How do you replace the best player in the country? Apparently, you don't. After some undignified carping about "slavery" and a final, successful season, Cristiano Ronaldo finally got his move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009. We can only assume that United's new, chevron-pattered shirts were the final straw.
Faced with the task of filling the space left behind by a player who'd scored 91 goals over the past three seasons, Alex Ferguson decided to go rogue. In came Antonio Valencia from Wigan, Gabriel Obertan from Bordeaux, and Michael Owen, who had just left Newcastle on a free transfer. To add insult to confusion, the former Liverpool man was given the No. 7 shirt. Being generous, we might note that Ferguson usually did better with prospects than superstar signings. But plenty detected the parsimonious hand of Glazernomics.
Either way, there was to be no all-fronts assault on multiple trophies this season. In the FA Cup, United were knocked out in the third round by, annoyingly, Leeds. In Europe they were eliminated on, annoyingly, away goals by Bayern Munich at the quarter-final stage. And ultimately, annoyingly, they finished second in the Premier League, just a point short of Carlo Ancelotti's free-scoring Chelsea.
Which just leaves the League Cup. Like the previous season, Ferguson relied on the younger members of his squad to see the team through the early stages; like the previous season, this meant all manner of strange line-ups and amusing hijinks. And, in the early stages, red cards.
Fabio da Silva was sent off in the third round against Wolverhampton Wanderers, though Danny Welbeck, set up by Owen, scored the only goal of the game. Gary Neville then got his marching orders against Barnsley, though goals from Welbeck and Owen had already sealed the game. After the game, Ferguson spoke glowingly about Owen. "Great feet, so quick, and it was a marvellous finish. I'd say it was a great goal." Cristiano who?
Come the quarter-finals, Ferguson was having a row with the media. The week before United were due to play Tottenham, a much-changed, youthful team had lost at home to Besiktas thanks to a Ben Foster error in goal and an insipid outfield performance. The result meant nothing in the context of Champions League progress but ended United's long unbeaten home record in Europe.
Ferguson defended his goalkeeper, then dropped him. Tomas Kuszczak played at the weekend against Portsmouth and then kept his place for the game against Spurs. However, most of the rest of the kids got another chance, and Ferguson went into the game in combative mood:
It will be the same players who played on Wednesday, despite the criticism they got. Someone wrote that there’s no future for these players, that there’s no tomorrow for them. What an idiot. I couldn’t believe that. I played six players — two 18-year-olds, a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and two 21-year-olds — in a European game and people say there’s no future for them.
He was rewarded for his faith — and forgiven for getting the ages slightly wrong — with a little help from Nemanja Vidić. With the Serb leading from the back and keeping Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane quiet, Darron Gibson had the platform to dictate the game from midfield and score twice from just outside the box. An eloquent riposte to those critical journalists who were sure that he'd never establish himself at United and would eventually get offloaded to somewhere like Everton.
(The BBC also felt that Anderson was "powerful and influential", that Danny Welbeck had "the raw materials to develop further", and that Gabriel Obertan presented an "intriguing figure". Hard to argue with that last one.)
Ferguson's faith in the kids lasted precisely up to the point where United were drawn against "Welcome to Manchester" City, Roberto Mancini, and treacherous turncoat Carlos Tévez in the semi-finals. But even back at full-strength, United made heavy work of the first leg. Ryan Giggs gave United an early lead at the Etihad, but Tévez equalised from the penalty spot just before half-time, then gave City the lead just after an hour. Smart work from Nedem Onuoha and Shay Given denied Rooney at the death and preserved City's advantage.
Back at Old Trafford, it looked like they might manage to hang on to it, as the first half came and went without United managing to equalise the tie. Then Rooney, smack in the middle of perhaps his last truly excellent run of form for United, clipped a gorgeous long pass over the defence for Giggs. Though forced wide, the Welshman managed to knock the ball back to Nani. The ball bounced loose to Scholes, who drove in from the edge of the box.
Carrick slotted home from a tight angle to extend United's lead, but a late flick from Tévez gave City parity again. Extra time loomed. And then, in the 92nd minute, Rooney rose unmarked to meet a perfect inswinging cross from Giggs. He nodded past Given and celebrated with a somersault. Up the other end, Edwin van der Sar pumped his fist in the air. It was United's second injury-time winner against City of the season. It was very, very funny.
The reason Ferguson turned to his senior professionals for the semi-final — and stuck with them for the final against Aston Villa — was that, in his own words, "The one thing we can't give [young players] is that old head". Wisdom comes with experience. A young player, for example, might panic in the early stages of a League Cup final against Aston Villa and give away a penalty after just four minutes. That would be a disaster. Whereas an old hand like Nemanja Vidić … oh.
Fortunately for United the referee either correctly diagnosed that a card wasn't necessary, or totally bottled it, depending on your point of view. Milner scored the penalty but Owen slotted home a precise equaliser less than ten minutes later. An hour later, Dimitar Berbatov released Valencia down the right with a cute flick. Not for the first time that season, the Ecuadorian dropped a precise cross onto Rooney's forehead. He nutted the ball over Brad Friedel for the win.
We'll conclude by noting an oddity. Only two players started both the 2009 and 2010 finals for United: Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra. Yet it's possible that three of the players that started in 2010 might also start this coming Sunday, seven years later. Valencia will almost certainly play, albeit a position further back than last time. And both Rooney and Carrick are still knocking around.
What does it mean? Almost certainly nothing. But if there's anything more important than a sustained title bid, it's a tiny article of irrelevant, contrived trivia. Do the right thing, José. Pick the old men.