Sheffield United are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup after beating Blackburn in a thrilling FA Cup tie which neither side truly deserved to lose.
Sheffield United vs Blackburn Rovers is a fixture which drips with the history of football in this country. The city in which the game of football was first realised versus the first working class town to win the FA Cup. The first fixture between the two teams was played on the 15th January 1894, in the same month as the oldest surviving motion picture, seven years before the death of Queen Victoria. Both clubs have had their successes in the FA Cup, but neither has claimed the prize in almost a century. Despite having won it ten times between them, neither have done so since Blackburn beat Huddersfield 3-1 in 1928.
Back in the present, there wasn’t really so much between them in the league table as we head into the latter stages of another frantic Championship season. United are in second place in the table behind Burnley, with Blackburn in fifth place, nine points behind them with nine games to play. If Sheffield United are to be deposed from their place in the top two, others are better positioned to do so than Blackburn, but while United’s recent form has been patchy – four defeats and three wins from their last seven league matches – Blackburn have only lost one of their last ten league matches.
Much has been said and written about how the FA Cup ‘doesn’t matter’ anymore, but at kick-off time at Bramall Lane on this blustery spring lunchtime it felt as though this match really meant something to both teams and to both clubs, with barely any empty seats to be seen anywhere, a noisy crowd, and two teams absolutely going at each other from the off. United had an early attack of the collywobbles, gifting Blackburn two half-chances within the first three minutes which might have resulted in some self-inflicted damage had they appeared ten minutes later, when everyone was warmed up a bit.
The sight of two teams absolutely going at each other was all the more surprising to those of us who’ve become wearily familiar with frequently soporific Saturday lunchtime Premier League matches. The idea has started to take hold that this time of kick-off is too early, as though players need more time to allow their breakfast to settle, or as though the players might suddenly be taken by an overwhelming urge to disappear back down the tunnel for a little nap.
That certainly wasn’t the case on this occasion, the two teams tearing into each other against a cacophonous background noise from the full house crowd. It felt a little as though everyone might have been up drinking since about six in the morning, and Sheffield United might well be of the opinion that referee Tim Robinson had been at the Tia Maria over the handball which resulted in the penalty kick from which Blackburn took the lead. Sam Jackson’s shot absolutely clattered into Jack Robinson’s arm.
No-one could really question that it hit his arm. Perhaps the pertinent question is what he might have been able to do to move his hand out of the way, but that’s really the way in which the rules are being interpreted at the moment. Ben Brereton-Diaz converted the kick, to a soundtrack of opinions of Robinson and his parentage for which ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley felt obliged to apologise to the viewers at home. It’s fine, Clive. We know it wasn’t you; though to be fair, this sort of language wasn’t what you’d normally hear on Sunday lunchtime television. The soundtrack of football is very different to that of Morning Service.
But if Sheffield United did feel aggrieved at the decision which gave Blackburn the lead, the football Gods saw fit to equal things up within just a few minutes. Max Lowe shooting first time from a corner, only for the ball to twang at an improbable angle off Sam Gallagher’s knee, leaving the Blackburn goalkeeper Aynsley Pears frozen in time and space as the ball flew across him and into the opposite corner of the goal. From the camera angle behind Lowe, we could quickly see why he didn’t particularly celebrate this goal. The shot was almost certainly flying wide, until Gallagher’s unfortunate intervention. By half-time the score was still level, but it wasn’t for a want of trying. United had dominated possession, but Blackburn had created the better chances.
It was a theme that continued throughout the early stages of the second half, United dominating but then relying on goalkeeper Wes Fotheringham to make a superb double save to keep the scores level. There was certainly no let up in the pace, both teams absolutely going hammer and tongs at each other. It was scrappy at times, but this was more than compensated for by the full-bloodedness of the involvement of all concerned. It can wander well into the realms of cliche to start talking of ‘good old-fashioned cup ties’, but this is what it felt like; nervy players, a febrile crowd, and a referee seemingly happy to let play go if he possibly could.
Players clattered into each other as though they were playing Jeux Sans Frontieres, against a background wall of noise that simmered between defiant chanting, anguished howling and exasperated groaning. When play did slow, it felt like boxers taking a break between rounds. One lull came to a crashing end when an unexpectedly wayward backpass let James McAtee through for Sheffield United, only for Pears to block with his foot. And within three minutes of that, as the game ticked towards the hour mark, Blackburn retook the lead when Gallagher completely sprang a somewhat slovenly home offside trap for Sammie Szmodics to race through and score.
The pattern continued. Sheffield United dominating possession, Blackburn creating the better chances. With fifteen to play, Ryan Hedges cut in from the right for Blackburn and shot against the base of the post, probably less than an inch from putting the game beyond the home side. And with ten minutes to play, they hauled themselves level with ten minutes to play, Oli McBurnie scuffing the ball in as the Blackburn defence melted around him.
And ten seconds into stoppage-time came the dramatic coda that the occasion arguably deserved, even if it was equally true to say that neither team really deserved to lose this game, when Tommy Doyle collected the ball and fired a shot that Pears could only get a touch on as it flew into the top corner of the goal. Blackburn had lost their way with the second United goal, and from that point it had felt as though Blackburn had missed their opportunity with the chances that they couldn’t quite put away.
It all raises a question that brings us crashing back into the 21st century. How much did these teams actually want to go much further in this year’s FA Cup? It’s not an uncommon argument, to suggest that clubs in their position are best placed getting themselves knocked out of the cups early to allow a clearer run on whatever league ambitions they may hold. Perhaps that’s true in the third or fourth round of the FA Cup, but by the time you get to the quarter-finals something more primeval switches on in everybody’s brains. That desire to win starts to take over, and perhaps all the more so at clubs that haven’t won much for a while.
And losing matches can cause disruption. The likelihood of Blackburn Rovers overhauling Sheffield United in the Championship is remote, but they’re in a fairly comfortable place in the table, four points above seventh place and with a game in hand. Their performance at Bramall Lane was – until those heartbreaking closing stages – quite clearly what manager Jon Dahl Tomasson will be wanting to see more of in the run-in of their league campaign.
Things will only get more difficult for Sheffield United in the next round, but a trip to Wembley for the semi-final is a good reward for a season that hasn’t been without its reasons for concern. If there has been some degree of turmoil behind the scenes at the club, it surely only reflects the good work done by manager Paul Heckingbottom in keeping the players focused. This focus may have slipped a little in recent weeks, enough to give the chasing pack hope. Perhaps this win will set them back on course in the Championship. They certainly had to work very hard to get through a breathless cup tie which never team truly deserved to lose.