It was measured rather than malevolent. Fiercely contested, not febrile.
But, from Sheffield United’s perspective at least, last night’s Capital One Cup tie at the Boleyn Stadium ended on a proud and triumphant note.
The match, the first between these two clubs since the Carlos Tevez Affair cast a dark shadow over English football, inevitably boasted an undercurrent of animosity as sections of the home support goaded their counterparts in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.
On the pitch, however, a fixture which began with a firm handshake between Nigel Clough and Sam Allardyce saw both teams go about their business in a thoroughly respectful fashion.
Perhaps a shade too respectful for the latter’s liking although it was something which United, who reached the third round stage when captain Michael Doyle converted the decisive penalty after Mark Howard saved Enner Valencia’s spot-kick, had earned.
Although he was 570 miles away in Turin preparing for the new Serie A season with Juventus, the shadow of Tevez loomed large over this game.
Eighty-seven months might have passed and the main protagonists changed beyond all recognition but time has failed to heal the scars caused by events seven years ago when the Argentine, whose presence in the West Ham squad breached Premier League rules governing third party ownership, helped preserve the Londoners’ top-flight status with a goal on the final day of the 2006/07 season at Old Trafford. United, who were relegated following a defeat by Wigan Athletic, launched a protracted legal campaign after the governing body elected to fine rather their rivals rather than deduct points and, despite failing to be reinstated, were eventually awarded Ł20m by an independent arbitration panel.
This battle, though, was always destined to be settled by footballers, not lawyers, and Howard, Valencia and Doyle emerged as the instrumental figures in a game which saw Diafra Sakho edge West Ham into a first-half lead before United, albeit with a helping hand from Winston Reid, clawed themselves level.
It was no more than Clough’s players deserved given the grit and determination they displayed at times while Howard, producing a superb save to thwart Stuart Downing during the closing stages, also excelled.
Clough, who led United into the semi-finals of the FA Cup last term, had insisted beforehand that his team was not prepared to sacrifice its place in the tournament in an attempt to focus purely on gaining promotion from League One.
His determination to progress was reflected by a starting eleven boasting only three changes from the side which had beaten Crawley Town three days earlier with Scots Ryan Flynn, Marc McNulty and Bob Harris all handed recalls.
Allardyce adopted a slightly different approach with the likes of Downing and Mark Noble named on the bench although the depth of talent now at his disposal meant that Valencia, a Ł12m signing from Pachuca was awarded a full debut.
The Ecuadorian, who starred for the South American’s at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, provided an early glimpse of the skills which persuaded Allardyce to spend a significant chunk of tranfer budget luring him to England by ghosting ominiousoly across the edge of United’s penalty area in the fifth minute but Harrison McGahey, also demonstrating a sharp turn of pace, recovered to block his route.
Valencia’s run marked the start of a sustained period of West Ham pressure which saw Sakho and Ricardo Vaz Te threaten to make inroads while Guy Demel’s physical presence frequently put Harris on the back foot.
Nevertheless, although it was last ditch at times, United’s disciplined and dogged defending ensured Mark Howard did not have to make a save of note until Valencia unleashed a rasping long-range drive which was eventually smothered at the second attempt.
Providing opponents boasting a combined total of 133 international caps in their first choice eleven proved more of a problem for United.
McNulty did well to force the 20th minute corner which Craig Alcock met but volleyed wide while Flynn nearly took advantage of Demel’s dithering when Davies whipped another dangerous centre across Jussi Jaaskelainen’s six yard box.
Howard, who learnt his trade seven miles across the capital at Arsenal, has been in exceptional form for United so far this term and embellished his reputation still further by thwarting Valencia again when Mohamed Diame’s angled pass sent his scampering through.
With 10 minutes of the half remaining, United were indebted to Howard again when he parried Ravel Morrison’s set-piece away to safety. The West Ham midfielder, whose future at the club remains in doubt, then showcased a darker side to his character when he was cautioned for diving by referee James Linington.
Sakho broke the deadlock just before the break when his looping backwards header from Reece Burke’s cross wrong-footed Howard.
However, United’s persistence paid-off when Reid turned into his own net after 13 minutes of the second-half.
Chris Basham glanced wide as their confidence visibly grew while West Ham, despite seeing Reid go close to redeeming his mistake and Morrison test the concentration of Neill Collins and McGahey with some teasing runs, became increasingly careless on the ball.
Substitute Downing saw a long-range effort tipped over the crossbar by Howard who capped his evening by denying Valencia during the shoot-out.
west ham: Jaaskelainen 6, Reid 6, Vaz Te 6 (Zarate 79), Morrison 7 (Noble 97), Sakho 7 (Downing 62), Demel 7, Diame 7, Poyet 6, Valencia 6, Burke, 7, Potts 6. Not used: Spiegel, Noble, Oxford, Lee, Page.
Sheffield United: Howard 8, Alcock 7, Harris 6 (McEveley 72), Basham 6, Flynn 7 (Campbell-Ryce 84), Doyle 7, Baxter 6 (Wallace 99), McNulty 7, Collins 7, Davies 7, McGahey 7. Not used: Turner, Murphy, Higdon, Reed.
Goals: Sakho (40), Reid OG (58)
Penalties: Noble (S), Davies (S), Downing (S), Collins (S), Zarate (S), McNulty (S), Poyet (S), McEveley (S), Valencia (M), Doyle (S)
Cautions: Morrison (36), Doyle (90)
Red Cards: None