Sheffield United's new Legends of the Lane closing in on their own piece of FA Cup history
Sheffield United have been in the business of making history, not reliving it, since Chris Wilder’s appointment as manager.
But when they return to Bramall Lane, following this absorbing battle against Reading, the 52-year-old and his players might take a moment to visit the Legends of the Lane museum which nestles in one corner of the stadium.
Inside, surrounded by medals, shirts, sepia tinted photographs and other assorted memorabilia, the ball their predecessors used to win the 1915 FA Cup final still sits proudly on display. It was the third time United had lifted the trophy, with a fourth triumph coming a decade later, in front of a near 92,000 crowd beneath Wembley’s now disappeared twin towers.
For a club of such rich traditions, the fifth has been too long a wait. But they are now tantalisingly close to ending it after goals from David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp saw them reach the last eight. George Puscas had earlier equalised when Reading were awarded a soft penalty.
“I don’t know where the players can take this season,” Wilder said, again praising the “attitude” of his group.
“Because what they just do is roll on to the next challenge. The way they take on board what is put in front of them, and just get on with the job, is something else. It’s a brilliant position to be in.”Speaking before United’s success in the third round, over non-league AFC Fylde, Wilder had sounded incredulous when the idea was put to him that, after effectively securing their Premier League survival, his squad might reach May’s showpiece.
“I think that’s a little too far away in terms of our development. We’ve got it all on establishing ourselves in this division, let alone start thinking about something else.”
He adopted exactly the same approach less than one month, after being drawn with Millwall. But following that victory at The Den, something changed. Having twice steered them to promotion, and with United now challenging for Europe, Wilde began to suspect, albeit privately, that what he had previously thought impossible might be possible after all.
“You just want to progress and see where it takes you,” he said after United’s latest success. “That’s all we look at; the very next game. We knew this wouldn’t be easy because our own club has had a habit of knocking out Premier League sides in the past and Reading, who I thought were inspired by their crowd by the way, have some really talented lads.”
Ben Osborn, starting last night’s match in place of Enda Stevens who is still nursing a calf problem, had described United’s performance in south-east London as the template they should follow before boarding to train to Berkshire.
“We were clinical,” he reflected. “We were ruthless. We took our chances and limited them to very few.”
Osborn, despite being among the more junior members of United’s dressing room, led by example when he started the move which led to McGoldrick’s second minute opener. Seizing possession in midfield with a crunching tackle which sent Luke Freeman scampering forward, he then demanded the ball back and produced a perfectly flighted cross which the striker, scoring for the first time in 23 outings for United, could not fail to head home.
Wilder, who believes McGoldrick’s worth should be measured in more than simply goals, will nevertheless have been delighted the Republic of Ireland has now got that monkey off his back.
The player himself appeared mighty relieved too; going about his business with a freedom and a purpose which magnified his polished technique and skills.
The same, it was interesting to note, applied to Sander Berge. United’s record signing has been deployed in a predominantly advanced role since completing a £22m move from Genk. But with John Lundstram operating further forward after being recalled to the starting eleven, Berge found himself back on familiar territory just in front of the back four.
It was probably no surprise, therefore, that he produced arguably his best showing in United colours after leaving Belgium. Berge and Lundstram, for all the right reasons, have provided Wilder with plenty of food for thought ahead of Saturday’s home game against Norwich City.
George Baldock did the same two minutes before half-time, although the United defender could count himself desperately unlucky to concede the spot-kick which drew Reading level.
Yes, he placed his hands on Andy Rinomhota’s back. Yes, there was contact. But nowhere near enough to send the youngster tumbling over. Puscas, who despite his name is Romanian, ensured the hosts were able to exploit referee Kevin Friend’s generosity when he netted for the 13th time this term.
“What really pleased me,” Wilder said. “Was that we found a way to get the result.
“We’ve had senior staff at both of Reading’s last two games but we knew this would be a different Reading side we were up against.”
“Gary Rowett at Millwall praised the consistency of our attitude,” Wilder added. “And Mark (Bowen, the Reading manager) did it before we came here. So that’s good to hear.”
It was a measure of both Reading’s tenacity and United’s determination that Wilder introduced Oli McBurnie and Sharp during the closing stages. Had his team been cruising, then Richairo Zivkovic would surely have been awarded a debut, like Panos Retsos..
Instead, Wilder preferred to place his faith in the hands of those already familiar with the intricacies of United’s system.
However, falling short of the standards they had set before the interval, the visitors were unable to avert extra-time. But Sharp scores goals. And he scored the decisive one, for the umpteenth time in his remarkable career, to send United through.
“Billy’s still got life in him yet,” Wilder said. “He’s just a natural finisher.”