Louis Saha, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo

The cup win that kick-started a golden era

Wednesday 26 February 2020 17:00

Fourteen years on, Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the League Cup final is barely remembered for the football. Instead, history tags it as the first significant moment for arguably Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest team.

The match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff - played on this day in 2006 - was straightforward enough, decided inside an hour by goals from Wayne Rooney (2), Louis Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Paul Jewell’s plucky Latics were unsettled just 14 minutes into the contest when goalkeeper Mike Pollitt – a former United apprentice – was forced off with a hamstring issue. But, in truth, the Reds had been rampantly peppering Pollitt’s goal from the word go. 
The celebrations afterwards were modest, and largely memorable for the ‘Thank You Smudge’ t-shirts that the United players donned after full-time, in honour of their colleague Alan Smith, who had recently broken his leg during a match against Liverpool at Anfield. 
How we won the 2006 League Cup Video

How we won the 2006 League Cup

It’s been 14 years since Rooney, Ronaldo and co put Wigan to the sword in Cardiff...

But beneath the business-like smiles and picture poses, an important staging post was being passed by a team that was still in its adolescence.
The Reds had not won the league title – a competition Sir Alex was fond of referring to as “our bread and butter” – since 2003, while United’s last Champions League final was four years further back.
The dressing room’s cultural commandant Roy Keane had left earlier in the season, while Paul Scholes was sidelined with an eye problem.
In midfield, Ryan Giggs and John O’Shea were Ferguson’s preferred pairing, while legendary goalscorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was on his way towards the M16 exit, having been benched in favour of Louis Saha. 
In short, United seemed nowhere near winning the Premier League. Or seizing the European Cup. Or being crowned world champions.
They would achieve all three before the end of 2008.
For the side that would become known to fans as ‘the Rooney-Ronaldo team' – or variants thereof – it was a first major trophy. A first whiff of silverware. And time would quickly prove this first taste of glory highly influential.
Rooney’s two goals earned him the Man-of-the-Match award, and his delight at winning his first trophy in professional football was clear. Ronaldo had won the 2004 FA Cup, but was yet to emerge as the world-conquering talent that would later dominate European football.

Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, who came on for the final minutes, had not even established themselves as starters at their new club, but the manager was desperate for them to experience a triumph as early as possible.

Rooney, the Man of the Match, celebrates with Saha after scoring the first goal.
Few supporters saw it coming, at the time – one infamous article in The Guardian claimed Sir Alex was ‘shredding his legacy at every turn’ – but everything was about to come together.
The club made just one signing the following summer, acquiring Michael Carrick from Tottenham Hotspur.
In that same Guardian piece, the writer claimed ‘almost everything about the club reeks of disarray’, and dismissed Carrick’s transfer as ‘a band aid for a bullet wound’.
Sir Alex’s team took 34 Premier League points from the first 39 available at the start of the next season, as Scholes and Carrick began to find their midfield rhythm, Rooney and Ronaldo soared to new heights, and Vidic and Ferdinand developed an iron-fisted partnership in central defence.
An incredible era ensued, in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Rooney's goal against Liga de Quito in 2008 meant United were world champions.
Are there parallels with the current team? Of course, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s outfit does not boast the experienced Van der Sar-Neville-Giggs-Scholes core that Sir Alex could call on, but there are similarities elsewhere, with young, dynamic forwards in Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood and Harry Maguire growing as an influential central defender influence, a la Ferdinand. 
Could Bruno Fernandes prove the missing link in the midfield area, as Michael Carrick was in 2006? In a different, more attacking position to the Geordie, admittedly.
That will all come out in the wash as the next 12-18 months progress, as United go in search of the club's first silverware under Solskjaer.
But whatever happens in that unpredictable future, previous eras – like the one that began in 2006 – suggest that the value of winning a trophy, any trophy, is of immeasurable value to young, aspiring Manchester United teams.
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United