If familiarity breeds contempt then last night’s match at Highbury should have been absolutely brutal.
Only 21 days after meeting in the league, Sheffield United and Fleetwood Town confronted each other again for the right to reach the semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
The icy wind which coursed across Highbury throughout presented arguably the fiercest challenge to both sets of player before the outcome was decided by the ultimate test of nerve.
Fleetwood’s held firm - with Billy Sharp and captain Jay McEveley both missing penalties during the shoot-out which decided this tie. But United, who shaded the tie during normal time, could count themselves unfortunate not to progress. Not that it provided any consolation for Adkins who insisted they had “created more than enough chances” to have gone through.
“I wanted to win and I made no bones about that,” he said. “So, yes, of course I’m disappointed but credit to their goalkeeper because he made some excellent saves.”
Both Adkins and Steven Pressley argued beforehand that last month’s contest at Bramall Lane, which finished 3-0 in the home team’s favour, would exert precious little influence this over Northern Area quarter-final tie. Psycholigically speaking, any advantage United might have enjoyed was diluted by the absence of Che Adams who, after scoring twice against Fleetwood three weeks ago, missed this fixture through injury.
Nonetheless, Pressley’s team were clearly still wary of the threat the visitors posed and, after an early show of strength, surrendered the initiative before recovering their poise, doubtless following a few choice words from the Scot, after the interval.
Once again, though, it turned out to be a false dawn with United creating the evening’s best openings and chances without failing to break the deadlock.
Jose Baxter, who had been summoned from the bench as penalties loomed, converted his attempt before Sharp and McEveley saw their efforts saved.
Despite concerns about the competition’s merits, this match was a worthwhile exercise for Adkins and his coaching staff. Particularly, with Craig Alock joining Doncaster Rovers on loan earlier in the day, as they look to continue trimming a bloated squad.
All eyes, therefore, were on the likes of James Wallace and McEveley as they returned to action following long absences. Both rose to the occasion well with Wallace in particular providing glimpses of the talent which has persuaded United to persevere despite his debilitating fitness record. Indeed, one trademark surge forward from the midfielder should have resulted in his team being awarded a second-half penalty but referee Chris Kavanagh, despite having a perfect view of Jimmy Ryan’s trip, inexplicably remained unmoved.
If there were any questions about Adkins’ committment to the tournament, they were answered when Dean Hammond and Billy Sharp entered the fray towards the end of a contest controlled for long spells.
Like Wallace, George Long and Stefan Scougall also had good reason to be satisfied with their contributions.
Long acquitted himself with a composure and maturity which suggests Mark Howard faces a battle to retain his place between the posts. Saves from Declan McManus and Ashley Hunter confirmed the youngster’s shot-stopping ability while, despite the testing conditions, he also appeared confident coming to collect a cross. Scougall, meanwhile, was full of energy and positive intentions. Particularly when darting forward from a deep lying role.
Ultimately, though, it was Nick Haughton who ensured it was Fleetwood who edged a step closer towards Wembley when he converted after Bobby Grant, David Ball and Ryan had also scored.
“There were positives,” Adkins said. “We had people coming back from long-term injury and that was pleasing to see. But I wanted to go through and we didn’t. So, from that perspective, it wasn’t good.”
Adkins, making nine changes to his starting eleven, had stressed this match represented an opportunity for peripheral members of United’s squad to secure more influential roles. One of those, James Wallace, announced his return from injury with a crunching challenge on Amari’i Bell which set the tone for a fast and furious opening. Martyn Woolford saw a powerful drive palmed away by Chris Maxwell following Stefan Scougall’s driving run before, at the other end, Long thwarted McManus with an excellent reaction save at the near post.
Inevitably, given Adkins’ bold selection policy, establishing lines of communication between the different facets of their team proved problematic for United at times. So, with the conditions also making it difficult to construct intricate passing moves, Conor Sammon became the focal point for United’s defenders whenever they found themselves in possession. The ploy nearly paid dividends midway through the opening period when the former Republic of Ireland centre-forward, playing his second match in succession, held off his marker after controlling Harrison McGahey’s punt upfield but Matt Done could not control the ball. Done came agonisingly close to applying a decisive touch once again as United threatened to seize control but Maxwell did just enough to stop Kieran Wallace’s centre falling kindly.
Woolford adopted a different approach, skipping beyond two Fleetwood players before being crowded out as he shaped to deliver an angled shot goalwards. He enjoyed another opportunity again soon after but this time, despite the midfielder’s best efforts, his low drive was deflected away to safety.
United went close again towards the end of the first-half when Sammon barged his way through but Fleetwood cleared their lines as Scougall prepared to pounce.
Long denied McManus again almost immediately after the restart but United continued to test the opposition’s luck, durability and resolve.
First, Scougall went close after piercing Fleetwood’s rearguard before Kennedy flashed a first time attempt inches wide of Maxwell’s far post following a skirmish in front of the goalkeeper. James Wallace should have been awarded a penalty when he was felled by Ryan just inside the area but the match officials waved away his appeals much to the obvious disbelief of Adkins and his assistant Andy Crosby.
Long acrobatically palmed away a curling shot from substitute Hunter as Fleetwood launched a foray forward but neither they nor United could prevent the game being decided by penalties.
Fleetwood Town: Maxwell, Jonsson, Pond, Bell, Ryan, Matt (Ball 58), Forbes (Grant 83), McManus (Hunter 72), Haughton, Teixeira, Davis. Not used: Sowerby, Gogic.
Sheffield United: Long, J Wallace (Hammond 72), Done, Scougall, Woolford, Sammon (Sharp 72), McEveley, Reed (Baxter 81), Kennedy, KWallace, McGahey. Not used: Howard, Freeman.
Referee: C Kavanagh (Lancashire).