“Are you Norwich in disguise?” is how we were greeted by cheerful Aston Villa fans as we walked towards the ground. Their excitement was infectious, all clad in their ‘Carling Cup 2010’ embroidered shirts and dopey grins on their faces. It was great to be at Wembley and I of course wanted to see us leave with the trophy, but I did feel a bit of a fraud in knowing I was nowhere near as excited as their lot.
In we went and up the escalators we followed, green and gold dripping from people all around us, in the form of scarves, flags, hats and t-shirts. After developing this protest in Old Trafford, we have taken it up and down the country, and now here we were inside the national stadium. I therefore found it bizarre that when the cameras of the world were on us ahead of kick off, the mosaic spelling ‘BELIEVE’ was created, all out of coloured plastic bags. Enough of us held up our scarves for it not to be in vain but it’s disappointing that this was an opportunity missed. It’s also irritating that something which really did mean a lot to us for that semi-final against Barcelona has now become a catchphrase ready to be carted out for any old occasion. Ok, so it was a cup final, but playing Aston Villa in the League Cup is no Barca in the European Cup.
Regardless, before even having time to finish the grumble and move on we were 1-0 down. I still haven’t seen any footage of the game other than our goals, so you’ll have to be wary that my memory may be pretty sketchy, but it looked like a clear enough penalty from the stands and all that I’ve read since confirms this. I wondered why referee Phil Dowd was allowing James Milner to take the penalty before sending Nemanja Vidic off, but gritted my teeth anyway and hoped for a repeat of Tomasz Kuszczak’s penalty heroics of a couple of years ago against Arsenal. The heroics never came but then neither did the red card so we had to be happy enough with that!
Graham Poll has argued yesterday that the referee made the right decision, given that Gabriel Agbonlahor had his back to goal. Let’s be honest, you can look at it however you like, but if that had been our forward in their box you would want a red card. The final would have been totally ruined as a spectacle so in that respect it was sensible for Dowd to keep Vidic on, but I still think it was pretty shady. To not even show him a yellow card was mental. You have to happily take those decisions though because more often than not they go against you. We all remember how Jamie Carragher cynically brought down Michael Owen earlier this season and he wasn’t given his marching orders, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep on the Villa fans’ behalf.
Whilst there was still plenty of time to play, United played some pretty scary football at 1-0 down and couldn’t get in to their rhythm at all. We were giving the ball away and giving our opponents far too much room as they attacked. I wondered if Park Ji-Sung and Patrice Evra were playing a different game at times, with them leaving Villa’s right flank totally exposed time and again. Here you go Milner, come and have a nice run at us down here. Crikey, it was unnerving.
Fortunately, we got on level terms quickly enough to make you believe we were going to be alright. Dimitar Berbatov pinched the ball off Richard Dunne just inside their half and ran in to the box. Dunne finally caught up with our forward and made a great challenge. Unfortunately for him, his challenge set up Michael Owen perfectly, who didn’t need any second invitations to score. It was a lovely finish which had to be in the corner to beat Brad YSB Friedel. The tongue in cheek chants of “You scouse bastard!” began as Owen wheeled away in celebration.
Owen was on the pitch for just two minutes before scoring against West Ham five days earlier and in the League Cup final it took him just twelve minutes. We were told that with a chance or two and he would score. Well he’s now on two goals attempts and two goals from last week, so it’s a shame he’ll be out for a few weeks with the hamstring injury which saw him come off before half time. But nine goals so far isn’t a bad return for a freebie, particularly when you consider his late winner against City and now a crucial goal in a cup final. To give it some perspective, Craig Bellamy has also scored nine goals in all competitions this season, as has Carlton Cole.
As far as substitutions go, bringing on Rooney with over a half of football to go is pretty damn good. If Carlsberg did substitutions… He didn’t have an impact immediately, with him giving the ball away with a few poor first touches and misplaced passes, but he grew in to the game and was taking control as the match neared the final whistle, after scoring the winner.
Berbatov again played a part in the goal, in what was a good performance from the Bulgarian until the final fifteen minutes or so, when his limping became more visable and his requests to be subbed off ignored. As Antonio Valencia played the ball in to him, he flicked it on nicely for Valencia to cross it. At the moment, there seems like there can only be one goalscorer, and even more specifically, only one part of his body he will score with. Rooney’s met the ball with his head to see it reach just the right height to elude Friedel, with just the right power for it to loop down in to the back of the net. 2-1 Manchester United and you had to think Villa were really going to struggle to get back in it.
Valencia had been named man of the match, although he fought off stiff competition from Park Ji-Sung, who was cheered off the pitch with five minutes to play. He had run himself in to the ground for us and more often than not it had paid off.
Berbatov set him up for a good scoring chance just after we equalised, but he pulled his shot wide of the target. Not long later, he saw his shot come back off the woodwork after Valencia played him in, after Park took on and beat two players by himself. He always works hard but Sunday was an occasion where he really pulled it off. He clearly wanted to take advantage of the improved Nani’s absence from the team, with the Portuguese winger available to play again after his suspension at the weekend against Wolves.
We weren’t in shortage of good players though and, after a dodgy beginning, put in a good shift that was worthy of a cup win. Villa’s woodwork was hit for a second time after Valencia provided Rooney with another opportunity to score a header and we always looked more likely to score a third than Villa did a second. Let’s not forget, this is the team we bossed off the park a few weeks earlier after going down to ten men with more than an hour to play away from home! This Villa performance was certainly better but they were always second best.
The final whistle was celebrated and our fans were in a jovial mood. We had travelled all that way because we had wanted to see our team win a trophy, but there was nothing like the emotion Villa fans would have felt. It’s not that I felt guilty, but I quite like Aston Villa, their manager is good, I don’t have a bad word to say about their players (Dunne may get booed for his blue past but if we admit it we know he’s a good bloke), they generally play pretty good football and their American owner is by all accounts a bloody nice bloke (who forfeits a lucrative shirt sponsor deal to instead sponsor a local children’s hospice.) They’re a likeable club and there are plenty of other teams I would have enjoyed beating more. If Villa were playing any other club in the final, I would have wanted them to win. The last few cup finals I’ve attended were against Arsenal and Chelsea where the feelings of hatred added spice to the occasion (and massive heart ache) so to beat Villa in our last priority cup didn’t exactly inspire a carnival atmosphere.
Still, it was great to see the dot I presumed to be Paddy Evra shaking the cup in the air, after our players made the long and winding journey up to receive it, and even better to see the players enjoying the moment on the pitch. They applauded our end and showed off the cup, before disappearing off for some dressing room celebrations.
It was great to win our first piece of silverware of the season and hopefully it will give our lads the needed desire and thirst to claim the Premiership title in a few months time!