How Sheffield United reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the second season in a row
This was supposedly Sheffield United’s third appearance of the season in a competition which continues to provide some much needed respite from the rigors of Premier League football.
But in a sense, as manager Chris Wilder has probably reflected countless times in recent months, it actually feels like they have made 23 more. Trying to survive in the game’s greatest plutocracy can be a sobering experience for clubs whose ambitions are not matched by their financial wherewithal.
Drawn against a team languishing mid-table in the Championship, tonight’s FA Cup tie saw United granted a rare opportunity to strike a blow for the establishment. It is a challenge they have completed successfully before, beating both Plymouth Argyle and City’s neighbours Bristol Rovers en route to the fifth round of a tournament with a well-earned reputation for producing shock results.
United did so once again, reaching the quarter-finals for the second year in a row thanks to Billy Sharp’s 66th minute penalty and plenty of patience as Dean Holden’s men showed a willingness to sit deep.
THE TURNING POINT
United spent an hour of the contest dictating tempo and dominating possession without ever really threatening to prise City’s rearguard apart. Although the visitors impressed with their slavish devotion to Holden’s game plan, Wilder’s men were guilty of being either too safe or too careless with their final balls until a spell of pressure forced the mistake which saw them take the lead and left the visitors at a numerical disadvantage. Seconds before John Lundstram saw an low drive cleared off the line by Tomas Kalas, David McGoldrick had watched in frustration as Alfie Mawson intervened to divert his shot onto the underside of the crossbar. But a VAR review revealed Mawson had used an arm to prevent the ball reaching the back of the net. Referee Robert Jones pointed to the spot and after the defender was sent-off, Sharp converted to claim his fifth goal in 14 outings.
CITY THOUGHT THEY HAD GOT THEIR MISTAKES OUT OF THE WAY EARLY
City, who made the journey north on the back of three straight defeats, got off to a false start when Jamie Paterson mistook the whistle signalling it was time to take a knee for the one blown ahead of kick-off - smashing the ball towards captain Kalas before realising the error of his ways. Kalas, a Czech Republic international, demonstrated greater awareness by forcing Aaron Ramsdale into action moments later. But Paterson quickly rediscovered his poise, instigating most of City’s best work as he drifted around the centre circle before being withdrawn during the closing stages, as Holden’s men searched in vain for an equaliser.
Despite admitting to prioritising the league in the past, Wilder recognises the cup now represents United’s best chance of taking something positive from an otherwise forgettable campaign. So it was no surprise to see him select a strong starting eleven, with at least seven of those certain to face West Ham on Monday thrust into action.
Max Lowe, one of those hoping to catch the manager’s eye ahead of the trip to east London, came within the width of the crossbar of doing exactly that soon after Kalas had tested Ramsdale. McGoldrick was involved in the build-up, with Brewster providing the final assist. But the former Derby County defender could not apply the finishing touches to an incisive move. Jayden Bogle should also have done better when he met Sharp’s centre midway through the opening period, instead directing his header straight into the arms of a grateful Max O’Leary. Lundstram unleashed a long range shot towards the end of the first-half which O’Leary saved comfortably again just before the interval. For all the possession United were enjoying, City’s patience and discipline made them a tough nut to crack. Indeed, when Bogle swept high and wide rather than attempting to plot a course through the phalanx of purple and green shirts inside City’s area, United were already beginning to display signs of frustration.
A SCARE SURVIVED
The second-half was barely a minute old when Nahki Wells, who seemed destined to join United as youngster before eventually swapping Bradford City for Huddersfield Town, found himself in acres of space on the hosts’ right flank. After darting towards the area, the Bermudan seemed destined to score after escaping Bogle’s clutches. But United breathed a sigh of relief when he miscalculated his angles and shot straight at Ramsdale, who gathered at the third attempt.
City survived two scares of their own when both Sharp and Brewster failed to connect with Bogle’s centre before McGoldrick saw an effort fly just past the far post. O’Leary was beaten but the attempt was off-target.
SHARP SENDS A MESSAGE
With McGoldrick deployed behind the front two - a position which should suit his talents perfectly but seems to inhibit him instead - Sharp and Brewster were paired together in attack. Still searching for his first goal since becoming the most expensive purchase in United’s history earlier this term, Brewster worked hard but struggled to make much of an impression before making way for Oli Burke. Wilder makes no secret of his preference for rotating United’s front line but, with the youngster short of confidence and City down to 10 men, on reflection it might have been better to leave Brewster on.
Sharp, despite also being short of quality service, made his presence felt long before securing United’s progress. Leading the line with authority and also showing a willingness to run the channels despite turning 35 earlier this month, Sharp revealed why he remains United’s most accomplished centre-forward.