Sheffield United: Is the mantra of ‘Concentrating on the League’ a myth or fair comment?

Paul Coutts of Sheffield Utd doesn't celebrate his goal at the Macron Stadium, Bolton. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Paul Coutts of Sheffield Utd doesn't celebrate his goal at the Macron Stadium, Bolton. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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It is the first refrain of any football club manager or supporter when dreams of Wembley vanish and all that is left is the harsh reality of the English divisional system, when fairytale FA Cup moments give way to long Tuesday-night slogs to Bristol and Southend.

You know the one. If you’re a Sheffield United fan, chances are you’ve heard it at least once since Sunday’s FA Cup exit at Bolton; you might have even uttered it yourself.

Stefan Scougall celebrates after scoring in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Hull

Stefan Scougall celebrates after scoring in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Hull

‘At least we can concentrate on the league now’.

It’s one of those bizarre and vague football utterances that mean nothing at all, really, as if an FA Cup run is football’s equivalent of the old con where you watch a card trick and the league schedule steals your watch.

But how does it bear out in reality? It’s far from black and white, of course, but we can at least examine the facts and come to some kind of conclusion. So, here is United’s cup and league record since they dropped into League One and, to give it some kind of context, I’ve devised a scientific* method to establish whether good runs in the cup actually help or hinder United.

By way of a disclaimer, it’s hardly the most scientific method you’ll ever lay eyes upon but football isn’t an exact science, either. So let’s divide United’s points tally for the season, by the combined number of rounds they lasted in both cups (FA and League only, as we’ve all had enough Johnstone’s Paint/Checkatrade/EFL Trophy nonsense for this year).

In theory, we’re talking the lower the number, the better the season, although one year is the exception (and it was a pretty mad-cap year).

2016/17 - Out in the second round of the FA Cup, dumped out at the first hurdle of the EFL Trophy. It’s difficult to gauge the full effects this season - given we’re almost halfway through it - but United are third in League One, sit two points off automatic promotion and have just seen a remarkable 15-match unbeaten league one ended.

2015/16 - Look away now, United fans. A battling FA Cup third round defeat at Manchester United was a rare highlight in an otherwise-forgettable season, which saw Nigel Adkins’ side finish 11th. They went out of the League Cup in the second round, too, which seemed to neither help or hinder them. Cup Score: 13.25

2014/15 - United made the League One play offs, for the third time since dropping into this division. They eventually lost in the semi-finals, after a remarkable 7-6 aggregate defeat to Swindon, and may have run out of steam after their run to the last four of the Capital One Cup, as it was known back then. They eventually lost, again on aggregate, to Spurs after a thrilling second-leg at Bramall Lane. Cup Score: 6.45

2013/14 - Another semi-final and almost another play-off campaign. United started the season abysmally, winning one of their first 14 games, but lost just two of their next 14 as Nigel Clough replaced David Weir in charge and transformed United’s season. Under Weir, they were dumped out at the first-round stage of the League Cup by Burton - with current Blade Chris Hussey hitting both goals - but Clough led them to the semi-finals of the FA Cup at Wembley, where they were 45 minutes away from reaching the final, Europe and immortality. They eventually lost 5-3 but tasted defeat just three more times in their final 22 games, and finished just a place outside the play-off places. Cup Score: 8.37

2012/13 - United reached the fourth round of the FA Cup but again suffered an early exit in the League Cup, eventually finishing fifth in the league. More play-off heartbreak was to follow when they lost to Yeovil in the semi-finals. Cup Score: 15

2011/12 - The year United came closest to promotion from this league, in their first season after relegation. Danny Wilson’s side reached the fourth round of the FA Cup - a fair achievement, given they entered at the first again - and the second of the League Cup, but smashed their way to 90 points - only for Ched Evans to be jailed, Wednesday to pip them to automatic promotion and the goalkeeper to miss a crucial penalty in a 8-7 shoot-out defeat in the play-off final at Wembley. Cup Score: 15

So, there we have it. Our wholly unscientific method shows that getting past the third round of the FA Cup has helped United over the last five seasons - the only time they failed in a completed season, they finished 11th - but their best points tally in this league came on the back of a wholly unremarkable cup run.

Some fans will say, rightly, that winning is a habit, while others fear the fixture congestion that comes as a natural by-product of success.

So, can United put their cup exits behind them?

Defeat at Bolton means United won’t feature in the third-round draw for the first time since the early 1980s but if they do finally end their exile in League One, then their fans will surely not care a jot.