League One’s Cup Heroes: Sheffield United

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Kyle Goldsmith gives us the insight into Sheffield United’s remarkable cup runs of late, which have included scalps against Premier League teams. How do they do it?

In the past couple of years, Sheffield United’s fall from the Premier League has been well documented, but over the last couple of years, the Blades have developed into a great cup team capable of giving any team a tough game. So how does Nigel Clough and his plucky players do it?

Since being relegated to the third tier of English football in 2011, Sheffield United have been unlucky not to hit back and clamber their way back into the Championship, where they possible belong (perhaps even higher). One case was during their first season in League One where they missed out on automatic promotion by three points. Many believe that if Ched Evans didn’t go to prison before the end of the season then they would have nicked their rival’s 2nd position and automatic place. They missed out in the play-off final against Huddersfield due to a missed penalty from their goalkeeper, Steve Simonsen. Despite this Wembley disappointment though, little did the Blades fans know that they would return to Wembley two years later in a game that would forever go down in the club’s already proud history, but more on that later.

However since this devastating loss, Sheffield United have racked up a quite incredible list of defeated cup opponents, with the first being mid-table Premier League side Aston Villa in early January last year. After overcoming tough away ties at Colchester and Cambridge, and backed by an army of 6,000 fans, the Blades, who sat in 18th in League One, battled to a 2-1 victory over the admittedly poor Villains, thus progressing to the fourth round of the FA Cup. Villa still had a good side out though who the fans thought capable of beating such a team as Sheffield United.

Sheffield United's latest scalp was a 3-0 win over QPR at the weekend
Sheffield United’s latest scalp was a 3-0 win over QPR at the weekend

Next up for United was another Premier League side in Fulham, with the sides drawing 1-1 and forcing the tie to a replay, which Sheffield United won with a 120th minute goal. The red and white half of Sheffield started believing in their team, and this showed with 25,000 people turning up at Bramall Lane to watch their team defeat Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the fifth round. This gave United the possibility of facing arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday in the quarter-finals.

All they had to do now was wait for the draw. Nearly all the ties had now been drawn out now, and then it happened. “Ball number 12, Sheffield United” was then followed by “Ball number 4, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic”. All that had to be done for the game to happen was for the Owls to beat the Charlton, however the south Londoners surprised them 1-0 and they themselves headed to Sheffield on 9th March looking for a victory that would send them to Wembley.

However, these dreams were dashed as the Blades eased past them 2-0 to put them through to the FA Cup semi-final. This set up glorious scenes in the city, with the streets forming one big party. Meanwhile, Hull beat Sunderland meaning that the two would play each other. During the game, Sheffield United held a 2-1 lead at half time but were finally put out due to Hull’s superior firepower, eventually losing 5-3. To add to this, the Blades could only finish 7th, missing out on the play-offs. However this would still go down as a successful season.

Sheffield United were 2-1 up at half-time against Hull at Wembley last season
Sheffield United were 2-1 up at half-time against Hull at Wembley last season

They have continued this great cup form this season as well, reaching the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup, where they have already beaten Southampton and West Ham, who are both high flying in the Premier League, and will go on to face Spurs in the semi-final. As well as this, the Yorkshire club beat QPR in the third round of the FA Cup 3-0, in a game where they outplayed the R’s. So how exactly have they done this?

One the main reasons is the fans. They are a loud bunch who support their club up and down the country. This is surely bound to intimidate visiting teams who are possibly put off their game.

Another possible reason is the manager, Nigel Clough. He had a point to prove after arriving in October 2013. Many were bewildered when he was sacked by Derby County, where most people thought he was doing a good job. Another point is that his well known father Brian Clough, who despite all of his success never won the FA Cup. Possibly Nigel wanted to do what his father never did. This caused him to play a full strength team in every cup game, perhaps to the detriment of their league form.

Nigel Clough has lost just two of his last 19 cup games with The Blades
Nigel Clough has lost just two of his last 19 cup games with The Blades

As well as this, Sheffield United have also received tough draws. People may think this is a bad thing, but the Blades have always seemed to up their game against their higher counterparts. If they had received Carlisle away in the first round, would they have got to where they did?

Despite them playing League One, you could argue and make a case that this United squad is stronger than that of Rotherham, Blackpool and Millwall, who are all in the Championship. This has allowed them to compete against the sides from the higher divisions, whereas other League One sides would just be blown away. So why exactly have they not got out of League One? We’ve seen before teams who drop into League One and find it difficult to get out, such as Leeds, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday. Maybe motivation is a problem for the Blades, like it was for those clubs.

This season, Sheffield United have continued their cup form. They now have the belief from the previous season that they can beat these superior sides and go into each game knowing exactly that. This has been a huge factor in the games against West Ham, Southampton and QPR. In these games they have not looked out of their depth and have shown different sides to their game. They looked like they should swap leagues with QPR at times, but still had the passion and fight to beat Southampton.

Sheffield United will go into their games now against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup and Preston in the FA Cup full of confidence, and who knows, they might go one step further this time.

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