There is a theory Sheffield United invested so much into their FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, tonight’s game against Wigan Athletic could have come a day too earlier for Nigel Adkins and his players.
But George Long, a member of the team beaten in heartbreaking circumstances by the former European champions, dispelled fears Saturday’s defeat will cast a shadow over their performance during this potentially pivotal League One fixture.
“It was really disappointing,” he conceded. “To work so hard and limit Manchester United to so few opportunities, the lads were gutted not to come away with anything to show for it afterwards. The dressing room, as you can imagine, was a bit silent. It was a big occasion but I thought we handled it fantastically and now we’re all looking forward to getting back out there on the pitch again.”
A little over 72 hours after seeing their hopes of a historic result dashed by Wayne Rooney’s injury time penalty, United’s players will enjoy an opportunity to do exactly that during this evening’s rearranged fixture.
Eight points behind Gary Caldwell’s fifth-placed side with 22 matches remaining, the importance of the game, initially scheduled for Boxing Day before falling victim to adverse weather, does not need underlining. Long is understandably anxious to avoid another hard luck story following the dramatic conclusion to last weekend’s third round tie. But, as the disappointment subsides, he refuted suggestions United had left Manchester with nothing to show for their Herculean effort inside the Theatre of Dreams.
“The resilience we had is something we can definitely take away with us and learn from. We kept a solid shape all the way through, the defence was fantastic and the lads in midfield ran themselves into the ground.
“We know, in the league, we’ll have more possession so, if we can take that solid shape into League One games then it will stand us in good stead. That’s because the lads up front will get more opportunities and, when you look at their quality, you know they are going to take them.”
“It was a tough one to stomach, to lose in that way,” Long, the United goalkeeper, added. “But, going forward, there are plenty of positives we can take away with us. We played against the third most expensive squad in Europe and, to be fair, they never really troubled us or carved us apart. The gaffer gave us a game plan and we stuck to it. “Immediately afterwards, everyone was really down but, when the dust settles and we analyse the performance, I think it should help us and we can still be proud. We can put what happened to good use.”
Adkins struck a similar tone when he addressed the media at the Steelphalt Academy yesterday. Conceding much of their work since returning to South Yorkshire has focused on ensuring his squad is in good physical shape - “We’ve got recovery plans and triggered them almost as soon as the final whistle blew” - United’s manager also indicated the strategies they employed to negate the likes of Rooney and Juan Mata could form the basis of a new tactical template.
Echoing those sentiments, Long said: “We took the wave after wave of attacks they tried to mount and limited them to long range shots. All credit must go to the lads in front of me for that. I expected to be much busier than I was. Especially with the team they put out. It was world class.”
Having faced Manchester United in the FA Youth Cup final five years ago, Saturday’s contest was a landmark and, as he explained, inspirational moment for Long.
“There were 20,000 I think inside the ground back then, which was massive for us at the time,” he said. “But even though that’s lots of people, it tends to get lost in a stadium like Old Trafford whereas there was a full house here now. It was a fantastic experience and can only improve me as a goalkeeper.”
“This is where I want to be, in the Premier League,” Long, aged 22, added. “I’ll carry on working hard in training and I think I can get there, with Sheffield United of course. We’ve got a great opportunity to go up this year and, who knows, lots of teams then do back to back promotions or really build. In a few years, we could be there. If we keep on listening and leaning then definitely.”
The challenge for United now, as they attempt to take another step towards achieving that aim, is to demonstrate the same determination and discipline which troubled Louis van Gaal’s charges during the remainder of the campaign.
“Wigan have had a lot of rain so I think it’s going to be a very different type of match,” Long said. “The pitch at Old Trafford was like a carpet. But we can handle it and we’ll be going there looking for the victory. We’ll be looking to hit the same standards because, as you’ve seen, we are capable of doing it.”