Sheffield United fans shine at Wembley as they wonder what could have been
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Sheffield United, still of the Championship for what their fans hope is not too much longer, against the mighty Manchester City. Treble-chasers against promotion certainties. David against Goliath.
A City victory was seen as a formality. Bookmakers concentrated more on the odds of United players picking up cards than scoring goals; Erling Haaland was slated at 50/1 to score more than five times with one bookie, vastly shorter odds than John Egan to net first.
United, for once, could enjoy a day out at Wembley without any pressure. The site of their previous failures against Crystal Palace and Huddersfield and Burnley and Hull City would not haunt them today, for they were destined to lose anyway in the eyes of the watching public and this was therefore as close to a free hit as could possibly be.
Not so in the eyes of Paul Heckingbottom and his side. United set up to get at City and could, should, have gone in front with just two minutes on the clock. Egan rose highest but his header found Iliman Ndiaye rather than the back of the net. The striker took a good touch and Wembley held its breath. With what seemed like the freedom of north London at his mercy, he fired straight at Stefan Ortega and the City goalkeeper's legs saved their blushes.
United supporters, who launched into a spine-tingling rendition of their Greasy Chip Butty anthem ahead of kick-off, were almost in dreamland. United attacked again, Ndiaye went clear again. But gradually the City machine cranked into gear and their boys in blue began to dominate.
But United stood firm and with every Egan header, every Ollie Norwood tackle, every time George Baldock shackled Jack Grealish, the roar from the west end grew louder. “The fans have been incredible with us this season. They live and breathe the club, just like a lot of us do,” Baldock said afterwards.
“They understand the difficulties we’ve had this season, on and off the pitch, it’s been well documented, but they’ve stuck with us home and away.
“We went on a pre-game walk and went past a few of them. It was incredible to see smiles on their faces, drink in hand, enjoying their day out.
“They’re the special moments we want to give the fans and hopefully we can give them another one on Wednesday.”
Be it expectation, apathy or a combination of both, City's supporters did not respond in kind and their first utterance of any real note, around midway through the first half, drew sarcastic cheers from the other side of the stadium.
United kept City at bay for 10 minutes, then 20, then 40. Julian Alvarez drew a comfortable parry behind from Wes Foderingham; Haaland turned and found the bottom corner of United's goal from long-range but the whistle had long gone for a foul, with Foderingham watching it go by. Then came the game's breakthrough; a rash flash of Daniel Jebbison's leg, a fall from Bernardo Silva, a penalty for Riyad Mahrez. One-nil City.
United didn't deserve to be behind and discussion at half-time dominated how they should approach things from then on. Keep it tight, or attempt to, before having a late go? Or go all-guns blazing to try and get back on level terms and go from there? United were still well in the game until another poor decision, this time from Max Lowe.
Mahrez took advantage, Jack Robinson was caught between stick and twist and the Algerian waltzed through the middle and stuck it past Foderingham for 2-0.
That essentially was game over and although United were beaten, their fans were unbowed. Another chant of 'The Blades are going up' rang around Wembley; a reminder, perhaps, to themselves as much as anything of how special this season could still be. Three points against West Brom next Wednesday will ensure another two games against City next season.
United's supporters did not give up the ghost; nor did their players, even after Mahrez had sealed his hat-trick and City's place in the final with a superb finish from Grealish's cross. The introduction of boyhood Blade Billy Sharp off the bench in the second half raised the noise levels another notch; every time he raced through on goal, with the hopes and dreams of 30,000 fellow Unitedites on his shoulders. In the twilight of his career now, Sharp must savour every moment in a Blades shirt and a Wembley goal would have lifted the roof.
It sadly wasn't to be but an almighty roar of appreciation after the final whistle said everything. United have battled through to this point after months of off-field distractions, through injury crises and expectation and slight dips that had some sections of support writing them off completely. They stand one win away from promotion and for more of this game than perhaps anyone expected, they were in with a shout of reaching a first FA Cup final since 1936.
They headed back north wondering what could have been; and, hopefully, with renewed belief of what could come next.