Having broken their League Cup duck in 1992, Manchester United went and won the actual league a year later. Clearly, Alex Ferguson and company developed a taste for the more rarefied competitions: over the next 14 years they won plenty more titles, but only made it back to two League Cup finals. And they lost both of those, to Aston Villa and Liverpool.
Still, when they eventually did pick up another League Cup, they did so in emphatic and dramatic fashion. The game was emphatic: a 4-0 thumping of an outclassed Wigan Athletic. But the drama came off the pitch, as the baton was hurled in splenetic fashion from one of United's finest-ever goalscorers, Ruud van Nistelrooy, to another, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The story goes that Ferguson, with his team up and running in the league and his eyes on European glory, had essentially stopped taking the League Cup seriously for most of the late 90s and early 00s. He wasn't alone in this, of course; Arsène Wenger seemed at times to be trying to win the thing with Arsenal's under-21s. And so things might have continued had a brave interloper from parts foreign not arrived and thought to himself: Look, that's a trophy, that is. Let's try and win it.
That brave interloper was José Mourinho, and his victory in the 2005 competition didn't just give his Chelsea side a taste for victory. It also, apparently, persuaded Ferguson that here was a competition worth taking an interest in, and according to the Daily Mail he "made it a target the following year." Perhaps the arrival of Abramovich and Mourinho, and the emergence of Chelsea as a title-winning force, meant that the value of any trophy increased, however previously unloved and weirdly three-armed.
This didn't stop Ferguson playing the kids and the stiffs where he could get away with it, of course. In the third round United sent out, among others, Richard Eckersley, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Lee Martin and a young Gerard Piqué to face Barnet. It made no odds: they were gifted the tie after just two minutes when Barnet's keeper collected a long ball forwards without noticing he was a yard outside his area. Then he collected a red card.
Stronger teams appeared in the subsequent rounds. In the next round against West Brom Ferguson started with Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Mikaël Silvestre and John O'Shea in defence, and a young Ronaldo on the right wing; in the fifth, Ronaldo kept his place and Wayne Rooney joined him at half-time. Come the semi-final, over two legs against Blackburn, United were more-or-less at full strength. Even Edwin van der Sar and Ruud van Nistelrooy were asked to muck in.
In his second autobiography, Ferguson recalls that during the 2005-06 season, tension had been high between Van Nistelrooy, himself, and the rest of the squad. By Ferguson's account, Van Nistelrooy has asked to leave United at the end of the previous season, a week before the FA Cup final, stating that in his view the team had stagnated and was incapable of competing in Europe.
Ferguson eventually persuaded him to stay, but recalls a change in Van Nistelrooy from that point on, and numerous training ground clashes with teammates: Gary Neville, David Bellion, and particularly Ronaldo. And when it came to the final against Wigan, Ferguson named Van Nistelrooy on the bench and chose Louis Saha to partner Wayne Rooney up front.
Saha, at long last free from injury, had scored six goals in the competition and Ferguson, by his account, explained to Van Nistelrooy that he owed Saha the starting place. He then added "Hopefully I can get you a bit of the game."
It was the Frenchman that set up the opening goal, though it would be a stretch to describe this as a Ferguson masterstroke. After half an hour the Frenchman on the end of a long punt forward and flicked it on towards Rooney, but the true craftsmanship behind the goal came from Wigan defenders Arjan De Zeeuw and Pascal Chimbonda. They decided to tackle one another, and Rooney gratefully accepted the invitation to clip the ball home.
Wigan kept the game alive until just before the hour mark, before three goals in seven minutes killed the game, buried it, and held a short but respectable memorial service. First Saha popped up unmarked on the six-yard box to collect a driven Neville cross. He planted his first shot into the keeper, the ball bounced back into his knee, and looped into the net. Ronaldo, who had been twinkling his feet to mixed effect all afternoon, added the third, before Rooney capped off the rout.
According to Ferguson:
I saw an ideal opportunity to give Evra and Vidić [who had both arrived in January] a taste of the game. They were my final substitutions. I turned to Ruud and said: 'I'm going to give these two lads a part of the game.' They were going to get a touch, a smell of winning something with Manchester United. 'You —,' said Van Nistelrooy. I'll always remember that. Could not believe it. Carlos Queiroz turned on him. It became fractious in the dug-out. The other players were telling him: 'Behave yourself.'
That was more or less that for Van Nistelrooy. After another training ground clash with Ronaldo that left the younger man in tears, Ferguson left the Dutchman out of the squad for United's final game of the season, a must-win away at Charlton, then sold him to Real Madrid in the summer. Louis Saha started the next season as first-choice, but it wasn't long before his injuries flared up again.
Fortunately for United, Ronaldo was metamorphosing from a talented prospect into a game-bestriding superstar. In 2006-07 he scored 23 in all competitions as United reclaimed the title. The following campaign he scored 42, as United repeated the first achievement and Ferguson finally picked up his second Champions League. A row on the bench and a miserable departure probably wasn't the succession plan, but United certainly made the best of it. Evra and Vidić didn't work out badly either.
If you don't have the time or the inclination to watch all of the below, skip on to around 9:00 minutes, when the substituted Ronaldo sits down next to the not-getting-on Van Nistelrooy. It's quite the picture.