They threw their all at Everton in a frenzied final flurry, including their giant goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, as they desperately sought to negate Paul Rideout's first-half goal, but it was another goalkeeper who was the most significant figure. This Neville Southall, keeping out all United's best efforts, was the very Neville Southall who seemed to be waning along with his team when they were bottom of the Premiership eight months ago.
Ryan Giggs, barely recovered from a hamstring injury and needing persuasion from his manager, Alex Ferguson, to be a substitute, injected belated moments of incision, but this was more a game of broadsword than stiletto; mostly absorbing but rarely sparkling, however enduringly uplifting its atmosphere.
The eye inevitably attracted to the seats behind the substitutes where Eric Cantona sat wearing - unusually - a club suit. Who can say that United, who had lost their League title in a similarly scrambled endgame seven days earlier, have not been properly punished? A place in the Uefa Cup, which their defeat denies Newcastle United, is cold comfort.
Everton's victory was a testimony to their turnaround under Joe Royle's management - all spirit and determination. Initially, when confronted by United's five-man midfield expected to support the spearhead of Mark Hughes, their dogs of war were muzzled, notably by Paul Ince and Roy Keane, themselves dogged. Everton's black and blue socks seemed appropriate. Without Duncan Ferguson, whose recent operation on a double hernia restricted him to a late appearance, they were denied an outlet for the pressure, tireless and selfless though Graham Stuart's running was.
Lee Sharpe's header over the bar from Nicky Butt's cross, Anders Limpar's low shot saved by Schmeichel at his near post, then Sharpe's volley - although hurried and stubbed straight at Southall - promised much, but the contest for physical control threatened to undermine the spectacle, and was not helped by the leniency of the referee, Gerald Ashby.
If not X-rated, this Cup final was at that point PG for the watching princes, William and Harry, although the presence of a Royle, a Fergie and a domestic spat should have made them feel at home.
Fortunately, the players' self-discipline and the arrival of a goal concentrated minds. When Ince lost the ball in midfield, Everton suddenly advanced with four attackers to United's two defenders. Limpar played the ball wide to Matthew Jackson on his right, who stepped inside Gary Pallister and crossed low for Stuart, whose shot rebounded from the bar for Rideout to head his 16th goal of the season.
Now Everton seized control, with Limpar's penetrative darts and passes hurting a United who were struggling along with their captain, Steve Bruce, who had tweaked a hamstring. Limpar again robbed Ince and sent in Stuart, but Schmeichel gathered his low shot. There was also the expected potency in the air from Andy Hinchcliffe's inswinging corner kicks, Gary Ablett heading one such just over the bar.
The interval helped United the more, giving them opportunity to regroup and reorganise faced with the loss of Bruce. Giggs immediately became a factor, his low cross from the left reaching Butt at the far post. It was but rehearsal for Southall, who smartly smothered at his feet.
Ferguson, replacing the hobbling Rideout, troubled United by rounding Pallister and forcing Gary Neville - now playing as central defender following Bruce's departure, with Keane having moved to right-back - to clear the cut-back for a corner. It was, though, an isolated retort from Everton.
Another low cross by Giggs that eluded the excellent David Unsworth as Brian McClair challenged and appealed for handball, was missed by Sharpe. Then Giggs, found with a neat chip by Ince, got past Jackson to the byline and crossed for McClair to loop a header on to the bar, the rebound being scrambled clear.
Paul Scholes now replaced Sharpe and to him fell the best chance of an equaliser; indeed, two chances. Giggs, cutting in from the left, threaded through a pass into his path as he emerged in space on the right. But Southall clawed down his shot, then blocked his stab at the rebound.
Scholes sought to make amends by supplying a cross for Pallister, but there was a nonchalance to Southall's diving catch from the header. This was his and Everton's day. Whenever his defence, so ably marshalled by the captain, Dave Watson, was breached, his positioning seemed infallible. United - and it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for them as probably deserving of a draw - were simply not destined to score. The absence of Cantona, Andy Cole and Andrei Kanchelskis, 39 goals between them this season, confirmed the feeling.
Everton were left to contemplate their reversal of fortune as relegation escapees only latterly, and United theirs in their unlucky 13th final. Change is the only permanent thing in life as well as being football's lifeblood and continuing source of hope. The last can become the first.
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