As Erik ten Hag danced a jubilant jig on the Wembley pitch after Manchester United’s League Cup final victory over Newcastle, it was clear the manager’s romantic ideas about the club had blossomed into a full-blown love affair.
Ten Hag has made a remarkable impact since leaving Ajax to take charge of United last year and Sunday’s 2-0 win against Newcastle was the latest sign the club are back on track after a turbulent decade.
Casemiro’s header and an own goal from Sven Botman sealed United’s first major trophy since 2017, when they won the Europa League and League Cup under Jose Mourinho.
But the trophy was only secured after keeping Newcastle at bay with a gritty second half display that underlined how much difference Ten Hag has made.
Less than a year ago, United slumped to a sixth place finish in the Premier League under interim boss Ralf Rangnick.
Revived by the demanding and disciplined Ten Hag, United have set the stage for a potential return to the kind of sustained success last seen in the Alex Ferguson era.
While Ten Hag rules with an iron fist, as he showed in winning the power struggle that forced Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure last year, the Dutchman has an empathetic side that he rarely shows in public.
That emotion was on display when he joined the celebrations at Wembley, linking arms in a joyous dance with Lisandro Martinez and Antony, the United players who know him better than most after their time at Ajax.
“We have a history, the two players and me in Amsterdam. We did some dancing and I hope we can do more in the future,” Ten Hag said.
Ten Hag has no intention of letting United’s players rest on their laurels as he looks to recreate the club’s dynastic years under Ferguson.
“We have to invest and suffer every day so we can win trophies,” Ten Hag said.
“It is about glory and honour. If you want to win something you have to do it because no-one is going to bring you silverware in top football.”
– ‘Make our own history’ –
When he left the comfort of his role at Ajax last May, Ten Hag knew the challenge of leading United out of their slump was fraught with potential pitfalls.
But the chance to manage one of the world’s most iconic clubs was too good to turn down for a football romantic like Ten Hag.
“Maybe it was a risk but I am a little bit stubborn. I just loved United. When I see the shirt, when I see the fans at Old Trafford, the legacy from Sir Alex with players known around the world,” he said.
“We want to do the same. This team wants to make its own history, its own legacy. When the opportunity came I thought this is the right opportunity for me. I wanted to be part of it.”
Ten Hag’s approval rating among United fans was clear to see by the huge cheer that greeted him lifting the League Cup, while Ferguson also gave his blessing to the Dutchman when they met for dinner last week.
“The dinner shows we are good and it shows he is really involved in the club. We can all learn a lot from what he did for Manchester United. It is an inspiration for all of us,” Ten Hag said.
“Of course it is an honour to share my thoughts with him, to talk about how you lead a dressing room and the strategies. He is a happy man tonight.”
Ten Hag’s only misstep all afternoon came at the end of his post-match press conference when he almost forgot to take the League Cup trophy with him after bringing it to show the media.
Even then, Ten Hag kept his cool with a wry grin as he joked: “It’s only one cup”.
United fans will hope there are many more trophies to come thanks to their quiet revolutionary.