Ending the drought


Sunday 26 February, 4:30pm

Man Utd @23/20
Newcastle @9/4
Draw @9/4
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The carabao is a stocky, swamp-dwelling water-buffalo; revered in its native Philippines as a symbol of hard work and stoic industriousness.  To help survive in the hot tropical climate – much like any British holidaymaker abroad – the carabao always stays close to a source of cool water and thick mud; in which it can wallow to keep its body temperature low.

The Carabao Cup will also be associated with revitalising aquatic qualities this year. Because, when the trophy is lifted by the victorious captain on Sunday evening, it will signal the end of a lengthy drought for either Manchester or Newcastle United.

The red United haven’t won a trophy since 2017, when Wayne Rooney jubilantly hoisted the Europa League vase high into the Stockholm sky after stepping onto the pitch as a 90th minute substitute.

Now, that may not seem like an awful long time ago – why, even my perished memory can recall a few major world events that took place back then.  But for Manchester United the trophy-less void between 2017 and today is their longest in 40 years – when a 1977 FA Cup win was, after a struggle, repeated in 1983.

And it is a length of time magnified and elongated by the club’s enormous expenditure over that same period.  I tried to add up how much they have spent on players across the last six years, but the number was far too big…and my abacus collapsed.

But while most football fans will struggle to generate any sympathy for their Manchester United counterparts and their recent dearth of silverware, Newcastle fans will surely produce none.  Because their last trophy win came way back in 1955 – a drought that has lasted for so long, St. James’ Park and its surrounding areas have been reclassified as a desert.

The 1955 FA Cup Final, which was Newcastle’s third cup triumph in five years, was also notable for club legend Jackie Milburn’s then record-setting opening goal; just 45 seconds after the kick-off (in 1997 Chelsea’s Roberto di Matteo would shave 3 seconds off that record in spectacular fashion).

What ended-up being a 3-1 win over Manchester City was aided, however, by a career-halting injury to City full-back Jimmy Meadows; who, due to the rules at the time, could not be replaced by a substitute.  Just imagine how molten the ‘lads in the studio’ would’ve been over that rule had they existed back then!  Well, I suppose in this instance Alan Shearer might have been OK with it…

Manchester United will arrive at Wembley as favourites to triumph as Erik ten Hag’s remarkable debut season rolls on.

Obviously it helps to have an attack spearheaded by the irrepressibly in-form headline-maker, Marcus Rashford; but the Dutchman has also done a laudable job of rotating his squad during a protracted fixture pile-up, and has successfully re-animated and re-introduced several fringe players at the same time.

Newcastle, conversely, are experiencing an ill-timed wobble – posting just one win in their last five Premier League matches.  The refereeing College of Cardinals have also decreed, following a papal conclave, that the incumbent Pope – Nick betwixt the Sticks – be suspended from playing this Sunday due to a handling infraction.

With Martin Dúbravka cup-tied, having played for Manchester United in the earlier rounds whilst on loan, Newcastle will hope that their saviour – the answer to their goal-keeping prayers – will appear before them in the form of infamous former Liverpool stopper, Loris Karius.  Could the residual narrative of this final be one of unexpected redemption?

Only one team will get to experience the way of the water as their drought comes to an end.  Only one will get to wallow like the carabao in the glorious post-deluge mud.  And for the other team; an extended, testing time in the barren trophyless desert awaits…

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