The odds on Sheffield United lifting the FA Cup this season might be longer than UKIP winning the General Election or Donald Trump becoming the next Republican nominee.
But, as their march into the semi-finals seven months ago proved, there is something about the world’s most prestigious domestic knockout competition which captures the imagination of Nigel Clough’s team.
Last night’s victory over Crewe Alexandra is unlikely to stir his emotions with quite the same vigour as those memorable tussles against Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Fulham en route to April’s showpiece at Wembley.
However, as Clough was fond of reminding during preparations for that historic meeting with Hull City beneath the iconic arch, only by beating less glamorous opponents had United earned the right to appear on England’s greatest footballing stage.
So little wonder the sight of his players negotiating safe passage through what, on paper at least, had threatened to be a tricky first round replay filled him with satisfaction and pride.
“These are the type of games you’ve got to win if you want to savour the really big occasions,” Clough said. “I thought we controlled the game well and could have got a couple more. But the most important thing was the get through which we did.”
Two goals from Ryan Flynn ensured United, who have now lost only twice in 11 outings, made relatively simple work of Steve Davis’ charges and banked a winners cheque for £18,000.
Flynn, netting for the second and third times this term, broke the deadlock midway through the first-half after prodding home from close range before wrong-footing Ben Garrett following an exchange involving Jose Baxter and Jamie Murphy.
“Ryan took them well,” Clough continued. “They were very different types of finishes but he wasn’t the only good player out there. I thought Chris (Basham) was excellent again while Stefan (Scougall) is looking as if he’s getting back to his best.”
Clough has been a staunch defender of this tournament’s importance on the sporting calendar since taking charge of United 13 months ago and, despite acknowledging that ending their exile from the Championship remains a priority, paid both it and Crewe the compliment of naming a starting eleven containing the likes Mark Howard, Scougall and Michael Doyle.
With Saturday’s League One encounter against Oldham Athletic looming large on the horizon, Clough’s team selection was a calculated risk. But, with strikers Marc McNulty and Michael Higdon still nursing injuries, that bold gamble also enabled him to assess some potentially interesting options for the visit of Lee Johnson’s team.
Flynn furthered his claims for a prominent role with an accomplished attacking display while Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Murphy demonstrated that, although they are not recognised centre-forwards, both can deputise effectively in a more forward position.
United’s superiority also enabled Clough to introduce Diego De Girolamo after Flynn had effectively ended Crewe’s resistance while another home-grown talent, 18-year-old Ben Whiteman, made his professional debut as a late substitute.
“We were able to try a few things out and it was great to get those lads on,” Clough continued. “When you’re up against Crewe, there’s always a nagging doubt at the back of your mind that they might catch you on the break but we saw things out really well.”
Scougall, a blur of energy and endeavour in an advanced midfield role, was responsible for thrusting United onto the front foot during the opening skirmishes against opponents who had held them to a goalless draw at Gresty Road 10 days earlier. Indeed, it was a measure of United’s confidence that Jay McEveley, again tasked with anchoring their rearguard, spent long periods tussling for high balls in Garrett’s penalty area rather than marshalling Bradden Inman.
The Crewe goalkeeper was forced to gather a low drive from Murphy before again denying the Scot with a superb flying save which saw him acrobatically arch his back before clawing away a curling shot destined for the top corner.
But, moments later, Garrett presented Flynn with the opportunity to edge United into a 20th minute lead when, following a short corner exchange involving Basham and Jamal Campbell-Ryce, he inexplicably spilled the latter’s cross.
Crewe, who had earlier gone close when Howard superbly denied George Cooper and Callum Saunders in quick succession, pieced together some intricate moves with Inman hitting the foot of the post during the closing stages of the first period.
But with United dominating both in terms of territory and possession, they seldom troubled United’s backline after the interval.
Louis Reed, whose composure and technique have seen him rise quickly through the ranks since graduating from United’s Redtooth Academy, grew in prominence as the action unfolded.
But it was Basham who went closest to extending their advantage following Flynn’s intervention when a powerful 64th minute shot nearly caught Garratt unawares. Scougall, again profiting from Flynn’s invention, directed a header inches wide soon after while Murphy had a ‘goal’ disallowed for offside.
Crewe, who have not reached the third round since 2009, showed flashes of the ability which had prompted Clough to talk-up the threat they posed beforehand. However, despite the best efforts of Anthony Grant, they were unable to establish a foothold in the game.
Saunders, the son of former United marksman Dean, enjoyed another sight of goal with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining but, after scampering into space, saw his angled drive collected comfortably by Howard.
Flynn sealed United’s progress into the second round, where they will host Plymouth Argyle next month, after being released by Murphy following an exchange with Jose Baxter.