Sunday, 19 January 2014

Chalk and Cheese In The Midlands

*** The following reports were written Monday The 6th of January but have only just been published due to technical issues. 

The Blades faced two away days in a row, up first up on New Years Day a League One game against Walsall a game on paper in which we could be in with a chance of getting all three points, then three days later a return to the Midlands, an FA Cup tie against Premiership Aston Villa, a team we would be lucky not to be embarrassed by.

The Banks Stadium
Attendance 5,015
Away Blades 1,044

The blades lined up with a 3-5-2 formation in hopes of leaving the Banks stadium with three points, but
Walsall had the best of the opening chances, Harry Maguire blocking Hewitt's effort before Baxendale volleyed wide, United's back three were being over run and not able to stop Walsall getting a number of crosses in the box. The Blades had a few half chances, Porter heading straight to the keeper and having a shot blocked. United did take the lead after Chris Porter was put threw by McGinn, he hit the ball hard across the face of goal into the top corner. The lead could have been doubled but after some clever work from Flynn to get the ball to McMahon he chipped the ball over the bar into the travelling Blades faithful.
Walsall had a few more chances hitting the ball wide a few times, United had the lead but Walsall were looking the more dangerous, as half time sounded The Blades had managed to hold on to their single goal advantage.

Early in the second half James Chambers cross failed to find a team mate, but a dubious decision to award a penalty after an alleged push from Collins gave Walsall a chance to equalise, a chance they took as substitute
Westcarr sent George Long the wrong way. Walsall controlled the game from here on out and despite Baxter hitting a long range effort straight at The Walsall keeper The Blades couldn't find a way through. Walsall's domination lead to James Chambers getting through on goal and after easily rolling the ball past George Long the home team had the lead and the three points. United made a double change on seventy minuets taking off Baxter and McGinn replacing them with Miller and Murphy. Uniteds only real chance for the rest of the game came as Porter played through Miller, he rolled it across goal and wide. Walsall came close to getting a third on several occasions as they dominated. Come the final whistle, it was obvious United were lucky it was only two goals they had conceded.

So now to Villa, and if Walsall found it so easy to dominate and punish us, Blades fans were sure that a drumming at the hands of the Premiership team was to follow, but despite this Blades turned up in large numbers to Villa Park, unaware of the magic they were about to witness.

Villa Park
Attendance 24,048
Away Blades 5,940

Around the ground Blades enjoyed their day out, filling up pubs and enjoying sing songs. A welcome break and distraction from the league, all the fans agreed no matter what the score was, we would be happy with a half decent display and a chance to sing our hearts out. And as kick of drew near United filled two separate sections of Villa Park and erupted into song. Matthew Lowton received a round of applause from the travelling supporters as the teams were announced, and come kick off the only thing that could be heard in or around Villa Park was the army of Blades fans singing Annie's Song loudly and Proudly. The build up to the game had been dominated by Villa manager Paul Lambert's comments stating Premier League teams could do without The FA Cup, this didn't stop him naming a strong squad however, but the ones with the winning attitude, the passion to progress and the ones looking to go for the win on this occasion were The Blades. Even players who I have been critical of previously, played out of their skins, Porter played clever balls out wide and kept the ball well, Doyle looked like a different player, winning challenges and finding his team mates with passes, Hill played out of his skin and cleverly held Albrighton at bay. George Longs rubber wrists seemed reinforced and despite a few mistakes even Tony McMahon looked good. The usual suspects had performances far exceeding their League status such as Harry Maguire who was set to have the job of defending against multi million pound forward Christian Benteke.
The attacking 4-4-2 formation was looking like the correct decision, United were playing clever balls forward and looking the more threatening team. Whilst chances were non existent in the early stages, as both teams tried to size each other up United looked more progressive in midfield and despite good possession from Villa they could only play the ball sideways time and time again. On the twenty minute mark came a moment that felt like catching lightning in a bottle, Jamie Murphy received the ball from Baxter, and after taking the ball out wide to the left flank he cut back on himself and waltzed into the Villa box, and despite pressure from three defenders he managed to get a shot off, and despite  the deflection the shock of a lifetime hit, it was Sheffield United one Aston Villa nil, and the noise was deafening. The look on Murphy's face showed how much the goal meant to him he had been linked with a move away from Bramall Lane in the days leading up to this fixture, but the Scottish wide man had made his claim to stay put and what a way to do so. Not long after Murphy had a
chance to get a second, he again cut in on himself but this time the Scott's effort went wide. Weimann got in the way of his own players effort as Tonev tried to get Villa back in the game on their first real attack. On the half hour mark Tonev had another chance, Benteke's interception of McMahons failed clearance led to him playing a low ball in front of the Bulgarian, but he hit the ball wide of the mark. United continued to ignore the fifty plus places between themselves and Villa and push forward causing Villa a host of problems. Ciaran Clark was booked for an off the ball incident which left Chris Porter battered and bloodied, he then spent the rest of the game wearing a bandage to cover his cut. Half time was drawing near and Villa were starting to keep the possession well, which made the rest of the half feel like an eternity for Blades fans, especially after it lead to a few dangerous chances for the home side, but again and again these chances were squandered by Benteke, and The United fans let him know loudly that he was having a poor game. The first chance was a header wide, pressure from Harry Maguire meant the Belgian could not connect fully with the cross from Albrighton. The second was a particularly poor attempt, Albrighton again with the cross and Benteke headed it hard into the ground and it bounced over the target. United could have made it two just before half time, Murphy made a quick counter run, his cross looked destined for Chris Porter in the Villa box but former Blade Matthew Lowton made a crucial interception before hitting the ball to safety, The half time whistle blew and the travelling Blades army sounded their appreciation.

