Only three teams have won more League Cups than Manchester United's four, but it took the red half of Manchester a while to get the hang of the thing. The competition began in 1960, but Rotherham United, Rochdale, Swindon Town and even Manchester City all made it to the final before United, in 1983, finally decided to grace the showpiece fixture with their presence.
It didn't go particularly well. Liverpool had won the previous two finals, and though United led for most of the game thanks to Norman Whiteside, a late equaliser from Alan Kennedy and an extra-time winner from Ronnie Whelan were enough to secure the hat-trick for the other lot. Ron Atkinson's United had to console themselves with the FA Cup later in the season.
United wouldn't return for 8 years, in which time the competition had changed sponsors twice and United had changed manager. Alex Ferguson's reign was finally picking up momentum thanks to victory in the 1990 FA Cup, but come the 1991 League Cup final he was foiled by the man he had replaced. Atkinson's Sheffield Wednesday took the trophy with a 1-0 win. Again, consolation arrived later in the season, this time in the form of the Cup-Winners' Cup.
It didn't take United quite as long to get back again. Ferguson's men began the 1991-92 competition in relatively smooth fashion: after a bye in the first round they saw off Cambridge United and Portsmouth, both of Division Two, and then Division One Oldham Athletic.
It wasn't until the fifth round that things got a little weird. At the whim of ITV, the away half of the draw was conducted by a little-known American businessman called Donald Trump. He handed United an away trip to Leeds, then slipped back into obscurity and was never heard from again.
By the time the tie rolled around, January 8 1992, Leeds and United were firmly locked in a two-horse title race. Gary Speed opened the scoring at Elland Road, but goals from Clayton Blackmore, Andrei Kanchelskis, and an appallingly young Ryan Giggs saw United to a 3-1 win. Cause for optimism, then, as the two teams jostled at the top of the table throughout the winter, and United squeaked past Middlesbrough in the semi-final.
Unlike modern early-season finals, the 1992 final was held on April 12, smack in the middle of the title run-in. Going into the game, United were nicely set in the league — one point from first place with two games in hand — but their form was a little patchy. They'd only lost once in the league since that fifth round tie against Leeds, but they'd drawn more than they'd won over that stretch, and the goals had dried up as both Brian McClair and Mark Hughes lost form. And that one defeat had come against Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, who awaited them in the final.
These days, a final in the middle of a title race would almost certainly see a certain amount of rotation; back in dim and distant 1992, such disrespect towards silverware had yet to be conceived. United picked an almost full-strength team: Peter Schmeichel in goal; the established back four of Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin; Giggs and Kanchelskis on the wings; and McClair and Hughes up front. The only notable absentee was Bryan Robson, out through injury, so Mike Phelan stepped into midfield to partner Paul Ince.
It wasn't a classic. Forest were missing a couple of players, most notably Stuart Pearce, who'd injured himself at Wembley two weeks previously in the final of the Zenith Data Systems Cup. The only goal of the game came after 14 minutes. McClair laid off a bouncing ball to Ryan Giggs, who advanced untroubled through midfield and then returned the ball to United's no. 9. In the absence of Pearce hurtling across to take ball, man, and anything else nearby, McClair slotted calmly past Andy Marriott.
Back to the league, then. United won the first of their games in hand away at Southampton to go top, then both teams drew, United away at Luton Town and Leeds away at Liverpool. But two days later at Old Trafford, Forest had their revenge. McClair scored for United, but Ian Woan and Scot Gemmill condemned the home team to a 2-1 defeat; meanwhile Leeds were winning at Coventry. And two days after that came the second of United's games in hand, which they botched, losing 1-0 away at West Ham.
All of which meant that United had blown their two game advantage, and went to Anfield for the penultimate game of the season still one point off the top. To keep the title race alive they needed to at least match Leeds' result away at Sheffield United, but while Howard Wilkinson's men edged their game by the odd goal in five, United went down 2-0. The giddy Kop serenaded United's players and fans with "You'll never win the league," a perfectly appropriate, entirely understandable celebration to which time has not been kind.
Still, while the moment was bleak, the picture was improving. This was United's third trophy in as many seasons. Giggs had established himself in the first team, the advance party of the kids coming through. And this was a trophy won in the blue Adidas trefoil kit, the finest of all United's away shirts.
More importantly, Ferguson had clearly seen something he liked in the ranks of his opponents. Eric Cantona arrived from Leeds the following season, won the title, and then Roy Keane joined from Forest the season after that, to win a few more. Get inconvenienced by teams, buy their best players. Simpler times.