SHEFFIELD United’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy campaign ended in disappointment at Bramall Lane last night.
Phil Parkinson, the Bradford City manager, had accused his players of treating their League Two fixture against Cheltenham Town four days ago “like a testimonial” but they fought like tigers to secure a memorable victory over Danny Wilson’s side.
Matt Phillips edged United in front with the sixth and possibly final goal of his Bramall Lane career after combining well with Marcus Williams before the visitors, who had earlier spurned two glorious invitations to score, equalised courtesy of Michael Flynn’s well-taken effort just before the interval.
United, delivering another purposeful rather than inspired display in front of a live television audience, should have possessed enough ability within their ranks to have made City pay for their profligacy.
Instead, growing increasingly ragged and careless as the contest progressed, they were indebted to Steve Simonsen for preventing Parkinson’s charges from taking the lead with an excellent double stop to deny Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip midway through the second period before Jon McLaughlin excelled himself when Billy Clarke met Neill Collins header on the stroke of full-time.
But Simonsen was powerless to prevent Chris Mitchell from powering City into the Northern-Area semi-final with the decisive spot-kick of a tense penalty shoot-out after substitute Erik Tonne’s attempt had been saved.
With majority of their rivals refusing to disguise their contempt for this trophy - Sheffield Wednesday made three substitutions during the early exchanges of their first round tie against Parkinson’s side - these two clubs have been exceptions to the rule.
Ross Hannah, a lifelong supporter of United’s arch-rivals from Hillsborough, had tweeted his intention to “demolish” the “piggies” before kick-off while Simonsen, the former England under-21 international goalkeeper, insisted that reaching March’s showpiece at Wembley would represent one of the “highlights” of his career “whatever the tournament.”
Clarke, who together with Phillips was playing the final game of his loan from Blackpool, issued a early statement of intent by wriggling beyond two markers before finding Chris Porter in the box but the United striker’s first minute shot trickled wide.
Phillips quickly made his presence felt with a delightful back heel to release Williams before embarking on another powerful run.
City, however, should have taken the lead when Hannah inexplicably headed over the crossbar from Jack Compton’s cross.
It was a mistake they nearly came to rue when Michael Doyle, captaining United in Nick Montgomery’s absence, came within a whisker of picking-out Porter on the edge of the six yard box moments later.
Despite their recent troubles, Wilson’s prediction that City would provide determined opposition proved correct.
Calm and composed in possession, the visitors had clearly been instructed to test Elian Parrino’s durability on the right hand side of United’s defence.
Another charge forward, this time from Hannah, left the Argentine trailing in his wake but Simonson showed fine reactions to thwart Craig Fagan from close range.
Parrino redeemed his earlier error by immediately creating an opportunity for Porter at the other end of the field but predictably it was Phillips who broke the deadlock in the 27th minute with a powerful 25-yard shot which left Jon McLaughlin grasping at thin air.
Having seized the advantage, United looked to showcase their full repertoire of talents.
Kevin McDonald, a languid presence in midfield, sent Phillips scampering clear again with a perfectly angled pass but Porter, demonstrating good awareness, back-heeled the England under-20 winger’s centre past McLaughlin’s far post.
City, however, had shown themselves capable of carving-out chances and, five minutes before the interval, finally took one of those which had come their way when Flynn converted in equally fine fashion after out-muscling Ched Evans.
It was his club’s first goal in five-and-a-half hours of football with Fagan coming within a whisker of giving them the lead with a fierce half volley immediately after the re-start.
As the contest became increasingly stretched, Doyle and Flynn both tried their luck in quick succession with Harry Maguire required to hack behind from a corner.
Oliver and Seip enjoyed opportunities from the resulting set-piece but Evans was guilty of over-elaborating when he was robbed of possession after ghosting beyond two markers.
McDonald sent a header spiralling into an empty Kop following more tenacious work from Doyle while Phillips was inches away from connecting with Lowton’s excellent right wing cross during the closing stages.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen 8, M Williams 77, Maguire 6, Collins 6, Parrino 6 (Lowton 54, 6), Phillips 7, McDonald 6, Doyle 6, Evans 6 (Tonne 65, 6), Porter 6, Clarke 6. Not used: R Flynn, Harriott, Long.
BRADFORD CITY: McLaughlin 6, Ramsden 6, Seip 7, Oliver 7, O’Brien 6, Mitchell 6, Jones 6, M Flynn 7, Compton 6 (Hanson 80), Fagan 6, Hannah 6 (Devitt 68, 6). Not used: S Williams, Wells, Duke.
GOALS: Phillips (27), M Flynn (40). Penalty Shoot-Out: Porter (M), Flynn (M), Collins (S), Fagan (S), Phillips (S), Jones (S), Lowton (S), Devitt (S), Doyle (S), Seip (S), Maguire (M), O’Brien (M), McDonald (S), Ramsden (S), Tonne (M), Mitchell (S)