STILIYAN Petrov, the Aston Villa captain, admitted before this match that he couldn't care less about the FA Cup but such a lack-lustre attitude was scarcely in evidence as the visitors were forced to overcome a courageous comeback from Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

The South Yorkshire club had dispatched Villa at the same stage of the tournament six years ago and, having seen their opponents reduced to ten men following Jamie Ward's penalty early in the second half, Micky Adams' side sensed another upset could be on the cards.

But their hopes of beating the seven-time competition winners were extinguished when the Bulgarian claimed Villa's third goal of an eventful contest just moments before the final whistle.

Despite its growing band of detractors, this competition has a habit of producing talking points and, true to form, two emerged from Saturday's third-round tie.

Villa debutant Kyle Walker scored the first senior goal of his career at the ground where he progressed through the ranks while Ward, a life-long supporter of Gerard Houllier's side, was also on target against the team he represented as a youngster.

United lost the match but, as Adams insisted afterwards, "died with their boots on".

"It's mixed emotions for me," Walker, who received a rapturous reception from the home crowd, admitted. "I'm a Sheffield United fan but we got a result which we need and the lads are a bit more happy in the dressing room.

"To be fair, for the first 10 minutes I had to keep saying to myself 'pass to a Villa player rather than a red and white shirt'. I was saying to myself 'don't pass to the opposition team'.

"From then it was a good debut and I just hope I can push on.

"Wardy told me that he was going to give me a bit of stick beforehand when we were out there and he did but we're good mates.

"I just hope United can get a few results now and get themselves safe."

Walker's effort, which saw him leave at least two markers trailing in his wake before sliding home beyond Steve Simonsen, oozed quality and the full-back, signed on loan from Tottenham Hotspur just 48 hours earlier, showed similar class by resisting the temptation to celebrate.

"I was never going to do that," he said. "My mum is a big United fan and she told me not to if I scored.

"I was a ball boy when United beat Villa in the cup a few years ago.

"The United fans have always been brilliant with me and whenever I'm around the city they always come up and ask me how I am. I really don't have a bad word to say about them."

Petrov's antipathy stemmed from Villa's spiral down the Premier League table since Houllier's appointment with Wednesday's defeat by Sunderland catapulting last season's semi-finalists into the relegation zone.

United have also experienced their fair share of difficulties in the Championship this term but, unlike the visitors, had vowed to use the competition as a vehicle for change.

"It's all about us making sure we are safe for next year," Ward said after scoring United's 500th FA Cup goal. "There's an outside chance that we can make the play-offs even now but I think our realistic aim is to stay up and make sure can consolidate.

"That's all we can do. The gaffer knows what he can spend and he's got a job to do because we need more numbers although I still reckon we'd be okay with the squad we've got.

"In the back of everyone's minds there is a little thought that we could get dragged into it and we don't want that. We need to keep going and we're playing well but not getting the breaks.

"It's going to be tough but we're confident that we can do it."

Ward forced a fine save from Brad Friedel, who also denied Daniel Bogdanovic and Johnny Ertl as United went in search of an equaliser late in the game, before Marc Albrighton doubled Villa's advantage following an incisive move involving Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Young.

Steve Simonsen also excelled between the posts to prevent Agbonlahor from making it three and United, who handed a debut to Irish midfielder David McAllister, reduced the deficit soon after the re-start when Lee Williamson was tripped by Carlos Cueller.

Refusing to hand the ball over to Ched Evans, Ward seized his opportunity to hammer home from the spot.

"I thought Ched was going to take it," Adams acknowledged afterwards. "He took our most recent one so it was a bit confusing.

"I'm only bothered that it went in but, for Jamie's sake, it's just as well that it did."

Bogdanovic, Ertl and Leon Britton enjoyed chances while Young placed Villa under even more pressure by collecting his second yellow card for a foul on Kyle Bartley, but they held on despite United's best efforts, with Petrov powering home at the death.

"You could tell when Villa went through that, finishing wise, when they needed to make it count they made it count," said Ward. "They're a good team and they're in a false position, a bit like ourselves.

"We know we've got a job to do now. The gaffer has been happy with us for the last three games but he's not had much of a chance to work with us. Now we've got a full week to do that and for him to show us what he really wants."'Prove yourself on the pitch': Adams

MICKY Adams, the Sheffield United manager, has confirmed that only performances on the pitch, not in training, will thrust players to the forefront of his plans.

Adams could make his first foray into the transfer market this week after admitting the squad he inherited from predecessor Gary Speed is in desperate need of strengthening.

But despite challenging members of United's youth academy to force their way into his thinking, the former Port Vale chief has warned he can not rely on promise to preserve the club's Championship status.

Speaking before the FA Cup third round defeat by Aston Villa, Adams said: "Bramall Lane is a big stadium and anyone who plays for United knows they are somewhere special. That's why we need characters as well as good players.

"I'm prepared to give everyone a chance. That's the right, proper and sensible thing to do. But I don't want to see them doing it during the week or just for the reserves. They've got to step up to the plate on the big stage as well."

United, who are 21st in the table, return to action at Coventry City on Saturday. Adams made 90 league starts for the Sky Blues during his own playing career before joining Leeds.

Eighteen years later he was appointed Coventry manager and saved them from relegation.

Together with his assistant, Alan Cork, Adams has already begun the process of identifying potential targets.

But, pointedly, he has also refused to rule out the possibility of "wheeling and dealing" although he would prefer not to lose his "better players".

"Every club would say the same," Adams acknowledged. "It's about looking at every case on its merits.

" You don't rule anything out."

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