Nigel Clough predicted the margins between success and failure would be uncomfortably slim before last night’s Capital One Cup quarter-final.
Ronald Koeman, his Southampton counterpart, is unlikely to have appreciated just how miniscule as Sheffield United made a mockery of the huge gap separating these two clubs on England’s footballing pyramid before a combination of sheer persistance and Marc McNulty’s predatory instincts powered them through.
The sight of Clough’s players, fifth in the League One table, is unlikely to have proved as excruciating experience as losing to arch-rivals West Germany during Italia 90. But the former Netherlands international, who was involved in a heated exchange of views with the home bench as they celebrated McNulty’s opener, is unlikely to name Bramall Lane on his favourite list of sporting destinations anytime soon.
Make no mistake, United deserve their place in the semi-finals.
Southampton’s expensively assembled squad was out-fought and, at times, out-thought as the hosts reached the last four of a major domestic knockout competition for the second time in as many seasons.
Indeed but for Fraser Forster, who made a series of fine blocks to deny Jamie Murphy, United’s victory would have been even more emphatic.
The Southampton goalkeeper may have been at fault for McNulty’s 63rd minute strike - allowing Bob Harris’ free-kick to spill from his grasp before the young Scot poked home - but the visitors were already indebted to him for keeping them in the contest.
They had unravelled completely by the time Florin Gardos received his marching orders in the 90th minute.
Koeman’s refusal to shake Clough’s hand at the final whistle was about as classy as the Romanian’s crude challenge although he later redeemed himself by paying United a glowing tribute.
“They showed spirit and, if they look as if they are showing more spirit, we had to make our quality shine through,” Koeman said. “We didn’t and they played very well.”
Clough had described tackling Southampton as “the most difficult challenge” of his 14 month reign before kick-off. The size of the task facing United was underlined when Koeman, despite making five changes to the team which faced Burnley three days earlier, selected nine internationals boasting a combined total of 126 caps and a Champions League winner in their first choice eleven for the trip to South Yorkshire.
United initially placed greater emphasis on industry rather than invention. It was a ploy which, although not to the liking of those Southampton supporters who had forgotten their club was plying its trade in the third tier of English football only three years ago, proved remarkably effective with Fraser Forster presenting Jay McEveley with an opening as early as the second minute.
However, as the evening progressed, so United’s confidence soared with Louis Reed and Jamal Campbell-Ryce proving especially sharp thorns in a Southampton side which saw Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mane cautioned for crude challenges as they tried and failed to maintain a foothold in the game.
United were more direct and more dangerous from that moment on as Southampton, who have now lost their last six outings in all competitions, floundered.
Despite acknowledging that reaching the Championship, not Wembley, is the most pressing concern on his agenda this season, Clough reciprocated Koeman’s gesture by also naming an experienced squad although two recent arrivals from Ilkeston - Kieran Wallace and Che Adams - featured among the United substitutes.
The latter made his debut when Campbell-Ryce was withdrawn, presumably due to injury, at half-time and almost made an instant impact after Forster had clawed Jamie Murphy’s set-piece away to safety.
Wallace also entered the fray, this time during the closing stages, as Koeman’s charges huffed and puffed but failed to make their supposed superiority pay.
If they were under any illusions beforehand, United received an almost immediate reminder of the pace at Southampton’s disposal when Shane Long stole possession and released Victor Wanyama with a delightful pass but, on this occasion, the Kenyan’s touch let him down.
But, within seconds, Clough’s players responded by piecing together a threatening if not intricately constructed move of their own which ended with McEveley depositing the ball on the roof of Forster’s net after outmuscling the England goalkeeper.
That near miss appeared to rattle Southampton who probed without properly pressurising United’s rearguard until surrendering complete control.
Reed, the latest talent to roll off United’s production line at the Redtooth Academy, was a whisker away from turning home a Jamal Campbell-Ryce cross midway through the first-half as Southampton struggled to extricate themselves from the arm-wrestle.
Florent Cuvelier, making his first start since recovering from serious injury, sent a free-kick sailing over Forster’s crossbar soon after as United took charge.
A memorable piece of skill, worthy of gracing any of the game’s greatest stages, from Chris Basham set in motion the chain of events which ended with Marc McNulty slicing wide from close range before Adams saw an attempt blocked by Clyne after the interval.
Seconds earlier, Forster had acrobatically palmed Murphy’s curling set-piece away to safety just as it seemed destined to sneak into the bottom corner of the net.
Forster was called upon to thwart Murphy again following another set piece on the edge of the penalty box.
But the former Celtic goalkeeper was powerless to prevent McNulty bundling the ball across the line when Harris’ free-kick proved too hot for him to handle.
As wild celebrations broke out in the stands, tempers began to fray on the touchline with Morgan, United’s first’team coach, ushered to the dressing room by referee Michael Oliver while Clough and Koeman exchanged what were clearly differing views.
Ryan Flynn kept his cool, though, to send McNulty scampering clean through again but Forster saved well with his legs.
Florin Gardos saw red with only seconds of normal time remaining for hauling back McNulty.