Before Tuesday night, I think I last heard it on 19th March 2005 against Wycombe Wanderers, when Tes Bramble looked up and let fly with a shot from just outside the centre circle which did not rise or fall but simply flew, straight as an arrow, into the corner of the net with all the power of a bazooka. The crowd could see it was going in from the moment it left his foot and they made the above sound, a mixture of anticipation, awe, celebration and delirium when it finally smashed into the back of the net, the only surprise being that it did not continue straight through the netting and the South Stand and halfway across Coldham’s Common.
I heard that noise again on Tuesday as United’s match against Sheffield Wednesday ticked over into added time, when Piero Mingoia cut inside from deep on the right wing, glided towards goal without appearing to touch the ground at all, and when the goal came into his sights almost 30 yards out, he let fly with his left foot to send the ball screaming into the top left-hand corner off the underside of the bar with shot no goalkeeper on Earth could have saved. And like Bramble’s goal, it seemed inevitable from the moment it left his boot; there was simply no doubt that it would be a goal, hence the crowd’s elongated ululation of elation. Enjoy such magic moments, people; they come along all too rarely.
The fact that the goal only inspired United to even greater heights in extra time was a welcome added bonus. But more of that later.
The Football League Cup has gone by many names over the years since it was first given a sponsor’s name in 1981, when it became the Milk Cup. Now it is the EFL Cup, so named (a) because of a gratuitous rebrand of the great name of the oldest national league in the world and (b) because the dunderheads who run it couldn’t find a sponsor.
A recent interview with the league’s marketing director revealed the full horror of the sort of soulless sales-speak that rules our national game these days. Phrases like ‘brand refresh,’ ‘from the top down,’ ‘tell the story,’ ‘stakeholder engagement piece,’ ‘golden thread,’ ‘a bigger narrative,’ ‘brand identity perspective’ and ‘marketing channels’ demonstrated the dead-eyed, price-of-everything and value-of-nothing mindset of people who call the Football League name “a bit old” (it’s called HISTORY, many people quite value it) and its new name “a clear brand” (before it was a League of Football clubs, now it’s, er, ‘Effel’). It’s all basically just a logo; let’s just copy the Americans, NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, NRA…
The producers of all this hot, empty air have also made a complete and utter laughable shambles of the organisation of the ‘EFL Trophy,’ now the ‘Checkatrade Trophy,’ but you didn’t really need me to tell you that. Looking forward to seeing Middlesbrough’s youth team visit the Abbey in a ‘regionalised’ tie in front of a few hundred spectators, are you? Great branding, guys. You are hereby branded buffoons of the highest order who should have not been allowed anywhere near the Football League, which does not need an ‘English’ before it because it was the first of its kind anywhere. Now THAT is a ‘USP’.
That’s better. Now let’s just call it the League Cup, shall we? Typically these days every ‘big’ club and some who think they are ‘big’ tend to rest their poor, exhausted first team players, who have after all played one whole League game so far this season, and send out their understudies, and after they lose to a club from a lower league the managers inevitably chorus ‘but I thought the team I picked was strong enough to win!’ Perhaps some of them even mean it.
Sheffield Wednesday were no exception, although they were playing just two days after their opening league fixture on Sunday, and only Ross Wallace started his second game in three days. Nonetheless the team could boast some serious talent in Sunderland loanee Will Buckley, powerful Portuguese international Lucas Joao, Senegalese winger Modou Sougou and hulking Austrian striker and least pronounceable man in football, Atdhe Nuhiu, the sort of name you make up when you can’t do anything else with a terrible hand in Scrabble. Their stand-in goalkeeper, Joe Wildsmith, became the first custodian to wear a number 2 shirt at the Abbey.
United line-up: Gregory; Long, Coulson, Dallison, Adams; Mingoia, Dunne, Berry, Elito; Williamson, Pigott
On the bench: Iron, Taylor, Roberts, Clark, Keane, Maris, Newton
Shaun Derry’s side showed four changes from Saturday, with Will Norris, Leon Legge and Harrison Dunk absent through injury, replaced by David Gregory, Josh Coulson and Medy “Eddie Melito” Elito, while a change of formation to 4-4-2 saw Max Clark replaced by Ben Williamson. Youth team keeper Fin Iron made the subs’ bench which boasted a strong four-man midfield backup but could not muster a single out-and-out striker.
A rather disappointing home attendance was mitigated by over 1,400 away supporters, who were handed the South Habbin as well as the South Stand, and their team eschewed this season’s home strip of blue with white pinstripes for black shirts and luminous orange (and exceptionally baggy) shorts.
Wednesday’s team was a big, powerful side and line leader Nuhiu had an early shot blocked, but Gregory looked comfortable in the United goal, plucking a Conor O’Grady header out of the air from a corner on 8. A minute later a half-cleared U’s flag-kick found its way to Piero Mingoia out on the left wing, his pinpoint cross found the head of Tom Dallison and he beat Wildsmith only to be denied a goal by the closest of offside calls.
The visitors passed the ball fluently and speedily and United had to graft hard to stay with them, but Coulson and Dallison stood firm at the back. Wallace fired past the upright on 17, then the hosts created another good chance when Mingoia crossed from the right, O’Grady’s header down fell straight to Joe Pigott, he burst through the line and saw his close-range angled shot blocked away by Wildsmith.
