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Manchester United’s Carabao Cup win is more than just a trophy

The trophy win stands for something bigger than the idea of success

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Carabao Cup Final Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

The joy amongst Manchester United fans across the globe on Sunday evening was quite palpable. Be it those at Wembley, in Manchester or those on social media, the outpour of emotions was perhaps a long time coming. More than joy though, it was an outpour of relief. More than jumping with joy on the cushiony sofa, it was almost like slipping into it with a huge sigh, tired yet satisfied after a debilitating trek on the hills and a confident admission that the effort was worth it and that the ways of exploration are right. And in a way, the latter is much more comforting.

For fans of other clubs to understand why the Carabao Cup win means more than Man Utd than a piece of silverware, it would be important to cast minds back to the 2021/22 season’s last game against Crystal Palace. At one point, United were a half away from dropping into the UEFA Conference League and there was a certain degree of meaninglessness about the game. It came only months after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team potentially seemed to be on the verge of challenging for silverware, and had only lost to Villarreal in a heartbreaking penalty shootout in the Europa League final. His exit, for some, had harbored an element of disconnection for some fans and symbolised new hope for others. It was a scattered club which had suffered from disconnection, failures, talk of dressing room troubles and commitment issues from players and managers that were unable to deal with egos. And it involved an ownership which had no idea of what it was doing.

There was this constantly lingering promise of silverware if somehow, things went right. But that was merely a far-fetched dream, especially since there was barely any discernible amount of unity on the pitch. Erik ten Hag’s appointment had arrived in the midst of disconnection and chaos and the first two Premier League games had barely offered much promise. They could see the glittering hypothesis of silverware at the very top of the hill, but the ways led them towards a downwards slope. The trek towards the top seemed impossible for the time being or it was going to take too much effort.

Winning the cup, thereby, is important. But the validation United and Ten Hag’s project will get through is much more important, especially considering how quickly it has come about and the overall context and recent history. The Solskjaer era will forever lack that validation, despite all the good things that happened under the Norwegian. Because of that lack of validation, questions will be raised by a certain section of the global fanbase about Solskjaer’s capabilities and what he was trying to build through his relationist ways.

While Jose Mourinho’s time had two trophies (three, if you ask him), the perception of him being a quick-fix manager never brought about a long-lasting belief that the Portuguese was building something. The way he spoke about those successes suggested that it was more about him triumphing and not United progressing, as an entity. For a club that had lacked belief post-2013, the League Cup and Europa League wins only provided more of a quick dopamine boost than the feeling of intrinsic development.

Louis van Gaal’s FA Cup win probably would have stood for some intrinsic development, if he had stayed on. But his immediate sacking and the time he was taking to build his own project still makes that win feel like an exercise in pointlessness. The club’s appointment of Mourinho, a completely different manager in terms of style, uprooted whatever Van Gaal had intended to build anyway.

But none of that is true for the Carabao Cup win under Ten Hag. It feels as if all the disconnection, falls and struggle of the past were worth it, especially since a fair amount of the players that Solskjaer had in his side were part of the team that lifted the trophy on Sunday. The penalty shootout loss to Villarreal, for many, had been a traumatic experience at a time when a win would’ve meant something special for a club legend. It would have been something that a rather likable bunch of players would have deserved at that point - before disaster late in the summer transfer window of 2021 and low-points came about regularly.

For a fanbase which was quite used to winning things during a previous era a decade ago, the last couple of years (or more) were starkly new. More than anything, they handed a lot of fans (like myself) a new perspective into the idea of fanhood - no matter how spectacular the disconnect with the club was at one point. It is a lesson that more than reaching the pinnacle, it is the journey towards it that matters and it is the excitement of what lies beyond it that makes us feel alive and connected again.

Ups and downs, of course, are rather subjective in the sport - especially when comparing those of different teams. Comparing the peaks and troughs of two clubs though, is apples and oranges. Newcastle’s rise is a story of their own and one to enjoy and Man Utd’s success is a completely unique tale. But Ten Hag has instilled this belief at the club and amongst fans that they aren’t just on the right track, but the fact that Manchester United can possibly beat anyone through his approach towards the game. And winning the Carabao Cup was not the absolute peak of the trek, it was perhaps only the first of many.