Sheffield United: Hammond and Blades so close to bridging FA Cup gap at Theatre of Dreams

James McEveley leads out the Blades. Pictures: Sport Image
James McEveley leads out the Blades. Pictures: Sport Image
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Football can be so, so cruel at times. Just ask Dean Hammond and Sheffield United.

More than 360 international caps, 47 places in the English football pyramid and a wealth of talent and resources separated United and their namesakes from Manchester before kick-off at Old Trafford on Saturday.

The Blades salute the 8,500 travelling fans

The Blades salute the 8,500 travelling fans

But by the end, only Wayne Rooney’s late, late penalty - emphatically finished in the 93rd minute in front of the Stretford End - came between them.

Backed by a brilliant, boisterous and booming 8,500-strong travelling support from over the Pennines, Nigel Adkins’ side defended stoically throughout and it was the manner of defeat which seemed particularly harsh on them.

If there is no bad way to win a football game, there are certainly awful ways to lose them and, as Rooney slammed home, to a mixture of joy and relief from the home support, it was hard to shake the feeling that this was one of the worst.

Especially for Hammond.

Blades supporters at Old Trafford

Blades supporters at Old Trafford

The midfielder, on loan from Leicester City, had marshaled United’s back four expertly throughout alongside Chris Basham and, moments before the goal, had produced a simply stunning block to deny substitute Jesse Lingard a certain winner.

For James Shield’s match verdict, click here

But he turned villain when he rashly dived in on Memphis Depay, after the £20 million winger had beaten John Brayford in the United box.

Adkins afterwards mused that Hammond could have stayed on his feet, but absolved his man of any blame.

Against a League One winger, Hammond likely wins that challenge more often than not. Against a top, tricky player, that split-second makes all the difference and cost United dear. A replay at Bramall Lane, in front of a full house, would have been an interesting proposition.

They deserved it, too. Admittedly, this game wasn’t one for the neutrals - one wonders if BT Sport regret their choice of scheduling - but United got an early taste of what they were up against when Fellaini nutmegged Basham and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson wiped out Paul Coutts on the wing.

But a first half which promised so much ultimately delivered, well, very little.

As the skies over Old Trafford opened, Louis van Gaal’s side closed up and the Blades grew in confidence as the half progressed.

The away fans goaded Rooney with chants comparing him to Billy Sharp - not altogether favourably, either - but it was the England captain who went closest to easing the growing discontent around this famous arena.

First, he shot comfortably over when well placed; then found the angle just too narrow when United’s George Long had come out but failed to conquer.

In the build-up to this game, skipper Jay McEveley insisted the Blades would feel more pressure in tomorrow’s game against Wigan and, on the first-half showing, they’ll face more of a test too.

The second continued in a similar vein, a glorified attack-v-defence training exercise heavily dominated by the latter.

Van Gaal’s experiment, with Juan Mata on the right, failed to pay off - his side were more toothless toddlers than wingless wonders - and the introduction of Lingard and Depay tipped the balance in their favour. For the first time, the Blades looked stretched.

Lingard, up against makeshift left-back Martyn Woolford after McEveley went off injured, threatened down the right and was denied spectacularly by Hammond.

Back came the hosts again, with David Edgar and Neill Collins repelling almost everything. When a ball did break in the box, to Martial, Brayford threw everything in the way to block from just yards out.

With Sir Alex Ferguson watching intently from the stand which bears his name, the addition of six minutes injury time suggested his spirit lives on. The home side needed only three to finally make the breakthrough. Depay powered past Brayford and invited contact from the sprawling Hammond. Old Trafford held its breath before erupting as Jonathan Moss pointed to the spot.

Celebration and relief from the home end, angst and frustration from the Blades.

If big games can hinge on small events, then Hammond’s challenge was seismic. Rooney sent Long the wrong way from the spot, van Gaal’s stay of execution was extended and ‘Glory, Glory Man United’ bellowed from the stadium speakers as the travelling Blades stood to salute their heroes.

The Blades players returned the applause andwere alos acknowledged by home supporters who knew they’d been in a real battle.

The Reds may go marching on, on, on. But it is the original United who emerged with immense pride and credit to their name.