The gulf in resources between the first and third tiers of the English game was illustrated by the fact that, despite making 11 changes to the team which faced Arsenal a week earlier, Fulham still had talent worth over £13 million at their disposal during yesterday’s FA Cup tie at Bramall Lane.
Sometimes, though, football is all about guts, guile and bloody-minded resolve rather than balance sheets, as Sheffield United demonstrated by taking this fourth-round contest to a replay at Craven Cottage next month despite being at a numerical disadvantage for the majority of the second half.
“I thought we showed huge amounts of character out there,” Nigel Clough, the United manager, said. “We dug in when we had to but also carried a threat and, as far as I’m concerned, could easily have come away with even more.
“The application and desire the boys showed out there deserved to be rewarded and, although there is another match to come, I’m glad we are still in the hat.
“There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that we were worthy of a result.”
United’s achievement, however, came at a price, with Chris Porter, who edged Clough’s side in front before Hugo Rodallega equalised, and Harry Maguire both in danger of missing Wednesday’s crucial League One encounter against Peterborough through injury while captain Michael Doyle is a definite non-starter after being dismissed following an off-the-ball incident involving Chris David.
There was even more controversy when Ryan Flynn appeared to be denied a clear-cut penalty after tangling with Aaron Hughes.
An apoplectic Clough was still incandescent with rage when Rodallega restored parity with a rasping effort from the edge of the box and his mood was not improved when Rene Meulensteen, the Fulham manager, acknowledged afterwards that Andre Mariner “could quite easily” have awarded the spot-kick.
“I’ve seen them given,” Meulensteen, whose players have won just three times away from home this season, admitted. “In some ways we can count ourselves fortunate to still be in the tie because they caused us lots of problems on the break.
“It’s disappointing from our perspective because, being the Premier League team, we should have had enough quality to come through that.”
Darren Bent, who has commanded transfer fees totalling £47m throughout a career which has also spawned 13 England caps, inexplicably failed to convert from point-blank range as Fulham seized control during the closing stages.
But not even Meulensteen, despite bemoaning the visitors’ failure to break United’s resistance, sought to deny that Clough’s players deserved to be rewarded for their efforts.
“They made it very difficult,” Meulensteen said. “They battled hard and fought well.
“We weren’t surprised by that, though. We suspected they’d make things very difficult for us and they did.”
Clough, whose side had accounted for Aston Villa in the previous round, vowed his team would adopt a similarly positive approach against opponents nearly 50 places above them in the pyramid.
With debutant John Brayford, Jamie Murphy and Doyle piecing together an intricate, flowing move during the early exchanges, United were true to their manager’s word.
However Fulham, who saw John Arne Riise limp off after only 10 minutes, issued a timely reminder of their ability when David forced George Long to smother at the near post before Hugo Rodallega, the Columbia international, glanced a header inches over the crossbar.
United hopes that a combination of the sodden pitch and Meulensteen’s haphazard selection policy would diminish the visitors’ threat proved unfounded when only Maguire’s outstretched foot prevented Muamer Tankovic from engineering a clear shot on goal while Ange-Freddy Plumain, who replaced the injured Riise, created another opening for Rodallega.
But United continued to pose questions of their own, with Jose Baxter sending a long-range free-kick inches wide following a foul on Porter before the United centre-forward, profiting from Maguire’s superb driving run, opened the scoring with a clinical first-time finish.
“We tried to be brave,” Clough said. “Given the quality of the opposition, there’s nothing to be gained from just sitting back and inviting them on.
With the ineligible Billy Paynter, recruited on loan from Doncaster Rovers, watching from the stands, Porter could not have chosen a better moment to claim his fifth goal of the season.
Nevertheless, United continued to endure some anxious moments as Rodallega and Tankovic, making his first start for the Londoners, showed signs of developing a potentially profitable partnership.
Plumain and Patjim Kasami also impressed with a neat exchange which ended with the Swiss drilling a low centre across the edge of the six yard box.
“One of the biggest positives for us was the performance of the youngsters,” Meulensteen said. “They showed great maturity out there in what at times were quite difficult circumstances.
“Don’t get me wrong, we can do without the extra game because the fixtures are now getting very congested. It’s like an extended Christmas period, I’ve not even taken the tree down yet at home.
“But we have an excellent chance to progress because we are now going back to our ground where we will be playing in front of our own fans. It’s one to look forward too.”
Maguire became United’s second casualty of the afternoon when, having watched Kasami shoot wide from an acute angle, he succumbed to the knee problem which had troubled him since the closing stages of the first half.
Baxter led the response, threading the ball beyond David Stockdale’s outstretched arm but also the post,
after losing his marker with a deft feint deep inside Fulham territory.
Doyle’s sending-off - referee Andre Marriner deeming his clash with David worthy of a straight red card - should have been the cue for Fulham, who immediately introduced former England striker Bent, to wrestle complete control.
Instead, Flynn went close after ghosting past Damien
Duff while Stefan Scougall - who, like Brayford and Bob Harris, had arrived at Bramall Lane only 48 hours earlier - also tested the Irishman’s resolve before Rodallega dragged Fulham back on level terms.
“I thought the new lads did well,” Clough said. “They’ve hardly trained with us but showed an excellent understanding which bodes well for the future. We’ve brought them here for a reason and, although it’s still early days, they showed their qualities out there.
“We think they’ll bring something to the table and that should serve us well going forward because there are some really important games coming up.”
Had Marriner, later described by Clough as “one of the nicest men you could ever meet”, elected to penalise Hughes for his challenge on Flynn minutes earlier then Rodallega’s intervention would have been a footnote rather than defining moment of the game.
Phillipe Senderos thundered a late header on to the crossbar before Bent’s woeful miss, but Clough insisted: “We warranted a replay given our contribution to that game. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.”