Claustrophobic surroundings, plummeting temperatures and a reputation to protect against opponents emboldened by six promotions in only nine years.
Little wonder Nigel Clough insisted beforehand these are the type of occasions which tell managers plenty about the character of their players.
Saturday’s contest also marked a voyage of discovery for Kieran Wallace who made his professional bow in Sheffield United colours less than a month after arriving at Bramall Lane.
Being exposed to the rigours of non-league football during a brief spell at Ilkeston meant the youngster was equipped to cope with the physical demands placed upon him by Graham Alexander’s combative Fleetwood Town side.
But, as colleagues and coaching staff alike acknowledged, a mature contribution in midfield during a draw which left both camps relatively satisfied afterwards, demonstrated Wallace possesses other attributes which suggest he can become an integral part of Clough’s plans.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind really,” Wallace said. “But I suppose it’s better that way because you don’t have the time to get nervous.
“I only found out I was playing an hour beforehand. If I’d have known earlier then I probably wouldn’t have slept all night.
“But I really enjoyed myself out there and hopefully I’ve done enough to be involved again. It’s a big step up from the level I was playing at not so long ago but the principles of the game don’t change.
“That spell at Ilkeston really helped prepare me for what I’ve just been involved in. It really was a massive help. Man’s football. That’s what they gave me and that’s what I was playing out there.”
Not that Wallace, the second player United have signed from the New Manor Ground this term, is a completely unpolished gem. Having started his career at Nottingham Forest before being released last summer, the former England youth international has benefited from being able to pick some sharp footballing brains.
“I was at Forest in the academy and development team but they let me go,” Wallace said. “So when my coach there, Steve Chettle, also left and went to Ilkeston I rang him and asked if I could go there.
“I did and really enjoyed it. I was on non-contract terms for about four months or so and it was brilliant, but when Sheffield United come calling and you’re given a chance to get back into the game, you can’t turn that down can you?
“But I learned a lot at Ilkeston. I didn’t just have a good time there, they taught me so much too. Steve and Kevin Wilson, who is in charge, are both excellent coaches who passed on plenty.
“Now I’m really fortunate because I’ve got the same again with Nigel Clough. All the way through, I’m lucky because I’ve been at places where there is a good philosophy, where they want you to play football and use your brain, so that’s been embedded in me right from the start.”
“I’ve also tried to listen to the senior players here because they’ve already made the grade,” Wallace continued. “And that’s something you’ve got to respect. They’ve been there, seen it and done it, which I obviously haven’t, but, if I pick up on what they’re telling me, then I might be able to follow in their footsteps.
“Ilkeston had a reputation for bringing through lots of young lads and trying to play good football so we had lots of teams coming to our place and trying to bully us. So that’s another thing being there has taught me to get used to because I know I’ll need that here. You’ve got to be able to stand up for and look after yourself.”
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On paper, Fleetwood versus United appeared something of a mismatch. Peer beyond the history books, however, and it was clearly anything but. On this weekend in 2006, Clough’s employers had just held Aston Villa while the hosts were preparing to visit Radcliffe Borough in the UniBond Premier League. Eight seasons later, following Fleetwood’s dramatic charge through the divisions, Highbury played host to their first ever competitive meeting which showcased the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.
United, who surged ahead when Bob Harris dispatched a superb finish beyond Chris Maxwell, went about their business with positive intent and purpose but lacked the ruthlessness which could have enabled them, at that stage, to build a commanding half-time lead.
Fleetwood, meanwhile, demonstrated the durability which has seen the likes of Bristol City, Barnsley and Chesterfield all put through the mill inside their compact stadium, where a state-of-the-art main stand towers over three tiny terraces and a social club, before losing momentum after Antoni Sarcevic had deservedly drawn them level.
“We’re in a good position even though we’ve still not been on a really good run,” Wallace said. “So that, the way I look at it, is a positive because it shows what can happen when we do.
“If we win our next two games, then we’ll be right up there because that’s the way the league is.
“I’ve watched quite a few matches since I’ve been training here and I know what we can achieve.”
Wallace is correct. United remain tantalisingly close to becoming a formidable third-tier team. Frustratingly, the process is taking longer than anyone but Clough and his confidents expected although, as the 48-year-old correctly highlighted after watching them remain fifth in the table, there are mitigating factors.
“We’re definitely in a position where the best is yet to come,” he said. “But, like Graham (rival boss Alexander), when you put it into context, I’d regard that as a positive point.
“We’ve got people like Chris O’Grady out there, who hasn’t had much football lately and so it still getting into his rhythm but showed what he can do. We’ve got James Wallace, another important player, out injured but who should be back firing on all cylinders early in the New Year.
“That’s why I agree with people who say we can come on strong during the second half of the campaign.
Alexander’s team boasted the fourth best attack in League Two last season but, after beating Burton Albion in the play-off final, have found goals much harder to come by this term. Instead, their climb to 11th in the table has been built on a defence whose record on home soil is bettered only by Walsall.
United, boasting the competition’s sixth best attack on the road, breached it after only nine minutes when Harris profited from Jose Baxter’s exchange. Jamie Murphy, who had earlier hit the post with an angled shot, was inches away from finding Michael Higdon as the visitors’ took charge while the striker miscued from close range.
Sarcevic pounced soon after the re-start when, scoring for the first time since that victory at Wembley, he used placement rather than power to loop a header over Mark Howard after meeting a Josh Morris centre. His intervention proved to be the catalyst for Fleetwood’s best period before Wallace stopped them in their tracks with a fierce drive which Maxwell did well to save.
“Honest,” Clough said. “That’s the best way to describe how both teams conducted themselves out there.
“The conditions were difficult and the wind was swirling but we tried to get the ball down and play football throughout. Of course we wanted to win but we’re also hard to beat with plenty of character and determination.
“Those are the building blocks and we’re getting there.”
FLEETWOOD TOWN: Maxwell 6, McLaughlin 6, Andrew 6, Roberts 7, Evans* 6, J Hughes 6, Morris 6, Sarcevic 7, Proctor 7, M Hughes 7, Jordan 6. Substitutes: Schumacher, Dobbie, T Davies, Haughton*(81), Hitchcock, Bleeker, Cartwright.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Flynn 6, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Baxter* 7, McEveley 6, Higdon** 6, McCarthy 7, O’Grady 7, K Wallace*** 7. Substitutes: Basham*(69) 6, McNulty**(76), McGahey, Campbell-Ryce, Turner, Adams, Cuvelier***(79).