WITH two of English football’s major trophies already residing across the Pennines, Sheffield United will attempt to strike a blow for the White Rose at Old Trafford tonight.
But, by a strange twist of fate, it is a dyed-in-the-wool Lancastrian who is spearheading the charge to prevent the county of his birth from claiming yet another piece of silverware.
John Pemberton, born and bred in Oldham, has already performed wonders by leading United into the final of the FA Youth Cup.
Having held their namesakes from Manchester to a deserved 2-2 draw during last week’s absorbing first-leg at Bramall Lane, the South Yorkshire club’s youngsters crossed the border earlier today confident of securing an even better result.
“If we win then it will be the biggest achievement of my career,” Pemberton, the former United, Leeds and Crystal Palace defender said. “I had some great experiences as a player and as a coach but this would be right up there with the lot of them.”
Irrespective of the outcome this evening, United’s latest crop of home-grown talent have already left an indelible impression on Bramall Lane.
Their free-flowing, expansive style has not only captured the imagination of supporters still coming to terms with the first-team’s relegation from the Championship but also, perhaps even more importantly, changed perceptions behind the scenes.
Widely, although not always accurately, perceived as exponents of the long ball game, the powers-that-be at United have declared a commitment to passing football is essential for those vying to replace manager Micky Adams at the helm.
With several of Pemberton’s charges expected to feature prominently at League One level next season, style has been afforded the same importance as substance.
“When I came here I had a head start because I knew people were ready for a change,” Pemberton said.
“I knew because I’ve made this city my home and even when I left I used to come back as a fan.
“I’d hear them talking in the pub afterwards when I went for a pint. They’d be saying they were sick of the long ball and that they wanted to see something different.
“All the teams that are successful now play football. Ask people what a typical Sheffield United player is and they’ll reply big, tough and strong.
“You get tagged with a reputation but look at Tony Currie. It hasn’t always been like that but somewhere along the line things changed.”
Nevertheless, Pemberton still concedes that his charges must be ready to bare their teeth in order to prevail against opponents bidding to win the competition for an astonishing 10th time.
United, by contrast, are making their first ever appearance in the showpiece event since the tournament was conceived in 1958.
“We saw at our place that not only have they got very good players, but the Manchester United lads were also very big, strong boys,” said Pemberton. “They’ve got a strength in depth that we haven’t got because of their resources.
“But we’ve got good players too. My biggest aim at our ground was for the lads to show the supporters what they’re all about. That they’d buy into it.
“The response since then has, I hope, shown they’ve done that.”
Manchester United (possible): Johnstone, M Keane, McGinty, Thorpe, Fornasier, Tunnicliffe, Lingard, Pogba, W Keane, Morrison, Van Velzen. Subs: Massacci, Coll, Cofie, Fryers, Lawrence.
Sheffield United (possible): Long, Montgomery, Barry, Harriott, Maguire, Kennedy, Gregory, Whitehouse, Ironside, Slew, McFadzean. Subs: Pomares, Willis, Wilkinson, Martin, Ahmadi.
Tale Of The Tape
Sheffield United and Manchester United have drawn both of their previous two meetings this season. Last week’s FA Youth Cup first-leg at Bramall Lane finished 2-2 while September’s FA Premier Academy League fixture at Shirecliffe ended 1-1.