No Big Time Charlies and going back to basics: The Story of Sheffield United's FA Cup win over Millwall
When Sheffield United’s players filed into their dressing room, after squeezing through a corridor lined with pictures of Millwall legends, they discovered a giant whiteboard had been erected where the massage table should have been.
It displayed, in manager Chris Wilder’s neat and tidy handwriting, some reminders about what was being said about them a short square pass across the tunnel, where Gary Rowett and his side were already preparing for this FA Cup fourth round tie.
The first, it transpired, related to attitude: A prediction the opposition, like Harry Cripps and Terry Hurlock before them, would love to bruise the egos of any Big Time Charlies.
The second and the third were variations on exactly the same theme. As he unpacked his kitbag and carefully arranged the contents, Oliver Norwood made sure he took a moment to absorb the message.
“We’d already spoken in the week about what Millwall would be saying,” he admitted, after scoring the second of two goals which sealed the visitors’ progress. “That they’d be trying to make it tough, that they’d be saying because we’re Premier League we might be up ourselves a bit and not really want to be here. That they’d be trying to intimidate us and find out if we were really that bothered about going through.”
Gary Rowett’s team discovered the answers midway through the second half when Mo Besic fired home a superb long-range finish before Norwood later quashed their hopes of mounting a comeback. But the foundations for United’s win had been laid much earlier, long before Wilder’s side even boarded their train which transported them to the capital.
“I’m experienced enough and old enough to know what to expect at Millwall,” Norwood continued, as he held court on the touchline of a muddy and rutted pitch. “If you don’t then I reckon you must be pretty stupid to be honest.
“We understood they’d try to get on top of us. We knew they’d try to drag us into their type of game and that they’d try to get the crowd going by running over the top of us.
“So we had to show that we were happy to do the hard yards too, win tackles, headers and races.
“We had to match them for that and I think we did. It was a really professional performance.”
Saturday’s fixture was the first between these two clubs in the competition since February 1914; six months before Britain entered World War One and HH Asquith, the last leader of a majority Liberal government, was still Prime Minister.
It represented a journey back through history in other ways too as United, having been promoted last season, reacquainted themselves with the challenges of facing Championship opposition. Tracing his journey to the top-flight after moving to Bramall Lane, Norwood explained how United’s humble beginnings shaped not only their approach to last weekend’s contest but also their determination, as they pursue a place in next season’s Europa League, to chase success on another front as well.
“You won’t hear us moaning,” he said, dispelling the myth that reaching the later stages of the tournament might complicate the push for a top five or six finish. “The more games the better for us.
“Training is so difficult that we’d rather be out there playing. We’re used to the congestion and fixtures every Saturday/Tuesday because we’re a team that’s come through the leagues together so you’ll never hear us complaining.
“You want to be out there, enjoying yourself, because the bright lights are where you want to be.”
United produced the same sort of brutal honesty at The Den, tailoring their football to suit the surface and demonstrating a willingness to engage physically.
Millwall showed why they have climbed onto the cusp of the play-off positions, posing questions during the opening exchanges through Aiden O’Brien. But after Phil Jagielka, one of five changes United made to their starting eleven, had made a fine block to prevent Matt Smith’s shot reaching Dean Henderson, Wilder’s charges made their greater quality count.
Mo Besic’s opener, despite taking a slight deflection, was a triumph of placement and geometry. Norwood also picked his spot perfectly when the ball was worked across the penalty area, threading it beyond Bartosz Bialkowski.
“We were sensible and kept it simple,” Norwood said. “Then we played our football when we could.”
Millwall: Bialkowski, M Wallace, Cooper, Smith (Bodvarsson 70), Ferguson (Bradshaw 70), Pearce, Molumby, Brown, Mahoney (J Wallace 74), O’Brien, Mitchell. Not used: Sandford, Hutchinson, Romeo, Skalak.
Sheffield United: Henderson, O’Connell, Jagielka, Basham, K Freeman, Osborn, Norwood, Besic, L Freeman (J Robinson 80), Sharp, C Robinson (Clarke 67). Not used: Verrips, Lundstram, McBurnie, Egan, Morrison.
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester).