Dejected Maritzburg United players after Saturday's Nedbank Cup final. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

DURBAN - The city of Maritzburg woke up on Monday morning, and life went on. The waiters who had stood around restaurant televisions along with customers on Saturday night, the petrol attendants who huddled around a single radio in the cold of the night, and the die-hards who had completed a trip to be at the final hosted by the Cape Town Stadium went back to work.

The Nedbank Cup Final ended in disappointment for Maritzburg United, as they went down 1-0 to Free State Stars, but they left the stage that they lived on throughout the 2017/18 season with heads held high.

Sure, the magnitude of the showpiece may have knocked them off their stride in stages, and they may have tried to score too perfect a goal in the first half instead of having a dip, but they ended the 90 minutes doing what they have done all season.

They finished on the front foot, throwing everything at anything in the Free State box. At the hangout that United’s players frequent, the waiters made customers wait a bit more in those final stages, but a city understood what was at stake.

There was an air of expectancy, a whiff of lingering hope in the air. Those self-same customers left their dinners, and sought a better view of the screen, as their team gave one, desperate push at the end.

Ultimately, they came up short, but even in defeat Fadlu Davids walked away with his reputation enhanced. The United coach, who has officially committed his future to the ‘Team of Choice’, didn’t seek a villain in the piece, nor did he provide a throwaway excuse about officiating or luck.

He poured effusive praise upon Stars’ achievement, and then turned his attention onto a team that he has maintained time and again is still under construction. The football they have played under him has been a revelation this season, even when his job was still under probation.

Young men have grown six feet tall, and worn the confidence of seasoned pros under him. In return, they have repaid his faith with two memorable cup runs, a lofty league placing, and the tantalising promise of much more to come over the next few seasons.

Saturday night would have hurt, because there is nothing worse than getting so close that you could touch the cup, only to watch it end up in the hands of your opponents. That is football, and the pain brutally felt by Manchester United and Bayern Munich on cup final Saturday was also felt in little Maritzburg.

Entire itineraries were built around the game, and most public places in the city swiftly switched from the F.A. Cup final to watch every minute of United’s date with destiny. That in itself was a measure of the growing influence that this team has bestowed upon its place of residence. They matter now, and their pain was shared by the residents of a city that they had allowed to dream.

Saturday night will hurt a little more because it was the final match of an emotional season, and there is no distraction of the next match to help the team move on. That said, they will dust themselves off and go again, because the past nine months have changed many lives.

United’s common bedfellows over the past few seasons used to be disappointment and dread, as they constantly fretted about relegation and mere relevance. This term, they have upgraded those for pride and a healthy dollop of panache.

That alone is a sign of progress, and every resident of their city, from the waiters to the well-heeled, recognise that.

The Mercury

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