Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City weren’t the only winners to emerge from an enthralling Capital One Cup Final, where the Sky Blues finally overcame Gus Poyet’s spirited Sunderland.
The ‘Football Family’ – the national game in this country – hit new heights of sportsmanship and camaraderie in a remarkable show of respect between two of the most passionate sets of supporters in the land.
Never before at a match, have I witnessed generosity such as that shown by the massed ranks of the vanquished Mackems, who applauded their City counterparts along the packed walkways outside of Wembley.
City supporters reciprocated in a show of mutual admiration that continued as the legions from the north edged away to coaches, cars and trains and away from the home of English football.
The gesture reflected the over-arching mood of an occasion which totally belied the way so many have come to view the League Cup, as a downtrodden competition, one that clutters up an already congested and pressurised Premier League fixture list.
Just try telling those in the 84,697 crowd that the League Cup was of no consequence, it didn’t matter and that it wasn’t worth winning in the first place.
Not so long ago City would have been exactly where Sunderland find themselves. This would have been almost as good as City could have hoped for, before Sheikh Mansour showed up on the scene in August, 2008.
It wasn’t that Vincent Kompany & Co wanted to win any less than their opponents, it’s simply that Premier League titles and chasing Champions League glory are no longer pipedreams, they are a gorgeous reality.
Adam Johnson, a PL title and FA Cup winner with City, put it into pre-match perspective when he said being a ‘Cup Winner’ with Sunderland would accord a player legendary status.
City’s meteoric rise since the Abu Dhabi intervention means expectations, as well as standards have risen at an alarming, but by the same token, pleasing rate.
Pellegrini needed the win to start populating his unjustly criticised CV in what the detractors call ‘European football’. In reality they mean La Liga where, for eight of nine seasons, the Chilean was up against the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
City wanted the win to add to their burgeoning bundle of trophies and boost confidence levels as they focus on FA Cup, Champions League and Premier League challenges in the coming days and weeks.
It's fair to say a League Cup win would have meant more to Sunderland than City. City fans need only remember the euphoria when beating Stoke in the 2011 FA Cup Final, to get a sense of what it would have meant to the Wearsiders.
Starved of any significant honours since their 1973 FA Cup Final giant-killing win over Leeds, the Sunderland fans easily outnumbered City’s. Not that the Sky Blue supporters were found wanting for passion or volume, it was just that Sunderland had somehow snapped up the majority of ‘neutral’ seats.
Buoyed by Fabio Borini’s well executed 10th minute goal, the Black Cats were purring at the interval, with a 1-0 lead and City lacking both the guile and firepower to trouble Sunderland keeper, Vito Mannone.
The first half had proven frustrating for City, even with a clearly not match-fit, Sergio Aguero restored to the starting line up.
After starting at a good tempo, City were susceptible to Sunderland’s swift counter attacks and, as the initial 45 minutes came to a close, visions of the Wigan nightmare could never be adequately banished.
Highlight of the half had been a boisterously observed 60 seconds of applause and singing to honour Mike Doyle, City’s fallen soldier of a bygone age. The Wembley Stadium scoreboard carried Blue Blood ‘Doyley’s’ image from the 4th to the 5th minute, earning gratitude from all the City fans present.
Not so Sky’s coverage and commentary, with Martin Tyler and Gary Neville seeing fit to not even remark upon it.
Equally, it was never going to happen with the channel’s carefully chosen, neutral and ‘balanced’ pundit line-up of Kevin Phillips, Jamie Redknapp and the nowadays, annoying, Niall Quinn.
Impartial – my sky blue backside – pathetic, more like.
Nowadays if City are trailing, there's something strangely comforting when thinking about a Pellegrini half-time team talk. He has the nous and tactical acumen to, more often than not, turn things around.
Despite the occasion, City had the look of an under-performing unit, similar to that which had eventually seen off Stoke seven days beforehand.
It was as if City had ticked a box asking to remain anonymous.
Demichelis and Dzeko were drawing the now familiar murmurings of discontent, Yaya, Nasri and Silva weren’t pulling up any trees and even Captain Fantastic Kompany was culpable for Sunderland’s opener.
Thankfully City could fall back on a football cliché and glory in a game of two halves.
It wasn’t quite ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ more like ‘Won in 105 seconds’ as two truly world class strikes, inside two minutes, turned the match upside down.
Yaya once again illustrated that even when below par and trundling around the pitch, he can still produce something truly extraordinary. His gloriously crafted 30-yard strike was, by his own admission, the best goal of his career and 17th of a prolific season.
It beggars belief that some of the anti-City brigade have the temerity to suggest the 55th minute wonder goal was a misplaced cross!
The City supporters celebrated wildly with a mixture of relief and renewed belief that this, would indeed, be their day.
In the 56th minute Samir Nasri’s bullet like finish had the City fans on a straight line trajectory to Blue Moon Heaven.
There was no escaping the cacophony - the explosion - of sheer unadulerated Sky Blue joy as the Frenchman, reborn under Pellegrini, launched an unstoppable shot from the edge of the 18 yard box, with the 'outstep' of his right foot.
As with Toure’s shot seconds before, Mannone was rendered redundant as Nasri’s SAM (Surface to Air Missile) found its target, blowing Sunderland’s defence to smithereens.
Capitalising on the sudden surge of attacking success, Pellegrini took a tiring Aguero out of the firing line, replacing him with Navas. The Engineer knew the Spanish winger would bring width to the frontline and help City outflank the weary Wearsiders.
Sunderland weren’t ready to give up the fight as the 50,000-strong Black Cat contingent sought to claw their way back into contention.
Javi Garcia replaced Silva to help repel the North East hordes and The Beast had his first taste of Wembley when the deeply disappointing Dzeko departed the fight.
Fletcher fluffed two opportunities to level the score before City, sensing Sunderland’s desperation, hit them on the counter attack, finally nailing the Cup they craved.
Fernandinho won the ball deep in City territory and Yaya rumbled, rather than trundled, across the half way line. Nifty Navas, doing ‘90mph’ down the right flank, took a precise pass from the Ivorian and drilled it past Mannone from 15 yards out.
It’ll pain those who continually seek to undermine Pellegrini that the man from Santiago has now won something – other than just the InterToto Cup – during his time in Europe.
With 121 goals scored this season and Sergio back in the frame, City can make attack their best form of defence. It’s a philosophy that has served Pellegrini well, although there’s no doubting a world class centre back will top his summer transfer list.
Multiple major silverware in one season remains a realistic prospect for only the second time in City’s history, having won the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup in 1970.
A win over Uwe Rosler’s Wigan on Sunday – a revenge mission for last season’s inglorious FA Cup Final defeat – would see City’s season heading south in the nicest possible way...straight back to Wembley and another date with destiny.
Who knows it could be one big reunion between the magnanimous Mackems and Mancunians!
By David Walker
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF MIKE DOYLE