Sheffield United and AFC Fylde demonstrate the FA Cup is still relevant

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
It was easy to forget, such has been Sheffield United’s rapid progress in recent seasons, exactly how big a deal this was for AFC Fylde.

Jim Bentley admitted as much before yesterday’s third round tie and, after bowing out to Barnet 12 months ago, Chris Wilder’s side heeded that warning from the visitors’ manager.

“We’re excited,” he said. “But so is the entire region. All our community.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Five years ago, under Wilder’s predecessor Nigel Clough, United successfully harnessed that sense of togetherness to reach the FA Cup semi-finals. Still a League One club at the time, they dispatched the likes of Fulham, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest en route to Wembley before eventually succumbing, after one hell of a fight, to Yorkshire rivals Hull City.

Jim Bentley manager of AFC Fylde during the FA Cup match at Bramall LaneJim Bentley manager of AFC Fylde during the FA Cup match at Bramall Lane
Jim Bentley manager of AFC Fylde during the FA Cup match at Bramall Lane

Despite downplaying United’s chances of repeating that feat, you suspect Wilder fancies going deep once again.

“Whoever we play, we want to beat,” he said. “We always want to go full tilt, even in friendlies.”

Hailing from Wesham, a town with around 3,500 inhabitants near England’s windswept North-West coast, Fylde enjoyed the backing of a small but enthusiastic band of supporters for their big day out. Reaching this stage of the competition for the first time in their history having beaten Peterborough Sports, Nantwich and Kingstonian, the pride among their following was evident when, as Australian referee Jarred Gillet prepared to get the contest underway, one member could be seen belting out a club anthem with a blue and white scarf raised high above his head. It was a reminder, despite the nefarious influence of money and fact many now prioritise it over medals, the tournament still matters in some quarters.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s massive for us, the FA Cup,” Bentley acknowledged in his broad Scouse twang. “The exposure with the social media and the television. The Premier League is so big, with the money and the television, that people just want to stay in it.

“I was brought up on Merseyside, though, when it was a huge thing and the clubs there were always winning it. It was a huge day in our house. We used to watch all the build up.”

In fairness, despite changing his entire starting eleven following a demanding Premier League schedule, it still seems to matter for Wilder too. The 52-year-old, who has led United from the third to the first tier of English football since taking charge in 2016, was pictured imploring his players to maintain their intensity when Callum Robinson opened the scoring after just seven minutes.

“Yes, that was a sign what I think about it,” Wilder said. “The cup isn’t going to go away. Has it lost its third round appeal? We have games all over the place and we have paymasters, I understand that. But there is a trophy to be won isn’t there.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I didn’t enjoy what happened last season,” he continued, referring to that defeat by The Bees. “It turned out to be a great one for us, going up, but that was a real low and I didn’t want it to happen again.”

If United thought Robinson’s effort would burst AFC Fylde’s bubble, they were sorely mistaken. Despite spending much of the first-half chasing shadows, the lowest ranked side in the draw remained within touching distance until the hour mark; Leon Clarke scoring what could be his last goal for the club after Luke Freeman had struck a post.

Until that point - although AFC Fylde later reduced the deficit - most of the problems United endured were self-inflicted. They included the incident which saw Michael Verrips helped from the pitch after colliding with Kean Bryan as they snuffed-out an attack. Seconds earlier, Kieron Freeman ambled out of position and failed to intercept the through ball which sent Nick Haughton darting clear.

“It’s difficult, when you do shake things up like we did, for the flow not to get interrupted a little bit,” Wilder acknowledged. “But the attitude of the boys, I thought, was excellent. We were in control for the most part but I thought our opponents acquitted themselves really well.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Bentley, one of Wilder’s old mates and sparring partners from his days in non-league, spent the afternoon bellowing out orders from the touchline as he worked on AFC Fylde’s psychology as well as shape.

His persistence was rewarded with 11 minutes remaining, when Dan Bradley produced arguably the pass of the game. Perfectly flighted and placed, it released Jordan Williams and isolated Dean Henderson, who was powerless to intervene as the ball was looped over his head and deposited into the bank of the net.

“I had a cup of tea with Chris when the team sheets went in and was asking him what the difference is, up there at the highest level. We were playing against a team that hadn’t got many minutes in their legs. But we’re a full-time outfit. Premier League players are always going to be tuned slightly differently.”

“I understand why Chris took the decision he did,” Bentley added. “The FA Cup is still massive though. It’s something to build on for years to come for us.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Eighth in the top-flight table, United’s focus is building on their fine start to the campaign. That influenced Wilder’s selection policy with Verrips and new signing Jack Rodwell handed their debuts while Clarke was made captain.

Wilder later denied that was designed to recognise his service ahead of a possible move away.

It also revealed plenty, about both their motivation and their desire to try and spring an upset, that AFC Fylde started only one of the three former United players at their disposal.

Mark Yeates later joined Danny Philliskirk on the pitch but Andy Taylor was an unused substitute.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s a horrible job being a manager when big games like this come around,” Bentley said. “We made positive substitutions. We got Yeatesy on, who is an attacking player. Unfortunately we couldn’t get Tayls on, who is a defender and we were trying to get back at them.”

Sheffield United: Verrips (Henderson 40), L Freeman, Robinson (Stearman 88), Morrison, Jagielka, K Freeman, Bryan, Osborn, Clarke, Rodwell (Basham 57), Besic. Not used: Fleck, O’Connell, McBurnie, Sharp.

AFC Fylde: Hornby, Byrne, Jameson, Whitmore, Croasdale, Rowe (Willoughby 65), Philliskirk, Williams, Burke, Bradley (Craigen 85), Haughton (Yeates 65). Not used: Montrose, Taylor, Yeates, Lavercombe, Kellet.

Referee: Jarred Gillett (Gold Coast, Australia).