There was no fairytale ending for Sheffield United. Only late despair at the Theatre of Dreams.
But when the disappointment of losing this FA Cup third-round tie subsides, manager Nigel Adkins and his players will take huge encouragement from their performance against Louis van Gaal’s team.
“To lose it the way we did is soul-destroying,” Neill Collins, the visitors’ centre-half, said. “Maybe we didn’t do enough to win but you’ve got to respect who you are playing against and I thought we did more than enough to earn a replay. We should really be bringing them back to Bramall Lane.”
But for Wayne Rooney’s 93rd-minute penalty, conceded when the otherwise flawless Dean Hammond felled Manchester United substitute Memphis Depay in the box, the former European champions would have been planning a journey to South Yorkshire next week.
It proved to be an agonisingly cruel and, Collins admitted, almost spiteful end to a contest which had seen the League One club neutralise £238.8 million worth of talent.
“The mood in the dressing room is as flat as a pancake, especially after we put so much in.” Collins, a member of the side which reached the semi-finals two seasons ago, continued. “The first really big cup upset I was a part of was when we beat Aston Villa and, since then, my belief coming into these games is so high.
“I’ve been in matches before where you are hanging on for grim death but this wasn’t like that. I didn’t feel as if they were going to break us down.”
“As much possession as they had, it means nothing if you don’t create chances. Apart from one at the death, they didn’t really create anything. The manager has got to take a lot of credit for the way he set us up and the tactics. The boys carried them out well too.
“It’s a really sore one to take. There’s no reward other than some self-satisfaction in the way we played but, to be honest, that doesn’t count for much.”
The fact huge swaythes of the home crowd had already left the stadium by the time Rooney pounced was testimony to United’s stubborness.
Adkins devised a game-plan designed to prevent the third most expensive squad in Europe from establishing any momentum.
It might not always have been pretty and, to a degree, diluted United’s own attacking threat, but it was mightily effective and, until Hammond’s lapse, perfectly executed too.
The Blades might rue the fact they did not test the hosts’ fragile confidence more, although, as Collins explained afterwards, some context is required.
“The lads up front have to work so hard whereas for defenders it’s mentally so tough because you can’t switch off for a second,” he said. “If you do, playing against world-class players, you’ll get punished.
“There are lots of positives for us to take but we’ve also got to recover mentally and physically because we’ve got some equally big games coming up.”
The sight of Manchester United labouring so badly against opponents nearly 50 places below them on the footballing pyramid will only increase the pressure on van Gaal.
Adkins has previously spoken about the demands of the job he accepted seven months ago, although he can console himself with the knowledge that, unlike the Dutchman, his methods are not picked apart by sponsors.
A problem for the home side was that the Blades appeared to have been tipped off that van Gaal, unlike Liverpool for their fixture last Friday at Exeter, was planning to name a full-strength 11.
“We’d got the heads-up that they would be fielding a strong side,” Collins said. “After what happened at MK Dons last year, when they got beaten pretty heavily in the League Cup, I think the manager has probably learned his lesson.”
The match itself was soporific, with both George Long and David De Gea spectators until the 67th minute when Chris Basham mustered the first shot on goal. But, playing at home, the onus was on Manchester United to seize the initiative.
Instead, they were pedestrian, with Depay’s wild slice moments before prompting sarcastic cheers inside the ground. The 21-year-old’s introduction, however, did provide Manchester with a drive they had previously lacked.
John Brayford and Hammond produced superb blocks to deny Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard as the visitors finally retreated dangerously during the closing stages before Depay drew the challenge which persuaded referee Jonathan Moss to point to the spot.
There was contact but not enough to justify the 21-year-old’s theatrical tumble.
The challenge for United now is to show the same tactical discipline during their remaining 22 league outings, starting at Wigan tomorrow.
“We move on and draw a line under this because that’s the life of a professional footballer,” Collins said. “The season, for us, really starts now.”
Manchester United: De Gea 6, Mata 5 (Depay 60, 7), Martial 5, Rooney 5, Smalling 6, Blind 6, Herrera 5 (Lingard 60, 6), Fellani 5 (Pereira 78), Schweinsteiger 5, Darmian 6, Borthwick-Jackson 5. Not used: Romero, Varela, McNair, Keane.
Sheffield United: Long 6, Brayford 7, Basham 7, Coutts 7, Sharp 6 (Flynn 63, 6), Collins 7, Woolford 6, Sammon 6 (Done 90), McEveley 7 (Reed 78), Edgar 7, Hammond 7. Not used: Howard, Baxter, Campbell-Ryce, Adams.
Referee: Jonathan Moss (Tyne and Wear).