Reaching the later stages of the Carabao Cup might not feature at the top of Sheffield United’s wish-list this season.
Indeed, bookended by last weekend’s Championship opener against Brentford and Saturday’s visit to Middlesbrough, Chris Wilder could be forgiven for viewing tonight’s first round tie with Walsall as distraction from the more lucrative business at hand.
But it is also possible to make a case that the game, which sees United renew their rivalry with opponents who beat them three times last term, could actually shape the rest of the club’s campaign. Particularly if Mark Duffy, David Brooks and other members of the squad poised to start impress after being named on the bench for the 1-0 victory over Dean Smith’s men.
“Personally, for me, it’s a big game because it’s important for me to get good quality minutes under my belt,” Duffy said. “For the lads who didn’t make the starting eleven, it’s a chance to impress.”
United lost only six matches in the league last term and eight in all competitions. Two of those defeats en route to the League One title came at the hands of Jon Whitney’s side who also won October’s Checkatrade Trophy fixture at Bramall Lane.
“We definitely owe them one,” Duffy, dismissing Whitney’s previous claim his players enjoy a “psychological edge” over United, said. “At least, that’s how I feel anyway.
“In the (league) game at our place, it was strange because we dominated them and, for some strange reason, the ball just wouldn’t go in. When it did, the goals got disallowed. We battered them.
“To be fair, in their one at their place, they were the better side. We were at a point where we were so full of confidence, everyone just wanted to bomb forward and we got caught out. To be fair, it was a good wake-up call for us and we learnt the lessons from it.”
“Their manager was coming out and saying they had an edge,” Duffy added. “They didn’t. They just won the games.”
United did exactly that, finishing the season on 100 points and 14 clear of their nearest rivals Bolton Wanderers. Duffy missed a large chunk of their preparations for the meeting with Brentford after being granted permission to attend the birth of his second child.
“My missus took a long time and, unfortunately, I had to miss Marbella and train here,” Duffy explained.
“I missed Chesterfield as well because she went into labour. We were trying everything, curries, walks, the lot. But the little one is obviously stubborn, like my missus, and just wouldn’t come out.”
“I was in every day training with Frankie. We were trying to mirror what the lads were doing over there but, obviously, it’s never quite as intense. But I feel good.”
United enter the fixture searching for their ninth consecutive victory after finishing last season with a seven match winning streak. Walsall, who lost 1-0 at Bury four days ago, are desperately short of attacking options and, with United’s James Wilson unable to play against his parent club, facing a selection crisis at centre-half. Experienced defender James O’Connor has been told he does not feature in Whitney’s plans while Matt Preston has yet to agree a new contract.
“We want to keep the momentum going,” Duffy said. “You see a lot of teams come up and it really does help, it really makes a difference, so we’re definitely looking to go out there and get the right result. That’s the way it is here; we always want to win.”