I’ve never subscribed to the theory that lower league teams, whenever they face top-flight opponents in knockout competition, have nothing to lose.
Nothing, that is, except a vital match, the possibility of reaching the next round. Oh, and don’t forget personal pride. I bet members of the Hyde team, thumped 26-0 by Preston North End in 1887, thought: ‘Don’t worry lads. Put it all behind us. It’s not as if people will still be talking about this in nearly 130 years after all.’ Nah, they probably just shrugged their shoulders and jovially hopped straight back on the charabanc.
Sheffield United, who face their namesakes from Manchester in the FA Cup tomorrow, know the odds are stacked against them qualifying for the fourth round draw. Nevertheless, despite Nigel Adkins’ best efforts to argue otherwise, his players will be just as determined to progress as Louis van Gaal’s. Those of us who witnessed their predecessors file through Wembley’s mixed zone following the 2014 semi-final against Hull City or, nine months later, away from Bramall Lane after losing to Tottenham Hotspur in the same phase of Capital One Cup will testify they looked gutted, crestfallen and distraught. So no ‘free hit’ there then.
Scroll forward another season and, yes, a United victory is unlikely. But not impossible. So how do they achieve the type of upset which would possibly eclipse Bradford City’s victory over Chelsea last year? Brian Deane, a member of the last United team to beat the former European champions, offered some words of advice during a chat with yours truly earlier this week.
“Old Trafford can potentially be viewed as intimidating,” the centre-forward, who helped knock Sir Alex Ferguson’s team out of the tournament in 1993, acknowledged. “But you can use that to your advantage. The crowd is huge but look up, not down, and drink it all in. Focus on your job first and foremost but use the atmosphere and the occasion to inspire you as well. Take in the whole experience. Look into the stands rather than pretending they aren’t there.”
As City demonstrated when they travelled to Stamford Bridge, amazing things happen to those who dare to dream. And, statistically speaking, United are in a much better place than their League One rivals were ahead of that match. Chelsea entered the game on top of the Premier League table, five points clear of second place, and unbeaten in four outings, Manchester United, meanwhile, are fifth having won only once in nine. City’s warm-up consisted of a defeat to Yeovil Town which followed a victory, a defeat and a draw. United lost to Peterborough six days ago but won all of their four fixtures before.
Okay, the chances are Adkins’ men will be focusing purely on trying to gain promotion come Sunday morning. But nearly 9,000 supporters are making the journey from South Yorkshire because you just never, ever know.