Sheffield United skipper Billy Sharp and manager Chris Wilder make honest admissions ahead of this weekend's FA Cup tie against Arsenal
He was supposed to be licking his wounds following a narrow defeat by Ipswich and preparing for an important game against Derby County.
But Billy Sharp, then a Southampton player on loan at Doncaster Rovers, decided to jump on board a train to London instead and watch the team he supports appear at Wembley.
“I actually don’t remember that much, not after going down, apart from the fact it was a beautiful sunny day with lots and lots of goals,” Sharp admitted, describing his visit to watch Sheffield United’s FA Cup semi-final against Hull City in 2014. “The result didn’t go our way, it wasn’t in our favour, but sat there watching the whole occasion unfold gave me a taste to do the same.”
On Sunday, when Arsenal visit Bramall Lane in the last eight of the competition, Sharp will enjoy a chance to make his dream come true. Although results have been disappointing since competition resumed following a three month break last week, both he and Chris Wilder, who was also among the crowd inside the national stadium that day, are convinced United can rediscover their form and create some more wonderful memories.
In order to do so, however, they must overcome a handicap which, by Sharp’s own admission, has contributed to a frustrating series of performances over the past nine days. Nearly 72,000 people watched Nigel Clough’s side, which had just dragged itself clear of the League One relegation zone, give their top-flight rivals a God Almighty scare before eventually succumbing 5-3. But as English football emerges from the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, this match, like United’s draw with Aston Villa and defeats by both Manchester United and Newcastle, will take place behind closed doors.
“I think that’s what we’re missing - the edge from the fans,” Sharp acknowledged. “We are a team who thrive off the opposition fans and, more importantly, our own fans. But it’s the same for both teams. And we haven’t quite adapted to it as well as we should have done.
“How can we overcome that? Well, I’ve seen all these people sat on the beaches who are supposed to be social distancing so let’s get 30,000 odd supporters back in the grounds. Seriously, I know we can’t do that at the moment, but the sooner it happens the better for me because football just isn’t the same without the fans. So we have to find that edge another way, we have to find it from within, and even though it’s not quite clicked yet, I’m sure we’re going to be bang at it from minute one.”
Remembering his own outing to London to watch Clough’s squad in action, Wilder agreed with Sharp’s theory about why United, usually so intense and focused, have found it difficult to rediscover the form they were producing before the season was mothballed in March. But he believes a return to home soil following three straight away outings will help his squad overcome their present difficulties.
“Even though there won’t be any fans in there, we know every inch of that ground,” Wilder, who like Sharp has supported United since childhood, said. “I’ve sat and stood in every single part of it. So any advantage we can have, we’ll take. The players will enjoy the familiarity of it and, from our point of view, not having to travel is good. Okay we’ve not been on the longest journeys but you they are still trips we’ve had to deal with.”
“It’s impossible to recreate the atmosphere that it would have been, the place was going to be a sell-out,” he continued. “But I remember watching Cloughie’s boys that day - I’d had a few Guinesses and was enjoying a bit of hospitality even though I wasn’t in the posh seats like Bill - and was really impressed with how they gave everything. They couldn’t have given any more and that’s what my boys always do as well, even though things obviously haven’t been going that well after coming back.”
Six years after that momentous tussle in the capital, United now found themselves eighth in the Premier League while Hull are fighting for survival at the wrong end of the Championship.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can change in this business,” Wilder noted. “Form is the same.
“That match turned around really quickly too. I was up at half time, we were leading 2-1, and then suddenly I was watching us chase the game. This is a new group of players. The achievements they’ve had have been excellent and now we want some success in the cup. But all we are thinking about at the moment is a performance.”
Sharp, who embarked upon his third spell with United 15 months after travelling to watch them in the capital, echoed that sentiment.
Arsenal have got a lot of quality in their team but they won’t fancy coming to Bramall Lane, whether there’s fans in it or not. I’m looking forward to the game and I know the boys are.
“We’ve got seven Premier League games and hopefully another FA Cup game after this,” he said. “I went to the last semi-final as a fan and I wanted to have that feeling as a player. I remember getting some stick from some Hull fans for jumping up whenever we scored and it must have been brilliant to have been a part of that out there.
“This is the furthest I’ve got in the FA Cup and we’ll be giving maximum effort. It’s not something we’re afraid of.
“I’m still hoping it will be a benefit to us, familiar surroundings. Hopefully it will kickstart our season and we can get through to the semi-final.”
Eighth in the table despite losing at Old Trafford, United can take heart from their two most recent showings against Arsenal as they chase European football on two different fronts. After beating the Londoners 1-0 on home soil - Lys Mousset, who is receiving treatment for an ankle problem, scoring the only goal of the contest - they drew 1-1 at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year.
“I think the Arsenal game here, we got it spot on that day,” Sharp, who helped United gain promotion last term, said. “We could have scored more than one goal and we defended really well. The clean sheet gives us something to build on. We need to get that first goal, because it will be important for us.
“We’re not afraid of anyone, whoever it is. We believe and we are confident we can win games of football. It’s just not quite happened in the last few games.”