The competition which no club supposedly wants to win enjoyed huge significance at Bramall Lane last night as Sheffield United, whose league form has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, faced a Notts County team managed by the outspoken Ricardo Moniz.
Nigel Adkins’ side advanced to the third round phase of the much-maligned Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and, in the process, highlighted why this tournament does serve a purpose other than simply clogging-up an already congested fixture calendar.
United’s coaching staff, who saw Jose Baxter score twice and Matt Done hit the target for the second time in as many games, had challenged those tasked with taking part to stake claims for more prominent roles when their push for promotion resumes this weekend. Many including Stefan Scougall, who effectively sealed the hosts’ progress after Jon Stead had briefly reduced the deficit, obliged. But United, who also saw Che Adams score from the spot after Baxter had converted two earlier attempts, owed their victory to speed. Of foot and, in the Liverpudlian’s case, thought.
Done and Jamal Campbell-Ryce were irresistible through the middle and along the flanks. With Baxter orchestrating manoeuvres from deep, the visitors, reduced to 10 men when Haydn Hollis was dismissed midway through the second period, never stood a chance.
Moniz, an unashamed advocate of the JPT, had expressed incredulity beforehand about the antipathy many of his counterparts express towards its worth. If silverware, the Dutchman argued, is the currency of successful teams then neither United nor County, whose mantlepieces have been gathering dust for over a decade, could afford to be sniffy about its importance. Unfortunately for Moniz, who cut a frustrated figure on the touchline, the hosts wholeheartedly agreed.
Despite acknowledging that reaching the Championship next season his is priority, not Wembley on April 3, Adkins shares Moniz’s opinion that there is no such thing as a good game to lose. United’s players, many of whom were hoping to catch the 50-year-old’s eye ahead of Saturday’s contest against Rochdale, are clearly of the same belief and seized control of the tie in a little over 30 first-half minutes.
Baxter’s contribution will have provided Adkins with plenty of food for thought. Not least, with Billy Sharp’s missed penalty during United’s defeat by Colchester still fresh in the mind, due to his variety from dead ball situations. Baxter’s first penalty, dispatched confidently into the bottom right hand corner of Scott Loach’s net, was perfectly placed. His second, hit dead straight as County’s goalkeeper nervously shifted his weight, was equally as impressive and demonstrated an assurance and variety other members of Adkins’ squad clearly lack. Whether or not Sharp is asked to relinquish his duties remains to be seen but Baxter’s case is certainly worthy of further consideration.
Likewise the one presented by Campbell-Ryce who tormented his old employers throughout and, following an audacious piece of skill before being withdrawn late on, received a standing ovation from Adkins and the home crowd alike.
With Scougall also catching the eye, the 50-year-old now finds himself facing a series of dilemmas altogether more welcome than those caused by a series of bureaucratic wrangles in the transfer market where emergency loan moves for Fulham’s Dan Burn and Dean Hammond of Leicester City have temporarily been put on hold.
United, whose team selection again contravened tournament rules, made nine changes with Kieron Freeman and Baxter the only survivors of the starting eleven beaten at Port Vale three days earlier. There was, however, no shortage of incentive for those involved with Done, coaxing himself back to fitness following injury, making his presence felt early on. Jamal Campbell-Ryce, who joined United from Notts County on the eve of last season, also made himself busy during the opening salvos of what proved to be a one-sided contest and was responsible for providing the pass which saw Scougall draw a fifth minute save from Scott Loach.County, despite mounting some promising counter-attacks, found the pace of Done and Campbell-Ryce impossible to handle. The latter was brought down by Thierry Audel as he surged into the penalty area after 20 minutes with Baxter making no mistake from the spot before Done doubled United’s advantage soon after.In between, Adam Campbell shaved United’s crossbar after pouncing on a long punt upfield but, for the most part, the opening period resembled a training ground exercise of attack versus defence. Scougall dragged a low shot just wide of the far post after dancing beyond two markers while County were limited to half chances until Stead, the former United centre-forward, pulled one back following a rare moment of hesitation among United’s otherwise untroubled defence.
Scougall gained his reward for an industrious display when he cut inside and caressed home as Adkins’ charges immediately snuffed-out any hopes of a County comeback before Adams, with Baxter now watching jealously from the bench, claimed his first goal since August after being brought down by Hollis who was duly dismissed.
Sheffield United: Long, Freeman, Baxter (Coutts 70), Done (K Wallace 70), Scougall, Woolford, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce (Sammon 86), Reed, Adams, McGahey. Not used: Howard, Sharp..
Notts County: Loach, Hollis, Noble, Hewitt, Barmby, Campbell, Burke (Swerts 46), Audel, Aborah (Smith 58), Edwards (Stead 46), Mcleod. Not used: Smith, Sprockel, Pilkington.
Referee: Carl Boyeson (East Yorkshire),