Sheffield United’s remarkable FA Cup journey, which has involved over 11 hours of football and seen them travel 1,102 miles, now transports them to the national stadium where they will meet Hull City next month for the right to contest the final of the most prestigious domestic knockout tournament on earth.
This result, which sees Nigel Clough’s side become the first third -tier team to progress beyond the quarter-final stage since 2001, is expected to pump around £2 million into Bramall Lane’s coffers and had last night captured the imagination of footballing world.
But as John Brayford explained, after his goal effectively sealed yesterday’s victory over Charlton Athletic, in terms of honour and prestige it is worth a whole lot more.
“Incredible, brilliant, special, call it what you will,” Brayford, on loan from Cardiff City, said. “What we’ve just achieved is impossible to put into words.
“It’s the stuff dreams are made of and just goes to show what you can do when you’ve got 11 warriors out there on that pitch who are just so proud to wear that red-and-white shirt.
“I just feel very, very proud to be a small part of what we’ve done. And now, we we’ll be giving absolutely everything do go out there and try to do it all over again.”
Having teetered on a knife edge, this quarter-final contest exploded into life just past the hour.
Charlton, previously leaden and ponderous going forward, were nevertheless responsible for wasting the first notable chance when Callum Harriott inexplicably shot wide after Marcus Tudgay, making his first start following a loan move from Nottingham Forest, finally prised apart United’s well-marshalled defence.
With the hosts’ rearguard now having been breached just once in nine outings, it was an opportunity Charlton could ill afford to miss. And so it proved when, first Ryan Flynn and then Brayford punished them in brutal fashion.
“It’s like something from a Roy of the Rovers annual,” Brayford said. “I really can’t believe this has happened,.
“It means so much to everyone in the dressing room and what makes it even more special is that you also know what it means to the fans. I’ve never been to Wembley before, not even to watch a game .”
Clough’s determination to ensure Brayford, Harry Maguire and Jamie Murphy recovered from injury in time to face Chris Powell’s side betrayed the significance of this fixture.
While the return of Maguire and Murphy had been anticipated, Brayford was declared available for selection only after undergoingintensive treatment on the calf muscle he strained eight days earlier at MK Dons.
The full-back acknowledged he had pushed himself through the pain barrier at times - “I thought I was in trouble a bit towards the end” - but the decision to gamble on his fitness was vindicated long before he sealed United’s progress.
“This time last week I was struggling to even climb the stairs at home,” Brayford revealed. “But there was absolutely no way I wasgoing to miss out if I could help it.
“I owe the gaffer, the rest of the lads and this football club far too much for that, because they’ve been absolutely brilliant to me eversince I came in.
“The physios deserve a massive thanks. It’s been hard work and frantic at times but they’ve been with me every single step of the way.”
Tudgay, previously of Sheffield Wednesday, was a peripheral figure for long periods before underlining his prowess by testing Mark Howard’s reactions just before the interval.
But it was Simon Church whoinsitigated their first attack of note with a powerful fourth-minute run which forced Neill Collins to intervene.
With United failing to discover their rhythm until Jamie Murphy ghosted beyond Lawrie Wilson seven minutes later, Charltoncontinued to threaten throughout the early skirmishes.
Collins met Jose Baxter’s ninth-minute corner but his glancing header flew over Ben Hamer’s crossbar while the former Evertonmidfielder, again deployed in a central attacking role, continued to try to exploit the pockets of space between Charlton’s defence and midfield.
However, it was Murphy’s unashamedly direct drive forward which caused the first moment of panic in Hamer’s rearguard withMichael Morrison eventually hacking clear after Ryan Flynn and Stefan Scougall both tried and failed to produce decisive touches.
Maguire sensed an opportunity to test Charlton’s resolve again moments later but Scougall and Baxter were again crowded out.
Nevertheless, although Chris Powell’s team looked the more assured, Church testing Howard’s handling with a deflected attempt midway through the opening period, opportunities continued to present themselves for United.
Coady, on loan from Liverpool, has improved beyond all recognition in recent weeks and only the assistant referee’s flag preventedhim from opening the scoring following a sustained spell of United pressure.
“I’ve felt better,” Powell said. “The turning point of that match, without a shadow of a doubt for us, was Callum’s miss just before they scored.
“United are very well-organised and hard to break down.”
Scougall blazed high and wide at the start of the second half before Maguire hit the side-netting following an exchange with Baxter who, moments later, was inches away from releasing Coady with a perfectly-judged angled pass.
Charlton, however, should have taken a 59th-minute lead when Tudgay, outpacing Howard, clipped the ball above United’s goalkeeper only for Harriott, whose effort had helped overcome Sheffield Wednesday in the previous round, to drill wide from 12 yards.
Flynn made no such mistake when, having tracked another superb Baxter pass, he prodded home beyond Hamer before Brayford’s low drive also found its way into the back of Charlton’s net after taking a deflection off Richard Wood.
That was the cue for United to take complete control.
“Every single one of the lads played their part out there,” Brayford said.
Hero: Sheffield United worked like Trojans through yesterday’s game with Harry Maguire, who hit the side-netting at the start of the second half, impressing at both ends of the pitch.