The prize on offer might have been more appealing than the match itself but try telling Nigel Clough or Simon Grayson that the FA Cup has lost its magic.
Three goals in 10 second-half minutes ensured Preston North End, not Sheffield United, will face Manchester United in the fifth round following last night’s replay at Bramall Lane. A contest which, win, lose or draw, has the power to influence the rest of a League One club’s campaign.
The £90,000 cheque North End pocketed as a result of this hard-fought but ultimately deserved victory might only be enough to cover David de Gea’s wages for a week. However, as Grayson acknowledged beforehand, in the third tier of English football it can prove the difference between signing or simply admiring a player.
Coupled with the revenues generated by a home fixture against the three-time European champions, little wonder that the visitors’ manager departed the stadium sporting a satisfied grin.
Clough, who used his teams march into the semi-finals nine months ago to help fund the recent arrivals of John Brayford, Kieron Freeman, Matt Done and Paul Coutts, was unable to deploy any of his latest acquisitions yesterday.
Whether, even taking into account the demands a heavy fixture schedule has placed upon United’s squad, their availability would have made any difference is debatable given North End’s emphatic response to Jamie Murphy’s opener. Paul Gallagher was the instigator when, after the Scot had edged the hosts’ ahead, he powered a superb free-kick beyond Mark Howard. The midfielder barely had time to admire his handywork before Paul Huntington applied the finishing touches to a well-worked corner routine.
For North End, who saw Gallagher claim his second and their third of the evening soon after, the glory. For United, only a nagging sense of what might have been. Especially after Kevin Davies’ woeful miss and Murphy’s intervention had earlier allowed them to establish a foothold in the game.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Clough’s team selection betrayed the fact that this contest, not the one against Swindon Town three days earlier, had been prioritised by both himself and his coaching staff. Howard was recalled after recovering from a back complaint while Michael Doyle, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jay McEveley all featured.
North End adopted a familiar approach too. One of the few teams to try and carve United apart rather than simply contain them this term, only the width of a post prevented Davies handing them a 13th minute lead when, seizing upon Chris Basham’s poor header, the former England international inexplicably failed to convert from 10 yards out.
United breathed a sigh of relief. But their joy, even after Murphy’s contribution, did not last.
Preston, who had travelled to South Yorkshire searching for their first ever win in the competition at Bramall Lane, continued to create the better opportunities with Marc McNulty’s deflected shot United’s most notable chance during the early exchanges.
Indeed, the hosts were indebted to Howard for ensuring the score remained deadlocked until Murphy pounced six minutes before half-time.
Tom Clarke, the North End captain and centre-half, was preparing to wheel away in celebration after meeting Gallagher’s 35th minute corner at the far post until the goalkeeper scrambled the ball away to safety. Howard excelled himself again soon after as Scott Laird’s looping header seemed destined to sneak beneath the crossbar.
The importance of his contribution, together with Davies’ terrible miss, was underlined when, against the run of play, Murphy scored his seventh goal of the campaign and third in two games.
Doyle was the instigator, spotting Murphy in acres of space on the edge of North End’s box after wrestling back possession in midfield. Thorsten Stuckmann, deputising for the ineligible Sam Johnstone, should have prevented Murphy’s low drive from finding the back of the net. But the German, who redeemed himself soon after when Jose Baxter attempted to thread a shot between his outstretched palm and the foot of the post, could also apportion some of the blame to an AWOL defence.
Stuckmann was called into action again when United, making a more positive start to the second-half than they had the first, saw Murphy go close with another deflected effort and McNulty miscue an attempted back flick following an inventive passage of play by Jamal Campbell-Ryce.
North End, though, are streetwise opponents and dragged United back into an arm-wrestle by taking a direct route towards goal. They dragged them back on level terms when a foul by Bob Harris, who moments earlier had combined with Howard to stop Laird poking home from close-range, presented Gallagher with the opportunity to convert a superb 65th minute free-kick. Swept over the wall and into the roof of the net, it was another fine addition to the former United loanee’s collection of set-piece deliveries.
It also marked a sea change in the tie when, four minutes later, Huntington edged them in front before Gallagher struck again. Huntington beat Howard after meeting Laird’s corner at the near post and United barely had time to compose themselves before Jay McEveley’s foul on Humphrey left referee Lee Probert with no option but the point to the spot.
Gallagher, staring back towards The Kop, turned and unleashed a low drive which, despite failing to fool Howard, still found the back of the net.