It might not boast quite the same glamour as the Six Nations or Cheltenham Gold Cup but Sheffield United versus Hartlepool is threatening to become the latest annual event on England’s sporting calendar.
Last night’s match, the third time these two teams have contested a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy fixture in as many seasons, produced no little drama before being settled by a penalty shoot out.
But, unlike Stuart Lancaster or Ruby Walsh, defeat is unlikely to hit Ronnie Moore too hard. Nigel Adkins, meanwhile, was left to reflect upon a result he described as “great” and “exciting.”
“We should have put it to bed earlier,” the United manager said. “The objective was to go through and we’ve achieved that.”
Early on, this game appeared destined to become a personal duel between Martyn Woolford and Adam Bartlett with Hartlepool’s goalkeeper twice denying the United midfielder with excellent reaction saves.
Indeed, it was a shot from Woolford, scrambled clear by the former Newcastle trainee, which created the opening for Ryan Flynn to break the deadlock. United and the 26-year-old Scot, making his return from injury, never really looked back until Scott Fenwick levelled soon after the interval.
Adkins’ decision to introduce Billy Sharp, a £500,00 signing from Leeds earlier this summer, made a mockery of claims that he has no interest in reaching the next phase of the tournament.
Likewise Jay McEveley’s scything challenge which prevented Fenwick a clear sight of goal in added time. Indeed, it was his penalty which sealed Hartlepool’s fate after George Long had denied Scott Harrison and their goalscorer from the spot.
“We looked assured taking the penalties and George made two great blocks,” Adkins said. “That will give them confidence.”
A fully fit Flynn, making his first appearance since May’s ill-fated play-off campaign, could be instrumental in ensuring United’s promotion hopes are not decided by the lottery of knockout football this time around.
His touch and vision, against opponents positioned sixth in the League Two table, was exquisite with a step-over and feint to leave Lewis Hawkins trailing during a one-sided first-half showcasing the talent which earned him a place in Liverpool’s academy before joining Falkirk.
Inevitably, Flynn tired as the evening progressed but there were other cameos for Adkins, watching from the stands rather than the technical area, to study. Terry Kennedy, another member of United’s squad making his return following injury, produced a typically combative display at centre-half before being left horribly exposed when Fenwick dragged level.
Nevertheless, the Redooth Academy graduate should be satisfied with a shift which also saw him wipe out McEveley to head away an otherwise-innocuous cross. Clearly a four month absence have not dampened the youngster’s fighting spirit.
“I was really pleased for Terry,” Adkins said. “And Ryan too. It was a natural progression for them to be involved and they’ve done well here. Likewise George, because we believe in him.”
This first round tie, which drew less than 2,500 supporters to Victoria Park, was a welcome antedote to the manufactured hype and hysteria of transfer deadline day.
The window closed without incident at Bramall Lane although those working behind the scenes could use the time to start preparing the case for Adkins’ defence after he named a starting eleven which breached competition regulations.
Nevertheless, with the likes of Chris Basham, Woolford and McEveley all featuring in the team which locked horns with Moore’s side, it was every bit as strong as the one which faced had faced Fulham, without censure, in the League Cup a week earlier.
Despite making nine changes, United wasted no time discovering their rhythm with Flynn giving them a seventh-minute lead. Bartlett had earlier produced a superb reaction save to deny Woolford but was powerless to prevent his team mate from sweeping home from close-range.
Bartlett foiled Woolford again as United looked to tighten their grip on the proceedings. But Hartlepool, who should have been dead and buried before the break, made the visitors pay for failing to achieve that objective when Fenwick, profiting from Rakish Bingham’s driving run, claimed a 50th minute equaliser.
Woolford’s frustration increased when he saw a low angled drive fly inches past the foot of Bartlett’s far post as United roused themselves before seeing another goalbound effort hacked clear. It was compounded when, despite an otherwise inventive display, he saw his penalty clawed to safety by Bartlett after the game had finished all-square. But Michael Higdon, Sharp, Marc McNulty and McEveley made no mistake and United went through.
Hartlepool: Bartlett, Harrison, Worley, Jones, Duckworth (Nearney 66), Hawkins (Nelson-Addy 90), Featherstone, Carroll, Bingham, Fenwick, Oates. Not used: Denton, Oyenuga, Smith.
Sheffield United: Long, Alcock, McGahey, Kennedy (Sharp 86), McEveley, K Wallace, Basham, Woolford, Flynn (Campbell-Ryce 74), McNulty, Higdon. Not used: Howard, Collins, Sammon.
Referee: Scott Duncan (Northumberland).
Penalties: Bingham (S), Higdon (S), Oates (S), Sharp (S), Hawkins (M), McNulty (S), Fenwick (M), Woolford (M), Featherstone (S), McEveley (S).