Result: Preston North End 1 Sheffield United 1: De Girolamo earns Blades replay

United celebrate Diego De Girolamo's equaliser> Photo:   Blades Sports Photography

United celebrate Diego De Girolamo's equaliser> Photo: Blades Sports Photography

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Sheffield United confirmed John Brayford’s arrival on a permanent transfer from Cardiff City before kick-off.

The defender was present at Deepdale as manager Nigel Clough made eight changes for their FA Cup fourth round tie against divisional rivals Preston North End with Diego De Girolamo, Connor Dimaio and Terry Kennedy among those handed recalls to the starting 11 while Marc McNulty, Michael Doyle and Jamal Campbell-Ryce featured on the bench. Ben Davies made his first appearance since recovering from injury.

Diego De Girolamo levels for the Bkades: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

Diego De Girolamo levels for the Bkades: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

The defender was present at Deepdale as manager Nigel Clough made eight changes for their FA Cup fourth round tie against divisional rivals Preston North End with Diego De Girolamo, Connor Dimaio and Terry Kennedy among those handed recalls to the starting 11 while Marc McNulty, Michael Doyle and Jamal Campbell-Ryce featured on the bench. Ben Davies made his first appearance since recovering from injury.

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John Brayford signs for the Blades

Amid all the excitement generated by Brayford’s return to the club, United still had some important business to attend at Deepdale this afternoon.

United;s Diego De Girolamois tackled by  Tom Clarke: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

United;s Diego De Girolamois tackled by Tom Clarke: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

Namely, qualifying for the fifth round of the FA Cup.

A fact Nigel Clough, manager of last season’s semi-finalists, had been quick to point out before boarding the coach to Lancashire yesterday afternoon.

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Paul Gallagher, the former United loanee, put their resolves to the test during the early exchanges with a ninth minute run which ended with Terry Kennedy turning a low shot away to safety. Calum Woods drove Preston North End forward again three minutes later before firing wastefully over Mark Howard’s crossbar from distance.

Tom Clarke of  Prestonand United's Diego De Girolamo battle for the ball: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

Tom Clarke of Prestonand United's Diego De Girolamo battle for the ball: Photo: Blades Sports Photography

The warning signs were there and so, given his growing influence, it was no surprise that Gallagher was responsible for handing Preston a 20th minute lead with a superbly struck 35 yard free-kick. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake was fouled as he attempted to wriggle through United’s remoulded defence which allowed his colleague to thread a low, tracer-bullet type shot, between Howard’s outstretched palm and the goalkeeper’s right hand post.

With United playing the return leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, Clough retained only three members of the eleven narrowly beaten at White Hart Lane 72 hours earlier.

Inevitable, that had consequences for the visitors rhythm and fluidity at both ends of the pitch.

Michael Higdon showed good awareness to hold-up play and wait for reinforcements after running into traffic as he launched a counter-attack but, when the ball was recycled through Louis Reed and Craig Alcock, the move broke down.

Kennedy, always an enthusiastic performer no matter what the occasion, tested Tom Clarke’s defensive qualities on a foray forward before looping a wayward centre out of play.

Higdon was the centre of attention again in the 36th minute when he was inches away from connecting with Alcock’s cross on the half volley. As the ball spiralled through the air, it was chested into Chris Basham’s path by Diego De Girolamo, playing alongside the former Motherwell marksman, but his effort was blocked.

Gallagher’s finish had been the one moment of genuine quality during an otherwise fractious first-half.

United’s front two, Higdon and McNulty, were lacking service. Preston, meanwhile, will have been disappointed not to put the tie to bed.

After Kyel Reid’s 47th minute shot had tested Howard’s handling, they could, probably should, have been punished for failing to do exactly that. Basham’s touch sent De Girolamo scampering through and although he prodded the ball beyond the advancing Thorsten Stuckmann, the Italy youth international did not generate the type of power which would have prevented Woods from hacking it off the line.

Although the final instalment of their double-header with Spurs undoubtedly influenced Clough’s selections, his decision to introduce Murphy for Dimaio in the 55th minute demonstrated his desire to progress.

Higdon appeared to have a genuine claim for a penalty after being wrestled to the floor as he contested an aerial ball.

De Girolamo, though, ensured United, who had emerged a much more threatening proposition after the interval, levelled when he touched home Murphy’s 68th minute cross.

He made way for McNulty with 12 minutes remaining, but not before sending another good strike whistling just the wrong side of the post.

Preston made two changes of their own in the 74th and 85th minutes respectively when Kevin Davies and Alan Browne replaced the impressive Reid and John Welsh.

Bob Harris entered the fray when Ben Davies was withdrawn but, despite the best efforts of both teams, neither could score the goal which would have avoided a replay.PRESTON NORTH END: Stuckmann, Clarke, Humphrey, Kilkenny, Gallagher, Woods, Buchanan, Reid, Welsh, Huntington, Ebanks-Blake. Substitutes: Hudson, Laird, Wiseman, K Davies, King, Brownhill, Browne.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard, Alcock, Basham, Baxter, B Davies, McGahey, Higdon, Reed, De Girolamo, Kennedy, Dimaio. Substitutes: Long, Harris, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, McNulty, Campbell-Ryce.

REFEREE: K Stroud (Hampshire).

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