Nigel Clough’s reign at Bramall Lane has been defined by success in knockout competition as the likes of West Ham, Fulham and Aston Villa have all fallen victim to his Sheffield United side.
Last night, after another dramatic late, late show, the visitors added MK Dons’ name to their list of scalps after Michael Higdon’s brace fired them into the fifth round of the Capital One Cup for the first time since 2003.
When Benik Afobe scored his 13 goal in only 18 outings from the penalty spot - Craig Alcock felling Dele Alli right under referee Roger East’s nose - it seemed as if Karl Robinson’s side, not United, would be joining the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Derby County in the quarter-final draw.
But, not for the first time this season, Nigel Clough’s side snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Higdon’s entrance as a substitute for the injured Marc McNulty proved to be the defining moment of the game and the 90th minute finish, from Jose Baxter’s centre, underlined why Clough brought him to Bramall Lane during the close season.
His first - a header four minutes earlier - came following a display of brute force.
The second was pure technique as he controlled the ball perfectly with his thigh before powering it into the net after a miscalculation from David Martin.
The Dons’ preparations had been overshadowed by speculation linking Robinson with the managerial vacancy at Birmingham City before Gary Rowett, Clough’s predecessor at Burton Albion, took charge at St Andrews.
Nevertheless, in Afobe and Alli, they possess two of the Football League’s most exciting young talents.
Alli, who counts Liverpool and Bayern Munich among his army of admirers, is the most treasured asset among the Dons’ ranks having progressed through their youth system before making his senior debut two years ago.
Afobe, meanwhile, has represented five other clubs, including Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday, since being allowed to depart Arsenal on loan.
Entering this match as the tournament’s leading goalscorer - two of his five efforts coming against United’s nameksakes from Manchester in a previous round - Afobe hoped another sparkling display would convince Arsene Wenger that he is capable of gracing more glamorous stages next term.
An opportunity presented itself as early as the second minute when a hopeful punt upfield sent United’s defender’s darting anxiously back towards their own area.
But, on this occasion, Afobe’s touch was less than assured and Mark Howard was able to dash off his line and collect. United responded with an encouraging, albeit more intricate, move of their own as Jamie Murphy, Bob Harris and Stefan Scougall combined before the latter lost his footing at the vital moment.
However, despite their deserved reputation for playing attractive football, Afobe’s presence also allowed Dons to take a route one approach with United’s rearguard forced to contend with a series of aerial attacks during the opening exchanges.
But with Jay McEveley producing a combative shift at centre-half, he spent long spells on the periphery of a contest which failed to truly spark until Alli was upended by Alcock midway through the second-half.
United, who had previously gone nearly six hours without conceding a goal, levelled when Higdon nodded home Harris’ cross before the former NEC Nejmegen marksman claimed his and United’s second of the evening from close range.
Despite ackowledging before kick-off that securing promotion to the Championship remains his number one priority this season, Clough had nevertheless insisted he wanted to progress to the later stages of a tournament he won twice as a player.
Like Robinson, who recalled Dean Bowditch following injury and asked former United defender Kyle McFadzean to anchor his defence, Clough underlined his intentions by naming a starting eleven containing the likes of McNulty and Michael Doyle while teenager Louis Reed also featured.
Murphy and Ben Davies, whose delivery from wide and set-piece situations added an extra dynamic to United’s attack, made several promising runs down their respective flanks with the latter setting in motion the chain of events which ended with McNulty having a 12th minute shot deflected wide.
But clear cut opportunities were at a premium throughout the first-half. Afobe nearly enjoyed another sight of goal when Harrison’s McGahey’s pass bounced off his leg before falling kindly for Howard while Ben Reeves had a header comfortably saved following a scramble on the edge of United’s six yard box.
McNulty, who has acclimatised quickly to life south of the border following a summer move from Livingston, appeared certain to break the deadlock in the 49th minute when Murphy drove a low centre across David Martin but, as he primed to shoot, Dons were able to scramble the ball away.
It marked the start of a sustained period of pressure from United with Murphy twice testing Tom Flanagan’s resolve and Stefan Scougall inexplicably heading over the crossbar after ghosting behind his marker to meet Davies’ cross.
Alli ensured they paid the ultimate price when he powered forward before being tripped by Alcock.
Afobe made no mistake from the resulting spot-kick before Higdon drew United level with five minutes of normal time remaining and then pounced again in added time.
mk dons: Martin 6, Lewington 6, Flanagan 6, McFadzean 7, Potter 6, Bowditch 6 (Powell 60, 6), Reeves 6 (Grigg 60), Spence 6, Alli 6, Carruthers 6, Afobe 7. Not used: McLoughlin, Kay, Baker, Randall, Hitchcock.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 6, Harris 6, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Scougall 6 (Baxter 70), McNulty 6 (Higdon 55, 6), Davies 6 (Campbell-Ryce 76), McGahey 6, McEveley 7, Reed 6. Not used: Turner, McGinn, Kennedy, Dimaio.
GOALS: Afobe (67), Higdon (86, 90).
CAUTIONS: Potter (41), McFadzean (90)
RED CARDS: None