Wednesday continued to press and probe, Buckley and Liam Palmer having shots blocked, and a fine triangular passing move on 32 sent Palmer into the box down the right channel, but Dallison flew across to make a splendid block to his angled shot. Although the visitors enjoyed the majority of the possession, United contained them pretty well, restricting them mainly to shots from outside the box, Luke Berry and James Dunne working like Trojans in the centre. Debutant O’Grady’s through ball on 40 sent Lucas Joao away down the left channel, but his shot flew into the side netting, and Gregory clutched a Palmer drive without much difficulty.
The first half thus ended goalless, United having worked hard to achieve a stalemate but knowing that even greater effort would be needed after the lemons.
Experienced goal poacher Gary Hooper was introduced by the visitors for the second half in place of Sougou, surprisingily utilised in midfield, and within six minutes of the restart Buckley cut inside from the right and struck a left-footed shot against the foot of the right-hand post, the ball rebounding to safety.
A minute later, though, the Owls were hooting their delight. Lucas Joao latched onto a long ball from Wallace, shrugged off the challenge of Sean Long, leaving him in a heap on the byline, then cut back inside from the right, skipped past Dallison’s challenge and fired low into the net from ten yards to score a goal all too similar to that scored by Barnet at the weekend. 1-0.
Before the hour was up Derry made two changes, replacing Dunne and the enigmatic Elito with Conor Newton and George Maris, and both subs made instant impressions with their drive and energy. For the visitors Wallace drove an ambitious 30-yarder wide and Nuhiu nodded a corner off target, but the enormous target man might have done better on 62 when he ran (OK, shambled) onto a low Palmer cross, but he spooned his shot onto the top of the bar and over from close range under pressure from Long.
Maris then tested Wildsmith with a shot from the edge of the box, while on 72 Lucas Joao slid narrowly wide from the D. Six minutes later came United’s best chance so far: Dallison found Williamson with a long ball down the middle, he laid off to Berry whose shot was blocked by a combination of Jose Semedo and O’Grady, but it ran to Williamson, unmarked inside the box; his over-deliberate shot, however, sailed just over the far angle when he really ought to have concentrated on just hitting the target.
Time was beginning to run out for United. Wednesday replaced Wallace with teenage American Under-20 international James Murphy four minutes from time, and they looked about to see the game out until right on 90 came Mingoia’s stunning equaliser to raise the roof off the Abbey. 1-1.
Suddenly United were a team transformed. Into injury time a brilliant run to the byline by Newton culminated in a cross which was converted by Maris, but the fans’ acclaim was swiftly terminated by the referee’s whistle for handball and a yellow card for the U’s Maradona impersonator.
So it was into extra time. One might have expected the powerful higher division club to reassert itself as fatigue set in, but instead it was the hosts who seemed to grow and pick up the pace, driven on by a dynamic, fleet-footed midfield of Maris, Newton, Berry and Mingoia, and the supporters picked up on their heroes’ determination as the noise gradually increased.
Early into extra time the visitors replaced Lucas Joao with George Hirst, 17-year-old son of Hillsborough legend David (now doesn’t that make you feel old) while on 96 Greg Taylor came in at left-back for Blair Adams. Hirst fired over seven minutes later, then Jeremy Helan was deservedly booked for a cynical foul on Mingoia which looked like payback for his goal.
As the first half of added time ticked to a close United came so near to taking the lead for the first time. A long clearance from Gregory found Maris on the left flank and he immediately made for goal, cutting easily inside his marker and firing a fine shot for the far post which was tipped away at full stretch by Wildsmith. The Abbey temperature ratcheted up another notch.
The U’s continued to take the game to Wednesday after they switched ends. Coulson nodded a corner over, Maris had a shot blocked then he was fed by Mingoia and rolled another effort tantalisingly past the far post, continuing his impressive pre-season form. Mingoia, always at the heart of everything good about United, then dragged a shot wide, Taylor and Maris combined down the left for the latter to drive another teasing cross into the six-yard box which was hacked away for a corner and Pigott shot over the top, and thoughts now began to drift to a penalty shootout.
United just kept surging forward, though, once-superior Wednesday now sagging on the ropes under their pacy onslaught, and with 118 minutes on the clock the payoff finally came. Mingoia was involved as ever, finding Coulson 25 yards out, whose high ball into the crowded box looked somewhat miscued; it dropped, however, to Berry, eight yards out to the left of the goal, and with consummate skill he controlled, turned his marker, Marnick Vermijl, and bobbled a shot low across goal when Wildsmith was expecting him to go for the near post, and to another tumultuous roar of acclaim, it rolled inexorably into the far corner of the net. 2-1!
A bedraggled Wednesday had no answer. United retained possession with great composure, the visitors’ last attack came to nothing, and the final whistle heralded wild celebrations and an epic victory that had looked unlikely for so much of the opening 90 minutes but seemed almost inevitable after the hosts’ siege in extra time.
Games like this are what great memories are made of, and are why we endure any number of forgettable afternoons and evenings. Massive credit must go the United players and management for the unfailingly positive attitude that led to their ultimate reward, from the rock-solid keeper, gritty central defence, hard-working strikers, inspirational substitutes and the two stars of the night, Mingoia and Berry, the smallest players on the pitch with the biggest hearts. Now if they can just recreate that extra-time spirit every matchday, we might be onto something here. Who knows, we may hear That Sound again sooner than we think…
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