The most unloved and controversial competition in English football began in predictably low key fashion at Bramall Lane last night.
Sheffield United, who unveiled Caolan Lavery as their latest new signing before last night’s Checkatrade Trophy meeting, gained a point following a stalemate with Leicester City’s under-23s.
But whether manager Chris Wilder learned anything new about the options at his disposal remains to be seen.
There was huff, puff and good intentions aplenty. But, as the scoreline after 90 minutes demonstrated, not enough ruthless finishing in the final third.
The penalty shoot-out ended in predictable fashion too with Layton Ndukwu denying United a bonus point after John Fleck saw his effort saved. Not that the visitors appeared overcome with emotion afterwards as everyone in attendance, Claudio Ranieri included, tried to fathom whether this counted as a win, a loss or a draw.
Neither, to be fair, did Wilder who admitted the fact United had “come through without any injuries” was the “biggest positive” of the whole affair.
The decision to invite clubs operating category one academies into this revamped tournament has been greeted with a mixture of anger and apathy by many of those in the lower reaches of the game.
Scheduling the first round of matches during an international week, when many of those eligible to feature are away representing their countries, only added to the sense of farce. Attempts to drum up interest were also scuppered by the fact that many of the new entrants, City included, subsequently refused to include these contests on their official fixture schedules.
Shaun Harvey, the English Football League’s chief executive, argues the new format will “help the development” of “the very best young players” in the domestic game. With United and their divisional rivals threatened with a fine unless they field five of their most prominent or regular names, the inference is clear; top-flight and a smattering of Championship youth systems are more important than those further down the pyramid.
Despite the fact that United have produced the likes of Kyle Walker, Phil Jagielka and Matthew Lowton in recent years.
Politics aside, the fixture made for interesting if not compelling viewing. The hosts, as expected, did most of the pressing while City proved adept at preventing them from translating possession into a welter of clear cut chances.
Harry Chapman, among 10 new faces to join United following Wilder’s appointment, pressed his claims ahead of Sunday’s visit to Gillingham with a industrious and inventive display. The winger, on loan from Middlesbrough, combined well with Matt Done on numerous occasions before the latter was withdrawn during the closing stages.
His replacement, David Brooks, also impressed and announced his arrival by sweeping a delightful pass into Duffy’s path but the former Birmingham City midfielder miscontrolled. As the evening progressed, the contest became a duel between Max Bramley and United’s attack although Simon Moore made some vital interventions late on. But the youngster ensured City had the last laugh when he palmed away Fleck’s effort after the tussle ended all-square.
Despite not usually being known for his subtlety or sense of tact, Wilder struck a surprisingly diplomatic tone by describing this tournament as “unique” in his programme notes. It was reflected in his team selection too with the likes of Billy Sharp, John Fleck and Moore all starting for the hosts. Unfortunately, Wilder’s apparent enthusiasm is not shared by his employers’ support with less than four thousand turning-up to watch the Northern Group H tie.
Sharp, the United captain, was responsible for missing the first chance of the evening when he prodded Done’s cross wide during the opening skirmishes. Louis Reed, making his first appearance of the season, was also an influential figure as both sides wrestled for supremacy although the youngster’s passing was inevitably rusty at times.
City, naming seven players with first team experience in their first choice eleven, demonstrated plenty of clever touches with Demari Gray, a £3.7m signing from neighbours Birmingham, testing United’s resolve with a series of darting runs. But, with little or no experience of working together as a unit, they lacked penetration until Daniel Rowe went close just before the break.
Earlier, Fleck had flashed a free-kick just wide of substitute goalkeeper Max Bramley’s left hand post before blazing over the crossbar following a neat interchange with Sharp. Chris Hussey’s centre narrowly evaded Done midway through the first period.
Rowe failed to calculate his angles correctly after escaping his marker inside United’s penalty area before Moore, constantly barking orders and organising their defence, produced a superb save when Gray’s deflected effort seemed destined to creep under the crossbar.
Chapman responded by ghosting past two markers and unleashing a vicious drive which Bramley did well to hold at the first attempt. Chapman went close again soon after when another powerfully struck shot flashed just wide. Brooks released Duffy with an excellent diagonal pass but the latter’s touch let him down at the vital moment and allowed Bramley to scramble clear.
As the final whistle beckoned, so United’s dominance grew. Kieron Freeman tried to unlock City’s rearguard only to lose his footing as he primed to shoot. Chapman drew a smart reaction block from Bramley with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining.
Elliott Moore briefly stemmed the tide by testing his namesake Simon’s reaction with a close-range header before Fleck missed from 12 yards and Ndukwu ensured City’s unblemished record from the spot remained intact.
Sheffield United: S Moore, Hussey, Fleck, O’Connell, Sharp (Duffy 46), Done, Coutts, Freeman, Wilson, Reed, Chapman. Not used: Long, Basham, Wright, K Wallace, Whiteman, Brooks.
Leicester City: Hamer (Bramley 24), Hernandez, Chilwell, James (Barnes 76), Gray, Wasilewski, Benalouane (E Moore 46), Rowe, Miles, Muskwe, Ndukwu. Not used: Mitchell, Wood, Watts, Pascanu.
Referee: Nigel Miller (County Durham). Attendance: 3632