May 24, 2017 in Stockholm, a team of veterans and youngsters capped a grueling UEFA Europa League campaign with a 2-0 win in the final over Ajax. A handful of the team watched and celebrated on crutches, but they weren't to be denied a celebration. For them, it felt like a fresh start. Year one under a new boss, Champions League qualification secured, and shiny medals to add to personal collections.
As we now know, that win wasn’t the start. It was the start of a drought, a long 2,104 days before another Manchester United captain would lead the team to a podium for a trophy lift.
That drought ended on February 26, 2023 when a much different Manchester United team took the pitch at Wembley in a 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the League Cup Final. There were some familiar faces from 2017, and another group of veterans and youngsters, but this time there is much more unity and positivity throughout the United community about where the team is headed, and more importantly who is taking them there.
That of course was the issue in 2017, clarity over direction. United hobbled their way over the finishing line to a 6th place Premier League finish, but won the League Cup and Europa League to soften the blow and guarantee the club could spend more. There were still several pieces that needed to be addressed, and that was before addressing the negative and inconsistent tactics or overreliance on the goals of a 36-year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had just torn ligaments in his knee.
The 2016/17 campaign featured some success, hard earned success, but it was an unsustainable, short lived lifestyle for a club that needed much more than a couple trophies.
Here was the brief, Ibrahimovic-trademark answer that he gave when asked if he sensed something special was happening after the 2017 EFL Cup Final:
After the Europa League Final, manager Jose Mourinho held up three fingers and told his players to do the same, driving home the point that they had won three trophies that season: The Charity/Community Shield, the EFL Cup, and the Europa League.
That team was focused on the present, on the moment. As much as the future felt promising in that moment, it became prevalent over the next year or so just how tricky the future would be. That wasn’t a team that was thinking of the future, or at least not in a critical and thought out way.
Simply put, the culture was lacking.
A similar topic, the future, was raised on Sunday after the win to manager Erik ten Hag, and this was his response:
️ "I think we are still at the start of restoring Manchester United to where it belongs"— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) February 26, 2023
Erik ten Hag reflects on lifting his first trophy as Manchester United manager. pic.twitter.com/z5phx18xuY
“First you have to win the first one,” he said. “And that’s what we did today. I think we got a lot of inspiration from this, but also more confidence that we can do it. I think we are still at the start of restoring Manchester United to where it belongs, and that is winning trophies. This is the first one.”
Throughout the post-game interviews there was a constant of “we’re celebrating now, but it’s back to work tomorrow” from the players and staff. Certainly that is a necessity with an FA Cup match against West Ham coming up on Wednesday, but it’s been the same attitude after every meaningful victory this season.
This team is focused on fighting for silverware now, which is much sooner than any of us anticipated at the start of the year, but they aren’t trapped in the moment by it.
This team is driven and unified, guided by a manager who is focused on building and restoring. A manager who just under a year ago inherited a squad many deemed to be broken and now has them going toe to toe with some of the best in the game. A manager who has won over both data heads and vibes guys. A manager who radiates intelligence and confidence at a club that has rarely experience both in the last 10 years.
They value more than just trophies. They value the culture, purpose, and approach that can and will deliver trophies.
What comes next is still unknown. Nothing is written, and it could all blow up spectacularly. Goodness knows its happened before, and will happen again someday, but this feeling and this team are all indicating otherwise at this moment. That is why fans can’t help but think this is the start of something special.
This feeling, this team, this manager.
This is the one we’ve waited for.