When Chelsea won their first trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2005, there were some typically notable shots from the self-proclaimed “Special One” – riotous gestures of silence on the sidelines at Millennium Stadium, leading to his being sent off on police advice and tons of conspiracy theories consequences.
But the most important thing was that this was the first and wouldn’t be the last. The first trophy won by Chelsea under him; the first of the Roman Abramovich era and the first that would help establish a winning mentality in the squad.
It might just have been the League Cup, a trophy then big beasts like Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger took far less seriously. But Mourinho revived it and showed it mattered as he then went on to win the Premier League.
Just like Pep Guardiola when he came to Manchester City. With a final in late February, it was a first shot at winning silverware and after a trophy-less first season he was determined to break his duck. City then also won the league with a record 100 points.
So when Manchester United and Newcastle United meet at Wembley on Sunday, it’s the perfect League Cup final. First of all, it is the first final of the competition not to have seen at least one from City, Chelsea or Liverpool since 2017, when United beat Southampton, and only the second since Swansea City beat Bradford City in 2013. But none of those endgames had done the potential of this one. Not just in terms of the game that might develop, but also in its deeper meaning and meaning of what might follow.
United tried desperately to revive under Mourinho in 2017 but it never felt anything but temporary – and it remains the last season they won a trophy – while for Michael Laudrup’s Swansea it was the highlight of a journey.
For Manchester United and Newcastle this feels like the start of something and winning the League Cup will solidify and likely accelerate that process. For anyone arguing that it’s an accidental prize, try saying so to either Eddie Howe or Erik ten Hag, who are responsible for these two rousing giants in their first full seasons.
Newcastle have not won a national trophy since the FA Cup in 1955 and have not won anything since the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (which eventually became the Europa League) in 1969.
If Alan Shearer claims it’s more important than qualifying for the Champions League – something Newcastle have achieved in recent times – he’s probably right. For Howe, victory also means he is the first England manager to win a trophy since Harry Redknapp won the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008.
The perceived wisdom would be that whatever the result, Newcastle are here to stay and unless they are disastrously led it makes sense. But a first trophy changes the dimensions of everything and not least with the perception of what Howe and these players can achieve.
Yes, Newcastle has very wealthy owners. But they are not alone in this. They turned a ‘Big Six’ into a ‘Big Seven’ but that’s a lot of clubs and only four can qualify for the Champions League.
That means each trophy is more important than ever as Newcastle must also benefit from the upheaval and struggles faced by rivals like Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
They’ve been doing that in the league, just like United, but suddenly they feel the hot breath of others on their shoulders in this top-four battle and they’ve slipped down to fifth place.
For United and Ten Hag, it’s a final that feels like an unexpected bonus, placed in the middle of a string of games that began with Barcelona’s Europa League exit and ended with a league trip to Liverpool. Win there and maybe an unlikely title challenge will come true.
It’s been six years for United since they’ve claimed silverware but given what they were used to under Ferguson, it feels like decades of drought.
With Newcastle having their Saudi Arabian owners, this could effectively be a meeting of two state-owned clubs next season should the Qatari takeover of United be successful.
That would add even more dimensions, although a final that was little more than a sideshow before Mourinho certainly carries enough weight as it is.