The greatest game of their lives ended in bitter disappointment.
But while Sheffield United’s hopes reaching their first FA Cup Final since 1936 were left in tatters following Hull City’s improved second-half display, Nigel Clough’s players departed Wembley stadium with their pride very much intact.
Indeed, it spoke volumes about the manner of the League One club’s performance that the outcome of this pulsating all-Yorkshire affair remained in doubt right until David Meyler pounced seconds from time.
“There’s a mixture of pride and disappointment,” Clough, the United manager, said. “But the feeling of pride will grow and grow during the weeks ahead.
“We’re proud of our support and we hope they are as proud of us as we are of them. The boys gave it everything they had but, in the end, it just wasn’t to be.
“To come this far, though, bearing in mind the division we are in, is nothing short of remarkable. That’s what we’ve told them in the dressing room, that they can be very proud of that they’ve done.”
Twenty-four hours earlier Clough had urged United to ensure that, irrespective of the outcome, they produced the type of display which meant they returned home with no regrets.
They duly obliged, with goals from Jose Baxter and Stefan Scougall, punctuated by Yannick Sagbo’s effort, forcing Hull manager Steve Bruce to alter both his tactics and personnel following a one-sided first half.
Substitute Matty Fryatt made an almost immediate impact, equalising after a skirmish in United’s box, before Tom Huddlestone and former Bramall Lane favourite Stephen Quinn seemingly put the match beyond their reach.
Jamie Murphy handed Clough’s charges a lifeline by reducing the deficit during the closing stages only for Meyler to cruelly snatch it away with almost the final kick of the game.
“The fact Steve had to make those changes tells you all you need to know,” Clough continued. “At half-time we felt we were well worthy of our lead but then Hull stepped up the tempo and got the breakthrough which rejuvenated them.
“That, on reflection, was probably the turning point of the game. We had to get through that 10 or 15-minute period at the start of the second. We couldn’t, but we never, ever gave up.”
United entered the contest battling history as well as Hull.
Only the ninth team from the third tier of English football to reach this stage of the competition since the Football League was expanded 94 years ago, Clough’s players arrived in the capital also knowing that none had ever ventured beyond. Nevertheless, despite revelling in their status as underdogs, United possessed more experience of appearing on the game’s most prestigious stage with seven members of their squad, including Neill Collins and Harry Maguire, having graced it previously.
The centre-halves, anchoring a defence which had been breached only five times en route to London, found themselves under increasing pressure following the introduction of Fryatt and Sone Aluko but Clough, later expressing his “disappointment” at the manner in which United had conceded, acknowledged: “You’ve got to remember Hull are two divisions above us.
“For a long while, we managed to negate that gap. What we’ve got to do now is build on this and use it as a springboard, make sure it’s the start of something and not the end.”
While United have lifted the famous trophy four times, Hull will attempt to break their duck against Arsenal next month.
Bruce, who started his managerial career in South Yorkshire 16 years ago, admitted: “If the cameras had been in our dressing room at half-time, I don’t think they’d have been able to broadcast much. In fairness, I take responsibility for how we were to begin with but we came through in the end.
“Credit, though, to Sheffield United. We’re delighted to be where we are but they should also be very, very proud.”
Scougall set the tone for United’s afternoon by hurling himself into a tackle on Meyler only moments after referee Andre Marriner’s whistle had got proceedings under way before darting back to prevent George Boyd launching a counter-attack.
Despite his slender frame, the young Scot has been an influential figure for United in recent weeks and found himself on the receiving end of several meaty challenges during the early skirmishes.
But it was Baxter who, midway through the opening period, edged Clough’s men in front when he beat James Chester to Jon Brayford’s cross and prodded home into the roof of the net.
As one end of the stadium erupted in celebration, the Bootle-born forward and boyhood Liverpool supporter paid his own poignant tribute to the Hillsborough 96, kissing his black armband and pointing to the sky before being embraced by fellow Scouser Conor Coady.
While Hull struggled to establish a foothold in the game until Sagbo’s equaliser, United continued to threaten.
Indeed, only a miscommunication between Baxter and Coady denied the latter an opportunity to bear down on Steve Harper’s goal.
The Ivorian dragged Hull level from close range, pouncing on Jake Livermore’s centre following a neat interchange with Ahmed Elmohamady.
But Sagbo’s finish was a rare moment of quality in an otherwise abject first-half display from the top-flight club.
So, not even Bruce could have any complaints when Scougall restored United’s lead less than two minutes later following Jamie Murphy’s rampaging run.
The former Livingston midfielder timed his arrival into the area perfectly and duly found the roof of the net.
Bruce’s decision to make two changes at the break was an admission that City had been comfortably second best.
His decision reaped an almost instant reward when Fryatt, the former Sheffield Wednesday loanee, dragged them level following askirmish in front of Mark Howard.
Fryatt’s effort, his fifth of the campaign, infused Hull with a confidence they had previously lacked.
Indeed, when Huddlestone danced through United’s defence, evading Michael Doyle’s desperate lunge before edging them in front for the first time, the entire dynamic of the contest changed.
Nevertheless, only Liam Rosenior’s intervention stopped Ryan Flynn from scoring after Coady’s excellent pass.
Quinn, Hull’s third and final change, appeared to have sealed their progress with a glancing header only for Murphy to claim United’s third after Ryan Flynn’s header was blocked. Meyler, though, ended their hopes of a comeback and propelled the East Yorkshire club into the final for the very first time.
“We’ll pick ourselves up and move on,” Clough said. “We want more days like this again.”
Hero: Jamie Murphy started yesterday’s FA Cup semi-final slowly but showed his class after creating the opportunity for Stefan Scougall to score just before half-time. Conor Coady also produced some neat touches in midfield.