WEMBLEY STADIUM — There was a 20-second period, shortly after the hour mark, that epitomised the 2023 EFL Cup final. Allan Saint-Maximin controlled a crossfield pass with one extension of those Inspector Gadget legs and set about making another full-back look foolish.
One half of Wembley, black and white and a long way from home, let their constant murmur increase into a roar. At which point Saint-Maximin kept hold of the ball for a little too long, smashed a pass into a Manchester United knee and red shirts smothered out the danger as if stamping on a campfire’s embers.
For long periods of the final, Newcastle were in exactly this mode: flashes of promise as they quick-passed their way out of trouble, played it through midfield or down the channels to Saint-Maximin or Callum Wilson. And then, just when it needed someone to do exactly what most Newcastle players did between August and December, it all fell down.
They even had the better chances, at least before the desperation stages: Dan Burn’s header that left him confused how he wasn’t seeing 30,000 joyous faces in front of him; Saint-Maximin’s shot that was expertly batted up and away by David de Gea’s left hand; the frequent blocked shots and rushed shots and snatched shots that the most clinical opponents will take.
That is the Newcastle that we are quickly learning to expect. The industry, the neat passing and the crossing into the box all remain, but the goals have dried up. In their last seven league matches, Eddie Howe’s team have had 97 shots and scored three goals. To maintain a top-four pursuit, to beat Manchester United in a final, you need better.
This is a final and in finals only the result is king. We will talk not of fortune or fate, only the forces of resolve that Manchester United displayed in soaking up the pressure and the efficiency they demonstrated in winning a final without ever getting close to their free-flowing best. They scored via a set piece – and dire marking – and an own goal. And then they killed the game and killed any chance of further intrigue.
That is a quality in itself, of course, and it is one that Erik ten Hag has surprised us with. We understood that his team would look to press without the ball and be watchable with it, but there is a streetwise, prickly, sometimes nasty element to this team that has been much missed by its fans. If it makes them unlikable to their opponents and rivals at home and abroad, it’s a thousand times better than sympathy or patronising.
The personification of the spirit is one of Ten Hag’s own. Lisandro Martinez is a warrior and a gremlin. He will kick you in the shins, claim that you started and then give you a wink and a cuddle when it’s all over. He is the type of footballer that fans fall head over heels in love with and he responds in kind. Put Casemiro in front of him and you have the axis around which everything else is built. Rashford may score the goals, but it’s the defensive foundations on which grand palaces are built.
Football supporters are experts at not letting the result spoil the rest of the day; in Newcastle’s case it extends to the full weekend. They arrived in the nation’s capital like a mass migration of zebras. Some, the lucky or most loyal thousands, were armed with tickets. Others came armed with hope of finding one. The rest just came for the experience. “Tell me ma I won’t be home for tea,” they sang. “I’m going to Wem-ber-ley”.
They were hopeful, of course; they wouldn’t be here otherwise. But that was not the fuel for the journey, the intangible force that led them through and to Kings Cross station and spilled them into the pubs and bars for miles around. They had waited nearly 25 years for a visit to Wembley, when it was two towers and faded stone. They sang their songs during stoppage time as the game ticked out of reach. Now to get back to crossing their fingers that their league season isn’t drifting away.
Ten Hag is now at least a season ahead of schedule. Winning the EFL Cup is not proof of a Manchester United in rude health, although their longest trophy drought in over 40 years is now over. But this is not about trophies and this is not even about winning matches, really.
There is a spirit to United, an air that they will not countenance defeat without a fight anymore. It is demonstrated best in Casemiro and Martinez, two players who – to use the Eric Cantona analogy – walked in with collars up, backs straight, chests stuck out as if they owned the f**king place.