Toone rises to the occasion as Man United seal first FA Cup

LONDON — There is only one player you want on your side heading into a winner-take-all game that will define your season, and that is Ella Toone. Once the Manchester United forward had broken the deadlock in Sunday’s FA Cup final on the stroke of half-time with a stunning strike, the floodgates opened and there was nothing Tottenham Hotspur could do as United landed the first piece of major silverware in the club’s history with a comfortable 4-0 win at Wembley.

No player loves the big stage quite like Toone. The England international has a habit of shining in the toughest games and never seems fazed by the occasion. After scoring in the Euro 2022 quarterfinal, the 2023 World Cup semifinal and the Euro 2022 final, she became the only player — men’s or women’s — to score in all three knockout rounds of a major tournament.

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“There is a great story for Tooney,” United manager Marc Skinner said after the cup final success. “Iconic moment; iconic player; iconic club. You forget those little storylines, the Ella Toone in the iconic No. 7 for Manchester United. It feels special.”

The fans’ adoration for Toone has always been clear and a sea of No. 7 shirts cascaded down Wembley Way before the match. She has been a crucial part of the United team since joining from rivals Manchester City in 2018, with the team’s attacks centred around the midfielder. A lifelong United fan, scoring the team’s first goal in an FA Cup final meant the world and her wonder strike — as she weaved around Tottenham’s defenders before unleashing a curling effort into the top corner — was worthy of the occasion.

“I’ve been practising every day in training, those types of shots from outside the box, the girls will tell you,” Toone told the BBC. “As soon as I hit it, it felt like one of them that I knew instantly was going in. For us it was a great time to score, just ahead of half-time, it is always nice to get a goal then and come out for the second half a goal up. Then as soon as the second one went in, we felt comfortable.”

Up until then, it had been a pretty even first half, with both sides having a few chances. But when Toone unleashed her rocket, it set the wheels in motion. United were composed, dominant and utterly ruthless in front of goal; Tottenham, sloppy in possession throughout, were soon engulfed, overawed by the biggest game in their history.

United put the game to bed with two goals in three minutes in the second half. Striker Rachel Williams is no stranger to finding the back of the net and she headed home from a free kick in the 54th minute, before Lucía García pounced on a dreadful clearance from goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer to slot into an empty net. A fourth from Garcia with 15 minutes to go capped a Player of the Match performance from the Spaniard, and there was no way back for Spurs as the fight had long since been sapped out of them.

Last season, Toone had tears in her eyes as she stood with her runners-up medal watching Chelsea lift the trophy after a 1-0 defeat. But this year, no one got a bigger ovation when the trophy was passed to them. Perhaps you have to lose at Wembley before you can win at Wembley.

“It feels amazing,” Toone said. “We came here last year and saw what it takes to win an FA Cup. We fell short then, and we knew this time that we were hungrier than ever to get a result. We put on a great performance today, and I am buzzing we managed to get the win.

“I wish I could play here every week! It is a great stadium, the home of football, and it is a place every young player dreams of playing at. I’ve managed to do it a few times now and get some good goals, but I love it and playing in front of the fans. Having all my family and friends here too meant so much.”

This final did seem different from those in previous years. A change of the norm from Chelsea’s three-year dominance, United have been in crisis mode, still on course to finish the season in their lowest WSL spot ever, but the win has lifted the pressure somewhat. Picking up an FA Cup trophy won’t paint over the obvious cracks, but their first piece of silverware since winning promotion in 2019 will surely buy Skinner some time and could even prove to new owner Ineos that he deserves to remain in his position next season.

Spurs, who were playing in the third tier less than 10 years ago and have only recently introduced a new manager and identity in September, have a foundation to build on. Even though it won’t feel good right now, they have their Wembley experience behind them at least.

It certainly worked for United and, for a team that has struggled to make it to finals — let alone win silverware and break into the top four — it is a statement of intent. Toone will be keen to ensure it is the first of many big occasions where she can shine.