As the Manchester United players appeared on the balcony at Wembley stadium to collect the Carabao Cup after their 2-0 victory in the final over Newcastle on Sunday they were each greeted with a large cheer from their jubilant supporters.
But the loudest cheer was reserved for when the club’s manager Erik ten Hag emerged to stand alongside them.
The United fans were acknowledging a fundamental truth that this was the Dutchman’s victory, made possible through the significant changes he has made in the last nine months and the resilience and character he has instilled in his squad.
United’s triumph was not particularly attractive, but the players found a way to win and secure the club’s first trophy for six years. Ten Hag himself summed it up perfectly when he said, “It was not the best football, but it was effective.”
A final is not the place to play your best football, it is only a place to win, and it proved that in Ten Hag United now have a genuine winner as their manager.
It is possibly too early for grand declarations, but Ten Hag appears to be the manager United have been searching for since Sir Alex Ferguson retired a decade ago.
Last week they shared dinner together at a restaurant in Cheshire, and on Sunday they shared an embrace in the bowels of Wembley after United’s victory, before later posing for a picture with the Carabao Cup trophy.
Ten Hag has many of the same traits as his legendary predecessor: the emphasis on discipline, the focus on character and resilience, a seemingly unquenchable thirst to win, and the ability to manage and control games.
This is what happened at Wembley where Newcastle can possibly feel aggrieved their even longer wait for a trophy was prolonged.
For though Eddie Howe’s side asserted themselves on the game, having 61% possession, and more shots than United, the only statistic that really mattered was that their opponents scored twice while they failed to register a goal.
Newcastle started as the stronger side, and looked to be benefitting from the week-long break they had enjoyed before the final, whereas United, who had played against Barcelona only three days earlier took longer to work their way into the game.
After only eight minutes Diogo Dalot was booked for a foul on Allan Saint-Maximin, and on 32 minutes the Portuguese right-back was beaten in the penalty area by the French winger, whose shot from a narrow angle was then saved by David De Gea.
But a minute later United finally took control when Casemiro headed in from a brilliantly delivered free-kick from Luke Shaw, and six minutes later Marcus Rashford doubled their lead when his shot took a crucial deflection off Sven Botman to evade Loris Karius.
It seemed generous, almost unjust that United could return to their dressing room at half-time with a two goal lead, but they had come alive when it mattered.
From there, it was all about Ten Hag’s astute game management, and the substitutions he made to safeguard United’s lead.
At half-time the United manager took off Dalot, deciding that having already been shown a yellow card, he represented too much of a risk. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who was unfortunate not to start the final, took his place and was arguably United’s best player in the second half, allowing nothing past him.
The introduction of Marcel Sabitzer and Scott McTominay from the bench after 69 minutes may have looked defensive, but in fact gave United greater protection.
United were now content to sit back and let Newcastle come to them, but their opponents struggled to test De Gea, and their best effort did not come until the 88th minute when substitute Jacob Murphy’s shot swerved just past the post.
It was Ten Hag’s side who looked more likely to score again, and they should have actually extended their lead when they twice broke away in the second half, but Karius saved from Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.
The victory had Ten Hag’s stamp all over it: the partnership of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane, the signing of Casemiro, the spectacular revival of Marcus Rashford, and Wan-Bissaka, and the impressive January loan signings of Sabitzer and Wout Weghorst.
There has been a frustration in recent years that United recruited the wrong characters, who did nothing for the atmosphere in the dressing room, but their success in now finding the right characters could be seen in the team’s celebrations.
Varane and Casemiro have won nine Champions Leagues between them; Varane and Martinez have each won the World Cup, but all of them celebrated the capture of the Carabao Cup with the same passion and enthusiasm.
Ten Hag has created a squad of winners in his own image. After the post-match press conference the Dutchman forgot to take the trophy with him. “I can leave it, because we will get another one,” he joked.
Already Ten Hag was beginning to think about winning more, and there are still three other trophies on offer to his side this season.