It was the moment Manchester City supporters had craved, as Tottenham Hotspur must continue to wait.
After 82 minutes of frustration, Aymeric Laporte finally scored the goal that won the 2021 Carabao Cup, but there was something even more precious about it. It was a first goal in front of fans, after 14 months of empty stadiums, and after the chaotic events of the last week.
There is a significance to the fact one of their last goal in front of supporters, in March 2020, was also a League Cup final winner. It emphasises how they have utterly dominated this competition – that is again under threat with the Champions League expansion that were part of such a momentous week in football – as Pep Guardiola lifted his fourth in a row, and the club’s eighth in all.
How Spurs wish they could make trophies such a custom, or even get to enjoy the customs of winning one. Some of their players were in tears as they lost another final, meaning they still haven’t won a trophy since 2008, although this was always stacked against them.
The sacking of Jose Mourinho gave stand-in Ryan Mason a very difficult job, to go with the immense challenge of facing a City side still going for three trophies this season.
This time, though, the pain could also be seen in the stands. That, in its own way, is also what football is about, after a week which initially displayed everything wrong about the game. It is about that emotion, that illustration of the deeper meaning to a community.
Fittingly, given this was a first game back with supporters, it had a piece of human theatre. Spurs fans reacted angrily at a decision that kept Laporte on the pitch, when he maybe should have been off. There will also be questions over whether Harry Kane should have been on the pitch at all, given that he didn’t look fully fit in yet another Spurs final. They of course had to play him, to take that decision. Paul Tierney made the decission to keep Laporte on. That’s football – with all of its unpredictabilities, even if it didn’t apply to the end result here.
It made a League Cup final a strangely more significant game than it usually is, even in a week when it was an afterthought.
Speaking of afterthoughts, it was ironically one of those games that warranted the Mourinho game-management, although without the Mourinho man-management, and that was exactly what Mason went for. Spurs were always going to be forced right back, and penned in, but there was a defiant resolve to the way they stood their ground.
Toby Alderweireld did much more than stand his ground, of course, in what felt a key moment early on. The Belgian first of all did brilliantly to charge down Kevin De Bruyne’s shot, before doing even better to deflect Phil Foden’s onto the post. It was last-stand stuff in one of the first moments.
Alderweireld celebrated the ball bouncing off the post, but he was far from the only fan. This was a moment where you really felt the presence, the importance, of supporters.
So many emotions could be sensed in one second of play, but all of them – crucially, joyously – were in the stadium. There was relief, frustration, anxiety, tension, worry and hope. Spurs fans knew they’d got away with one, and one that could have been fatal, but also felt that maybe, just maybe, it might mean one of those days.
City knew they should have scored, and that they were on top, but that they couldn’t continue to miss chances. This is another thing a crowd adds: they directly influence the direction of a game, its flow and feel. One big moment can have much greater effect if the fan responses start to play on the minds of players.
A series of misses are bad enough for any attacking team, but all the worse when you can feel the defiance of the opposition grow with every one. That could be heard for Ilkay Gundogan’s second-half miss, and seen in his reaction, as he put his head in his hands. Either side of it, Hugo Lloris got strong hands to two very different efforts. One was a thunderous close-range Fernandinho header, the other a long-range strike from Gundogan again. He was much closer with that.
All of this was why another League Cup-winning goal was celebrated with even more vigour than usual. It was, in so many ways, what they’d waited for.
City, eventually, showed their quality. The ensured the story of this game was only going one way. It wasn’t to be a smash-and-grab, or a great lift for Spurs. It was them keeping hold of this trophy.
Laporte rose above the Spurs defence, and their fans rose up in celebration. That was, in this instance and after this week, more precious than another piece of silverware.