According to the Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough, it was news of the reward that pushed his team over the line in their FA Cup Fifth Round match against Nottingham Forest on Sunday afternoon. For reasons – as ever – best kept to themselves, the Football Association held the draw for the quarter-finals of this year’s competition towards the end of the first half of their match, and as serendipity would have it the Blades found out at half-time that winning this match would lead to a Sixth Round match against Sheffield Wednesday, if they could pull a result out of the hat in the forty-five minutes that followed and Wednesday come to beat Charlton Athletic in their now-delayed match.
It might, therefore, be argued that this was a little harsh on Nottingham Forest. There doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason why the draw for the next round of the competition should be held whilst matches are being played, after all – apart, of course, from the purposes of the amelioration of broadcasters, who would rather have the draw made as soon as their live match finishes. And football can’t be upsetting its paymasters now, can it? Hull City supporter who looked mournfully at the scheduling of tonight’s match at Brighton, a venue impossible to get back from by public transport from this evening and would be an intolerably long drive back by road, could be forgiven for nodding in solemn agreement at this.
Still, though, Sheffield United supporters could argue that the sheer incompetence of the Football Association in organising its showpiece tournament is hardly their problem. More than twenty-five thousand people turned out at Bramall Lane on Sunday afternoon, by far the biggest crowd seen there so far this season, and the vast majority of those who went that have been going regularly this season may well have been seeking some respite from a league season that has largely consisted of agony and torpor. United went into this weekend’s matches in third from bottom place in the League One table, a startling position for a club that was playing Premier League football just seven years ago.
If it’s possible to trace the recent decline in the fortunes of this club to one event, then perhaps we should look back to the 2009 Championship play-off final, when Sheffield United were beaten to a place in the Premier League by a single Burnley goal. How different the recent history of the club might have been had the result of that match been different. An eighth placed finish the following season was followed by relegation, and there then followed two unsuccessful play-off bids, one of which – in 2012 – saw the team beaten by Huddersfield Town on penalty kicks in the final at Wembley.
In an open division, it might have been expected that Sheffield United would challenge for a place in the play-offs again this time around, but the appointment of the previously untried David Weir as manager during the summer seems to have case a season-long shadow over the club this year. Weir, by his own admission, was the wrong man for the job. As he later put it himself in an interview with the Sheffield Star, “I learned a lot there but it was the wrong club for me at the wrong time.” Weir lasted just thirteen league matches in charge of the club before getting his marching orders, along with assistant Lee Carsley, in the middle of October.
Meanwhile, there was somewhat bettwe news off the pitch for the club at the start of September last year. On the third of September it was confirmed that Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the House of Saud had bought a fifty per cent stake in the club’s parent company, Blades Leisure Ltd, for a nominal sum of £1 with the promise of investment for strengthening the team. Talk of returning to the Premier League as quickly as possble did the rounds. This, however, overlooked the small matter of the fact that the summer transfer window had only just closed and as United continued to stall during the autumn and the first part of the winter, new manager Nigel Clough forced, at the end of last month, to issue a statement stating that he would not be “panic buying” on the last couple of days of the January transfer window.
To a point, however, Sheffield United’s current league position could be considered to be a little misleading. The team has games in hand on almost every team around it at the foot of League One and has lost only three of its last thirteen league matches. In addition to this, there is perhaps a hint of what Nigel Clough might be capable of achieving at Bramall Lane in the form of this year’s FA Cup run, which has seen his team beat two Premier League clubs – Aston Villa and Fulham, both away from home – as well as last weekend’s win against a Nottingham Forest team that sits in fifth place in the Championship. If the hangover from David Weir’s brief and unhappy time in charge of the club is starting to clear, then next season might prove to be more fruitful for the club, providing it can drag itself clear from danger this time around.
After yesterday afternoon’s result, Nigel Clough stated that, “”We forget about the FA Cup now, it’s brilliant there is a few more quid in the coffers but the next three league games against Gillingham, Bristol City and Colchester are far more important.” There is a sense that this team might finally starting to come together, but if beating Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup was partly due to the incentive of the draw for the next round of the competition and the atmosphere inside Bramall Lane, then the responsibility for keping the team lifted for league matches will rest at his door. And as for the FA Cup quarter-final that all of Sheffield would like to see… over to you, Wednesday.
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