NOT often is a money-spinning trip to Old Trafford and televised throughout the world described as a sideshow. But that is exactly what it is if you are a Sheffield United supporter.
Two seasons ago the Blades reached the semi-finals. With a 2-1 half-time lead against then Premier League Hull at Wembley, they were just 45 minutes from the final itself. As exiting as that was who really cared when a few weeks later the grim reality of facing a fourth year of League One football became reality.
The last campaign was the equivalent of Groundhog Day. This time the Blades valiantly outperformed themselves in the Capital One Cup, narrowly losing a two-legged semi-final against Tottenham. Despite edging a step closer to escaping the third tier of English football by reaching the play-off semi-finals, a fifth year in the wilderness followed costing manager Nigel Clough, the architect of both cup runs, his job.
The truth is that just as Champions League football is the Holy Grail for Manchester United, Championship football has increasingly become the be all and end all at Bramall Lane.
Co-owner Kevin McCabe’s target of European football within five years of winning promotion to the Premier League in 2006 has long since been forgotten. That aspiration was revised to ‘The Blades are Bouncing Back’ following relegation 12 months later.
Eight managers and two play-off final defeats later, one in the Championship and the other in League One, the bar has been lowered still. Now club and it’s amazingly loyal support, will gladly settle for the chance of avoiding trips to the likes of Scunthorpe, Rochdale, Fleetwood and Bury and a couple of steady years at the next level.
Whatever happens in a 75,000 sell-out at Old Trafford, Tuesday’s visit to Wigan Athletic is what really concentrates the mind. I’d wager that all but the very young and those whose philosophy is live for the day would willingly sacrifice a glorious place in round four for three points in front of about 9,000 at the DW Stadium.
Defeat would leave United 11 points behind the Latics who are currently fifth and if results go against the Blades today, already 14 points from an automatic promotion spot, they will slip two places to tenth before a ball has been kicked at the Theatre of Dreams.
That said, there is a job to do. Leaving the bear pit that is Old Trafford with heads held high and backed by 8,000 Blades is the immediate priority. Anything else is a bonus. Manchester United and under-fire manager Louis van Gaal are having a tough season by their standards, out of the Champions League already and only fifth in the Premier League.
CONOR SAMMON MOMENTS
Free-flowing football is not the norm these days but the quality they possess in the shape of England skipper Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay Juan Mata, World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and goalkeeper David de Gea, widely regarded as one of the best in the world, to name but six is immense. Striker Rooney may have been having too many ‘Conor Sammon’ moments of late but I know who I’d rather be frustrated by.
One interested onlooker will be former boss Clough. However infuriating life was under Negative Nigel, no-one could argue he didn’t have the measure of Premier League opposition.
The play-safe and counter-attack with possession football that worked a treat against Premier League opposition, was his downfall in the frantic, unsophisticated world of League One. Aston Villa, Southampton, West Ham, Fulham and QPR (then both Premier League) all played into the Blades trap, allowing the luxury of time and space. Even defeat to Tottenham was a close run thing.
Current manager Nigel Adkins who has a far more positive attitude even though it has brought similarly mixed results, is likely to adopt Clough’s tactics for this one. He has the benefit of better attacking options than his predecessor and a midfield where Paul Coutts, Dean Hammond, Chris Basham and even Martin Woolford have shown fledgling signs of becoming an effective unit. Lack of pace and a reluctance to push forward remain serious problems.
Defensively, however, it is unrealistic to hope that the Blades will overcome a debilitating fault that began under David Weir in 2013 and has yet to be resolved. The kind of errors that continue to make United’s back four look naive at best and incompetent at worst. The reason why Peterborough scored three at the Lane last week to claim all three points and Shrewsbury managed four infront of a stunned home crowd in November.
It will be interesting to see if Adkins chooses to play Jay McEveley at left-back, the man he inexplicably appointed club captain. If the manager does he will live to regret it. The 29-year-old Liverpudlian is a liability. Even at League One level he’s sorely out of his depth when faced by useful opposition. Slow, unthinking and master of the mistimed tackle. I dread to think what TV analysts such as Alan Shearer and Martin Keown would make of it.
If we do dare to dream this tie may be not be remembered for the quality of the football and whatever both clubs’ fates at the end of the season one outcome is very much on the cards.
Defeat for the Red Devils at Old Trafford or in a replay at the Lane would almost certainly result in a taxi being hailed for one Louis van Gaal