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Five Times: Manchester United’s on again/off again relationship with the League Cup

The League Cup was established in 1960. Unlike the FA Cup, the League Cup fixtures were purposely played on weeknights partly in response to the growing popularity of European football. The final was also played much earlier in the season, in February as opposed to May. Manchester United entered the inaugural League Cup in 1960-61 but declined entry for the subsequent five seasons.

United were indifferent to the competition which was perceived as secondary to the more established prizes in Football, namely the League title, FA Cup and the European Cup, which United were still regular contenders for in the 1960’s. United didn’t enter the League Cup for the second time until 1966-67. It wasn’t a happy return. United were trounced 5-1 by Blackpool in the Second Round.

They declined entry once again for the next two years before re-entering in 1969-70 during Wilf McGuiness’s first and only full season as manager. For the first time, United took the competition seriously and reached the Semi-Finals, narrowly missing out on the Final with an aggregate 4-3 defeat to local rivals, Manchester City. The following year, the League Cup represented United’s best chance of silverware, but they were once again defeated in the Semi-Finals, this time by Third Division side, Aston Villa in what was a colossal shock.

In 1971-72, United’s struggles in the League Cup resurfaced. Despite only reaching the Fourth Round, they played six times in the competition, needing a Third Round reply to overcome Burnley, and finally succumbing to their conquerors, Stoke City in a second Fourth Round replay. United made their third appearance in the Semi-Finals in 1974-75, during Tommy Docherty’s successful promotion-winning season from the old Second Division. That success couldn’t see United through to their first Final in the competition, however.

United did not progress beyond the Fifth Round until 1982-83, wherein then-United boss, Ron Atkinson eventually led them to their first-ever Final. 1982-83 would prove to be a hugely successful season for the club. United ended it as FA Cup winners and finished third in the League. Atkinson had restored United’s competitiveness for major trophies and the League Cup was a priority for him. Only English Champions Liverpool prevented United from achieving a domestic Cup Double. United were narrowly defeated 2-1 in extra time after they had led the tie 1-0 until the 75th minute.

United didn’t reach another final until 1991. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were humiliated, losing 1-0 to Second Division outfit, Sheffield Wednesday. Over thirty years since its inception, United finally had their name on the trophy with their 1992 victory. A legendary United line-up boasting luminaries such as Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs led United to defeat Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 1-0 with a solitary Brian McClair goal proving the difference.

Following United’s 1992 triumph, Ferguson began to prioritise United’s League assault and later the Champions League, meaning the League Cup was once again de-prioritised on United’s list of potential prizes. Ferguson’s imperious Double-winning side of 1994 did make it to the final once again, wherein a domestic Treble was denied by former United manager, Atkinson’s Aston Villa who defeated United 3-1. However, from 1994/95, the competition provided little more than a first team run out for the reserves or first team squad members in need of match time.

This was underlined, emboldened and italicised by United’s embarrassing exit to York City in 1995/96, wherein a team featuring Kevin Pilkington in goal and Pat McGibbon in central defence succumbed to the third tier side 3-0 in the Old Trafford leg. Ferguson, unwilling to exit the Cup to the minnows, restored his first teamers to the line-up for the return fixture at Bootham Crescent, but despite a Paul Scholes brace, United exited the tournament, 4-3 on aggregate.

Post-1994, with United’s focus elsewhere, they only progressed beyond the Fourth Round once until 2002-03 when the competition took on greater significance in the wake of a dominant Arsenal side, Roman Abramovich’s newly cash-rich Chelsea and Liverpool’s then hot streak of collecting Cup silverware. Ferguson, with the trophies drying up by his high standards, put greater significance on the competition and played stronger sides. This culminated in reaching the final in 2003. Unfortunately, despite playing his best team, United were defeated by their fierce rivals Liverpool in a 2-0 defeat.

United reached the Semi-Finals in 2005, edged out only by Jose Mourinho’s dominant Chelsea team, who would win the trophy and the League title later that year. Fourteen years after United won their first League Cup, they finally won the trophy for a second time with a 4-0 thumping of Wigan Athletic in 2006. Wayne Rooney scored a memorable brace, in a match which was most notable for who wasn’t playing. Ruud van Nistelrooy was left on the bench and left the club that summer after a falling out with Ferguson.

From there, United’s greater cup success actually came in the League Cup rather than the FA Cup, with Ferguson collecting back to back trophies in 2009 and 2010, with victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, fielding strong line-ups in both.

Following Ferguson’s retirement, new manager David Moyes showed respect to the competition, recognising the importance of silverware to the squad and the necessity of him gaining acceptance as United boss by winning a major trophy. Unfortunately for Moyes, he narrowly missed out on achieving this feat with a disappointing and heart-breaking exit to Premier League strugglers, Sunderland in the Semi-Finals via a penalty shoot-out after leading the tie.

In contrast, Moyes’s successor couldn’t have shown the League Cup any more disdain. In his first season in the United hot-seat, Louis Van Gaal showed little regard for the trophy fielding a side consisting of Saidy Janko, Anderson Oliveira, Reece James, Marnick Vermijl and Nick Powell in the starting XI. Two years later all five of these men were no longer under United contract. It was one of the weakest line-ups United had ever named in its entire history. The former four-time winners were humiliated by a comprehensive 4-0 demolition by third-tier side MK Dons in the Second Round. Their earliest loss in the competition since the York embarrassment 19 years earlier.

United’s effort the following season was almost as dire as they crashed out on penalties after an uneventful 0-0 draw with Championship side, Middlesbrough in the Fourth Round. With a change of manager came a change of focus. New United gaffer, Jose Mourinho placed a greater significance on the League Cup and as a result, enjoyed United’s most recent success in the competition during his first season in charge in 2015-16. Mourinho was no stranger to the tournament having won the trophy three times across his two stints as Chelsea boss between 2004-07 and 2013-15.

For Mourinho, the desire to field a strong side in the competition was clear and logical. Historically, his previous successes in the League Cup had proven to be a catalyst for greater success with bigger prizes later in the season. All three of Mourinho’s League Cup successes at Chelsea were followed by further silverware; the Premier League title in 2004-05 and 2014-15 and FA Cup in 2006-07.

So, it proved in 2016, with the trend continuing. Mourinho as United manager won the 2016 League Cup. With the confidence embedded in the team, United added the Europa League to a continually burgeoning trophy cabinet. This is why the League Cup is important. Today more than ever.

With the final in February, the League Cup trophy is a huge confidence booster, an opportunity to get a trophy under the belt as a springboard for further success in the remaining competitions in England and Europe later in the season.

The League Cup of 2018-19 would be a good place to focus. If United are successful in that competition, who knows what further prizes may await?

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