2008-09 was a peculiar season in lots of ways. Cristiano Ronaldo, despite some heavy flirting with Real Madrid, had been persuaded to stay on an extra year. Carlos Tévez was starting to suspect that United might not want to keep him on permanently. Liverpool put together a half-decent title bid. And all the while United were chasing an unprecedented quintuple of trophies.
Such things always exist more in the papers, of course, at least during the season. But equally, United generally set out to win every trophy they are involved with, and in 2008-09 that meant aiming for five. The first was secured in December, as United overcame Gamba Osaka and LDU Quito to win FIFA's Club World Cup. The League Cup would, in theory, be the second.
Late-era Ferguson was an avid disciple of rotation, and that plus United's overloaded calendar meant that plenty of the kids were given their chance in the early stages. Ben Amos (18), Danny Welbeck and Rodrigo Possebon (both 19) all started against Middlesbrough in the fourth round, though Possebon, after impressing for much of the game, was stretchered off when Emmanuel Pogatetz decided that a reasonable thing to do on a weekday evening was to carve open a teenager's leg with his studs.
Possebon made it back for the fifth round and started alongside Darron Gibson (21), but it was Welbeck, on as a late substitute, that made the difference in an uninspiring performance. He was fouled by Peter Ramage, and Tévez put the penalty away. Clearly developing a taste for the competition, the Argentine then rattled four past a helpless Blackburn Rovers in the quarter-finals.
(Entertainingly, Ferguson recalls in his second autobiography that "around December in [Tévez's] second season, we started to feel he wasn’t doing especially well." The Blackburn match was played on December 3. Clearly, he wanted five.)
United flew out to Japan to compete in the Club World Cup in mid-December, returning just before Christmas. When they left, they were six points behind Liverpool in third place, with a game in hand; when they came back, they had two games in hand but were now in fourth. Nevertheless, the gap to the top had only increased by one point: Liverpool's trip to Arsenal had ended in a draw.
United responded. Shrugging off their round-the-world trip, they embarked on a run of 20 games with just a single defeat across all competitions. This didn't just drive Rafa Benitez to outline his theory on facts to a grateful and bemused nation. It also took United to the top of the league table, through to the later stages of the FA Cup and Champions League, and to their third League Cup.
Though not without a hiccup.
That hiccup — in fact United's only defeat between early November and mid-March — came in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, away at Championship side Derby County. It could have been worse, too: Derby missed decent chances either side of Kris Commons' solitary goal. Tévez was miserable up front, Tomasz Kuszczak shaky in nets, and the introduction of Rooney and Ronaldo for the last half hour couldn't shift the result. Derby went to Old Trafford with a one goal lead.
Here normal service was resumed, after a fashion. In the league, Edwin van der Sar was in the middle of a 14-game run of clean sheets; in the cups, Kuszczak and Ben Foster were having much more fun. The Englishman replaced the Pole for the second leg, and initially seemed to be in for a quiet evening as Nani, John O'Shea and Tévez put United back in charge.
But Giles Barnes struck from the penalty spot to make it 3-2 on aggregate, then Ronaldo and Barnes exchanged free-kicks in the closing stages. It ended with Derby one goal away from forcing extra time, which would have been another half hour of football in an already crowded season. Apart from anything else, the 08-09 season stands as a near-masterpiece of rotational brinkmanship.
This policy continued into the final, as Ferguson kept faith with Foster, Jonny Evans, Gibson and Welbeck. In the absence of Rooney (virus) and Berbatov (sitting outside a café reading Mallarmé), Tévez started alongside Welbeck. Funny how Tévez's inclusion here and Van Nistelrooy's omission in 2004 both conveyed the same message regarding the player's place in the striking hierarchy. Such is the magic of the League Cup.
Anyway, the game was rubbish. After a brief early flurry of chances — including what would have been the best goal of Rio Ferdinand's career by some distance, a dipping 25-yard volley that flew onto the roof of the net — it all petered out. Ronaldo could have had a penalty but only got a booking; John O'Shea did some fouls; and Foster made one excellent reflex save to deny Aaron Lennon. Into extra-time, and Ronaldo hit the post. That was your lot.
Still, if United's performance was lethargic, their penalties were perfect. Giggs scored the first, then Foster, following a pep talk from Van der Sar, made a smart save to deny Jamie O'Hara. Tévez and Ronaldo both scored for United, and when David Bentley put Tottenham's third kick wide, Anderson stepped up to win it. He did. And then he did a little dance.
Two down, three to go. Right? Ferguson was understandably — and, as it turned out, presciently — dismissive of any quintuple chat. In March 2009 he was interviewed for the New Statesman by his friend, former Labour spin doctor and celebrity Burnley fan Alastair Campbell. United were four points clear and in the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and Champions League, so naturally Campbell asked if the quintuple was on:
Ferguson: The thing about Cup football is you need to be the best, but you also need a lot of luck, and I think it’s asking too much for all the games to go your way. The one thing I will say is, this squad is the best I have ever had. Every game we play, I feel confident. At the moment, every attack fears our defence, and every defence fears our midfield and attack. That gives you confidence, but it is too tough a call, I think.
He was right. Against Everton in the FA Cup final, a heavily-rotated United side were denied a penalty in normal time, then made a mess of their second penalty shootout of the season. Berbatov and Ferdinand both missed from the spot. Then, come the Champions League final, United squared up against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, thrashed them for ten solid minutes without managing a goal, then went 1-0 down and melted.
Still, a league title, a three-handled cup, and Sepp Blatter's vanity trophy isn't too bad going. And there is pleasure to be had in the unintended consequences of this League Cup win. Tottenham's loss meant that Fulham took England's final place in the 2009-10 UEFA Cup. They reached the final in impressive fashion, eventually losing to Atlético Madrid. But that was enough to persuade Liverpool that Fulham's manager, Roy Hodgson, was the right man for Anfield.
Thank you, Ben Foster. Thank you for everything.