Sunday, 1 February 2015

Blades Cup Runneth Over


League Cup semi finals are strange affairs. Back in the day when the earlier rounds were two legged ties, having a similar set up for the semi finals just seemed much more natural. Now with the quick fire nature of the early rounds it suddenly feels like two other ties. A semi final usually means one game from Wembley, with the League Cup it's two. Nerves frayed over two consecutive Wednesday nights. Away first, keep it tight, work hard, keep in contention before bringing them back to the Lane.

That we did; Spurs restricted to limited and somewhat distant opportunities, not that we offered much more in the attacking third. Nil nil, no away goals but winner takes all at the Lane. That looks good, we will take that. But it wasn't there for the taking.

An inexplicable swipe of an arm, the ball parried over the goal line, an unfathomable decision. Oh to understand what thoughts were rushing through the mind of the man in the number 19 shirt. Watching on as the realisation of what he has done draws down his face from brow to down turned mouth. Not sure he can logically explain it either.

One nil, we will take one nil. No one likes coming to the Lane. Not even teams that have been to Besiktas. Creating our own version of hell in S2.

Come match night in Sheffield, Winter is wreaking its own version of hell. Biting winds driving swirling blizzards into the faces of fans as they queue at the turnstiles and make their way to their seats. The warmth of the packed pub and Balti pie dissipating with every icy blast. The snow and icy rain clinging to woollen scarf and bobble hat.

The game opens with United having the best chance. Scougall's diminutive stature stuns Vorm who wonders why a ball boy is in his six yard box jumping for a header. A regulation take from a cross is dropped and the ball is laid back to Murphy. You can feel three sides of the ground, as one, tense up in anticipation and start to rise from their seats. Placement preferred over power it's not accurate enough to beat Walker on the line and the retreating keeper.

The energy of the crowd seems to get lost finding its way to the pitch. The bustling and harrying which rattled the opposition on their own patch is not as apparent. The Premier League players a step ahead, a pass ahead in mind and body.  Those in red and white chasing shadows. But despite the differential few chances are taken. Apart from one.

A magical free kick that dipped and swerved. That you thought was going wide, that Mark Howard thought, hoped was going wide. It clips the stanchion and fizzes back across goal and in. An £11m player can do that, but not every time, as a subsequent free kick in a near similar position proved.

Half time and the fans ponder and discuss what could change this. Two goals for extra time, but three needed for victory in either the next 45, or 75. Looking up, the snow swirls around unabated. Maybe it will settle, the match will be abandoned and we can play it again. Starting with a bit more verve and drive?

At home, fans watching on TV wonder if Bill Leslie can be any more patronising, whether Hinchcliffe will ever make a comment that doesn't betray his fondness for the other lot in Sheffield and which United player's name Beagrie will get wrong? Stefan Baxter? Jamal McNulty?

The second half starts better, but the turning point comes, with tactical decisions made by each manager. Dembele, commanding in the midfield, untouchable for much of the game is withdrawn. United's replacements, a 17 year old academy graduate and an 18 year old prospect from non-league add pace and movement missing so far.

They lack the million pound price tags and international caps that come off the Spurs bench, but they lift the players around them creating space and opportunities for others to thrive. Flynn and Murphy have more thrust. The Blades are more of an attacking force, relieving pressure on a hard working back four.

In football, games can change in seconds. A driving right wing surge from Flynn, a ball across goal finds young Adams beyond the back post. Opening up his body, the side of his right foot meets the ball and perfectly places it in the only space possible from the tightest of angles. As 25,000 Blades fans suddenly believe, Adams is in disbelief, running off to celebrate as his team mates gather the ball and retreat to the halfway line, still recognising a job to be done.

Within two minutes Adams has another. A deft first touch brings down a curling cross and he hits a shot goalward. Deflected. And it hits the back of the net. Bedlam.

Parents hug children. Children hug brothers and sisters. Hard looking men embrace their best mate in a manner that won't be mentioned in the same manner when they are next down the pub with their other mates. The stands shake to their foundations. The place bounces.

Tears well up in eyes. This is our time. The momentum has swung and Spurs look shell-shocked. Fists are clenched. If will power and belief in the stands could win games it would be ours, but sadly it isn't.

No sitting on laurels, no waiting for extra time, look for the third. Reed breaks through on the right side of the box, he middles the shot and as it rises, you think it is going to dip under the bar. You feel the joy rising in your body, ready to explode, then you see the ball just clear the bar on the wrong side and the adrenaline drains and you flop back down in your seat.

Still United probe, but Spurs' chief executioner has other ideas, a scything counter attack finds him in acres of space to deliver a precise and ultimately decisive blow. As one, as at Wembley 9 months earlier, three sides of the ground rise to their feet and applaud and chant the club's name. Yet still there is belief we can get to extra time and push again.

Basham breaks free but a heavy touch means he can't beat Vorm to the ball. Although Vertonghen's subsequent grip on Basham's neck is somewhat stronger than Vorm's on the ball.

And as the Blades make one desperate attempt to get the ball forward the referee blows the final whistle. A home draw against a top Premier League side shouldn't disappoint, but to be so close and again miss out knocked the edge off a great performance.

Walking back towards the city centre, Spurs fans speak of their shock at our lowly league status and expressing admiration for the way we played. Wishing us well for the season, hoping this becomes a regular twice a season fixture again soon. We all concur on that.

Meanwhile mobile phones buzz with messages from friends and fans of our city rivals. The irony of their misplaced sniping lost. We are down, but proud. Yet again we have enjoyed many great afternoons and evenings of cup football with the joy, shock and elation it brings. More than many clubs outside the Premier League have enjoyed in the last 10 or 15 years.

Sitting in the cars and buses, gridlocked on white out roads, there was plenty of time to ponder and reminisce, but also to look forward. Automatic promotion is all but gone, but those damned play-offs might finally be our thing, with our cup game mentality. Time to put the hoodoo to bed. But not before another cup night versus Preston and hopefully another potential shock to follow.

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