Photo: Jan Krueger/Getty Images
An anthem of limbs and lungs, a game of pure lust and desire, an FA Cup quarter-final epic that stands the test of time. And at the very climax: a leg swing, a ruffle of the Bramall Lane net and a sound that will propel Sheffield United all the way to Wembley. It was Tommy Doyle’s 25-yard goal in the first minute of added time that proved the difference against daring but distraught Blackburn Rovers, a club just 10 minutes from their blessed moment of triumph.
The bare outlines of this game only offer a fraction of the story. United started brilliantly. Blackburn went against the flow of play. Fortunately, United equalized. Blackburn went against the flow of play again. United equalized through Oli McBurnie with nine minutes remaining. But the common thread running through it was a thoroughbred commitment, a four-sided assault on the senses, Yorkshire versus Lancashire, a spectacle as gripping as a good movie and as loud as war.
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The duels were honest and bloodthirsty. The tempo of the game hardly let up, which belies the ridiculous midday kick-off time and strenuous mid-week effort by both sides. There is still promotion to play for Blackburn, the consolation of a rousing performance from an improving team. Jon Dahl Tomasson is building something extremely exciting there and without the inside post and some brilliant saves from Wes Foderingham, Rovers could easily have toasted their first visit to the new Wembley Stadium.
For United it was a lesson in patience and perseverance, trust in the ball and in each other. Even as Sammie Szmodics gave Blackburn a 2-1 lead, there was little panic or urgency as they gradually worked their way back into the game. That’s Paul Heckingbottom’s doctrine: keep calm, don’t complain, win the next fight. Perhaps nothing illustrated this better than the winning goal: a carefully crafted move against the howls of the crowd to launch the cross, the ball finally landing at Doyle’s feet. Deferred gratification, it is always said, is the best way.
And after falling behind to Ben Brereton Díaz’s penalty, United returned to their task diligently. The penalty was an unpopular decision, but the right one, as Sam Gallagher’s shot caught Jack Robinson’s outstretched arm from close range. But United had been the better side up to that point and had equalized seven minutes later when Max Lowe’s volley from long range caught Gallagher and trickled in.
It stayed that way until the hour when an error by Lowe allowed Tyler Morton – perhaps the standout player in the Blackburn shirt – to steal the ball and initiate the move which Szmodics finished off coolly. And for all of United’s possession and pressure, it wasn’t an undeserved goal, a reward for Blackburn’s deft midfield squeeze and determination in the final third. Unlike James McAtee for United who missed two good one-on-one chances that might have ended the game early. But it was McBurnie who kept his composure in the 81st minute, turning Hayden Carter inside with a nasty spin and firing deep into the far post.
“Potentially one of the biggest weeks in the club’s history,” was Heckingbottom’s verdict a few days ago: quite a tall order for a club that has won a league title, four FA Cups and eight promotions to the first division. But when Doyle’s shot burst the net, it didn’t feel like an outlandish statement. United are still under a transfer embargo, still suffering from significant financial strains, still awaiting a possible takeover by Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi and still battling the prospect of administration and a points deduction.
Against all of this, Heckingbottom have created a brilliant team, runners-up in the Championship and now just one game away from the FA Cup final. The money is well received, of course, but what counts above all is joy and hope: the cheerful optimism of a club that, in the most difficult times, simply rolled up its sleeves and carried on.