the manager who led them to success. George Graham had, until a bung blocked his path to future Highbury heights, been the man who made Arsenal north London's primary force. When majority shareholder Alan Sugar said: "You're hired" to the dapper Scot, Spurs fans quickly gave him the cold shoulder.

David Ginola, meanwhile, a man who famously said he was "worth it" was following in the traditions of White Hart Lane's great entertainers. Though this was no game for such a flashing blade. It is best remembered for Foxes firebrand Robbie Savage's amateur dramatics making Justin Edinburgh the last man to be sent off at the old Wembley. Lesser remembered Dane, Allan Nielsen, headed a timely Spurs winner that saved all from the drudgery of extra time. A sheepish looking Graham collected the trophy while Spurs fans sang songs about him that simply referred to him as a man in an overcoat, with no name mentioned.

2002: Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur: New owners at Spurs meant that Graham was swiftly shown the door. Glenn Hoddle was in his rightful place as "King of White Hart Lane" and the "glory game" was looked back, back, back after a 5-0 semi-final demolition of Chelsea.

Yet this trophy's regular thirst for revenge was slaked in the shape of Blackburn and Andy Cole. Spurs had once rejected Rovers boss Graeme Souness as a youngster but his ire held nothing like an "Andrew" Cole scorned. Hoddle had been dismissive of Cole's talents as England manager and his own centre-forward was Teddy Sheringham, who Cole had refused to speak to when they played together at Manchester United after a perceived slight during England duty and a row over a goal scored by Bolton at Old Trafford.

Goals from Jansen and Ziege cancelled each other out before Cole delivered the felling blow to the hopes of Hoddle and Cole's erstwhile former strike partner. Final word however goes to Mark Hughes who, playing his last final as a player and, playing in an unfamiliar midfield position, put in a lung-bursting shift of such grit and determination that Spurs' passing game died on the Cardiff turf.

2003: Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United:

Twenty years on from Wembley '83, these two avowed enemies met in Cardiff, where English finals were staged while the white elephant of Wembley was outrunning estimated costs faster than Usain Bolt. United had enjoyed a mixed relationship with this tournament in the intervening years since their last final, often accused of not taking it seriously enough while getting to blood the fabled "Class of 92".

This year though, they had placed greater importance on it, having seen off holders Rovers in the semi. Yet in Cardiff they came up against a Liverpool team who rather liked life in the Welsh capital, having won this trophy in 2001 along with the FA Cup as part of their own treble. They had also beaten United 2-0 in a Charity Shield at the same stadium in 2001 and this time repeated that same scoreline. A well-hit Steven Gerrard shot deflected off David Beckham's boot and, with a Veron-vintage United vainly pushing for an equaliser, Michael Owen broke away to settle matters and north-west bragging rights.

2006: Manchester United 4-0 Wigan Athletic: United's last league title had come in the year of their last final appearance and, in the face of the ascendancy enjoyed by the nouveau riche of Chelsea, were now also-rans in the Premier League too. Liverpool had also ended their FA Cup participation meaning this, their final trip to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, assumed genuine importance.

By contrast, Wigan, enjoying their first season in the Premier League, were in their first major final. The occasion proved too great for them as United brushed them aside with ease. Wayne Rooney celebrated his first winners medal with a brace while fellow scorer Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed himself too much and was promptly told off by Ryan Giggs for a session of excessive showboating that demeaned the clearly crestfallen Latics players.

Louis Saha scored the other with a tap-in while Ruud Van Nistelrooy, omitted and angry on the sidelines, began the brooding that effected his eventual Old Trafford departure. Least of all in United fans' minds was the barely registered fact that this was the Glazers' first trophy as leveraged lieges of the Theatre of Dreams. While Uncle Malc stayed away, his three sons joined in the dressing-room celebrations and previously cavorting players suddenly went all coy and bashful.

2008: Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Chelsea: One year on, this is a game that indicates how quickly things change in the modern game. Now back at Wembley, this final saw Juande Ramos (remember him? lead out his team alongside that of Avram Grant (who he?).

Holders Chelsea were hoping to win silverware for the fourth successive season yet something special was missing; Jose Mourinho, who had led the Blues to this title twice before. Grant began his unhappy knack of being a perennial runner-up as Spurs, well-drilled by an imported coach with plenty of experience of success in cup competitions, defeated them to follow a glorious demolition of Arsenal in the semi-final.

Spurs had enjoyed the better of the play before Didier Drogba scored his customary Wembley goal. Yet two decades of hurt against their crosstown rivals were ended when Dimitar Berbatov converted from the spot after a Wayne Bridge handball. Extra-time arrived and, somewhat fortuitously, Jonathan Woodgate, just arrived from Middlesbrough, found his face in the right place to deflect a Petr Cech punch into a billowing net. Spurs had competed well with one of the big four and a new era was surely upon them...

Sunday awaits both teams' class of 2009.

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