Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, predicted attitude would decide the outcome of this FA Cup second-round tie.
His suspicions proved to be correct as the visitors were forced to delve deep into their reserves of courage and character to keep an impressive Cambridge United at arm’s length.
Goals from Jose Baxter and Jamie Murphy ensured Clough’s charges avoided becoming the first United team not to reach the third stage of the competition since Ian Porterfield’s side were beaten by Altrincham in 1981.
But, as the former England international acknowledged afterwards, their progress owed as much to some disciplined defending as it did those clinical finishes.
“That was all about match-craft,” Clough said. “We killed the game when we had to and played our football when we could.
“We were under no illusions about the fact that Cambridge would provide a stern test. You only have to look at their recent record to see what they are all about and, on that evidence, I have absolutely no doubt that they’ll end up getting promoted.
“But the pleasing thing for me was the fact that, once again, we showed excellent resiliance and that ‘don’t lose’ mentality we are trying to foster.”
Baxter’s intervention set United on course for a victory and a big third-round
tie at Premier League Aston Villa, but
it was not until Murphy pounced after the break that they assumed complete control.
“We still have a fair bit to learn,” Clough continued. “But, to be honest, the only disappointing period for me was the 20-minute spell after we went in front.
“We lost a little bit of control then and gave Cambridge one or two things we shouldn’t have. However, that apart, I thought we kept our shape and stuck to the task well.”
Yesterday’s match, as Clough had warned beforehand, boasted all the ingredients of an upset.
Cambridge, a point clear at the top of the Skrill Conference Premier and seemingly destined to end their eight year exile from the Football League, entered the contest with an unblemished record on home soil since August after dispatching Bury in the previous round.
United, meanwhile, had travelled south searching for only their third victory away on the road and with experienced full-back Tony McMahon ruled out through suspension.
That prompted Clough to reshuffle a defence which has now kept four clean sheets this season. They had a difficult time combating the physical presence of Cambridge’s attack until the hosts eventually ran out of ideas.
Kwesi Appiah, on loan from Crystal Palace, saw a strong penalty appeal waved away during the opening skirmishes when his shot appeared to strike Simon Lappin on the arm while Harry Maguire prevented Adam Cunnington from seizing upon Liam Hughes’ cross.
Baxter, preferred to Lyle Taylor and Shaun Miller in attack, caressed home beyond Chris Maxwell following Ryan Flynn’s centre.
But, despite that reminder of United’s technical superiority, Clough’s hunch about the threat their opponents would pose proved to be correct as, almost immediately after the re-start, George Long was forced to smother Cunnington’s shot.
Cambridge, displaying the self-belief expected of a club which had previously been beaten just once this term, continued to pick holes in United’s defence before their enthusiasm began to wane.
Murphy, who entered the fray when Stephen McGinn succumbed to injury, provided some respite with a darting run which ended with Tom Champion blocking another Baxter effort after Chris Porter had flung himself at the substitute’s delivery.
Nevertheless, it was Cambridge who demonstrated the greater incision and purpose until Murphy claimed his first of the campaign.
“Listen, we came into the game with lots of confidence,” Richard Money, Clough’s counterpart at the Abbey Stadium, said. “Lots of folk were talking about an upset and, with the way things have been going for us lately, we probably had a little bit more than hope.
“But, at the same time, we were also very aware of who we were playing. They’re a big name and a big club.
“That’s why, even before kick-off, although we wanted to win, we had also prepared for the eventuality of a defeat.”
Cambridge could count themselves unfortunate not to enter the interval at least on level terms and channelled that sense of grievance into a determined second-half display.
Luke Berry, whose brace had helped dispatch Bury in midweek, wasted a good opportunity after stooping to meet Hughes’ set-piece while Long was called upon to parry a close-range attempt from Harrison Dunk.
Porter should have doubled United’s lead but could only direct Lappin’s pass straight into the arms of a relieved Maxwell.
However the goalkeeper enjoyed no such fortune when Maguire and Lappin combined on the hour to send Murphy bearing down on the Cambridge area before cutting inside to thread the ball between Maxwell’s outstretched palm and the foot of the post.
“The main objective was to go through,” Clough said. “We did and I thought we deserved to do it as well. We want to keep building that momentum and keep the unbeaten run going. It’s all about staying on a run and looking to improve every single week.”