As the second half got under way many people expected United to be defensive and make the mistake of trying to defend their lead, people could not have gotten it more wrong as much like in the opening forty five minutes The Blades went out with one mentality, attack. A few times the Blades got into dangerous position's but could not connect with the crosses being put into the box as the Villa defence looked to crowd Chris Porter and mark him out of the game. Learning from this Flynn decided instead of playing it into the box he would instead use a bit of trickery to find space before hitting a hard shot at Steer who had to make a strong save. Villas disgruntled fans grew more and more agitated as their team struggled to hold United at bay, Porter fired just wide after a clever ball from Flynn set him in a good position to double the lead. As the second half ticked on Villa found a lot more of the ball and again started to control possession without looking particularly dangerous, but a rare break forward lead to George Long having to tip over Albrighton's miss hit cross which almost sliced its way into the goal. Benteke then squandered a glorious chance with no defenders infront of him he hit the ball straight at George Long, it was definitely a day to forget for the big
Belgian. Villa did equalise however when Weimann's deflected shot landed at the feet of Helenius, the number nine hit low and hard giving George Long no chance as it hit the back of the net, Villa one Blades one, and many were now thinking this is where the Blades will come undone and suffer defeat to the Premier League team. However Uniteds fans were left encouraged as their team shook off the disappointment of conceding and continued to take the game to Lambert's men. We were left thinking that we had wasted our golden opportunity as Porter was put through but his strike skimmed the top of the crossbar, this was not game over however, as Flynn continued to cause the home side problems, he went forward and hit a long range strike at goal, it however curved mid air and flew wide. With roughly ten minutes to go Coady replaced Baxter and a moment was approaching which would send The Blades into raptures. Flynn failed to control a hard pass to himself on the corner of the Villa area but his tenacious
attitude lead to him scrapping away and keeping possession, he danced and worked his way into the box before releasing a curling shot into the top corner, the ball seemed to go into slow motion as we on the Doug Ellis stand dived and fell all over each other, the noise was defining and hairs stood on end as Flynn slid to the floor before being piled on by his team mates. Villa struggled to shake off the shock of conceding the second goal, and despite a few half chances the game was done, The Blades had recorded the shock of the round and the celebrations were in full swing. Clough ran onto the field to celebrate with his team on what was an outstanding performance, every player had put in a shift and worked as a unit, if the team could play like this every week we wouldn't be in the awful position we are in now, and whilst I know that not all these players were capable of doing this week in week out non of them deserved any criticism, they had been brilliant from start to finish, and this was a day that would live long in the memory of the thousands in attendance.

The next day whilst many fans were nursing their hangovers and others were still reliving the ecstasy and joy from the day before we all gathered to watch the draw for the next round, we had to wait until the last draw of the hat for it to be revealed we would face either Norwich or Fulham at Bramall Lane, whilst no doubt a hard game awaits us we know we have no reason to fear either team if we can play like we did against Villa, and the chance to do it on home turf this time makes it even more exciting, I for one can not wait.

-Jonathan Gascoigne

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