Teenager Diego De Girolamo rescued Sheffield United’s FA Cup dream, but has been warned he needs to remain patient to get an extended run in the team.
The Italian Under-20 international – who has long been tipped as a future star – netted his first Blades goal on 68 minutes to earn last season’s surprise Cup semi-finalists a replay at Bramall Lane.
Paul Gallagher’s first-half free-kick had put Preston North End in front, but substitute Jamie Murphy set up De Girolamo for the equaliser and the teenager could have grabbed a second-half hat-trick.
The Chesterfield-born forward was one of eight changes from the team which lost 1-0 to Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final first leg at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, and De Girolamo looks likely to make way on Wednesday night for the second leg at Bramall Lane.
Blades opportunities have been rare for the 19-year-old, who netted four times on loan at York City this season, as manager Nigel Clough looks to integrate him gradually into the first team.
Team-mate Jose Baxter, who captained a youthful Blades side at Deepdale, believes De Girolamo has to stay patient and learn from senior players.
“The gaffer has been on at Diego saying ‘if you want to play up front just get in the six-yard box and you’ll score goals’. That’s what he did,” said Baxter, who himself experienced the pressures of being a teenage prodigy at Everton.
“I thought his all-round play was good; he held it up well and put a great shift in for the team.
“He’s just got to build from there. He can’t get disappointed. He’s had a good game.
“He can’t just go into the next game expecting to play. As a youngster you’re in and out of the team.
“You’re used when the manager wants to use you and it’s not every game you’re going to play.
“When his chance comes he’s just got to do what he did (at Preston). As a youngster, there are always senior lads who are going to play ahead of you and you’ve just got to deal with it. It can only benefit him playing well like this.”
United, who had four teenagers in their ranks, started slowly before ditching their three centre-backs system, and after the break could have pinched immediate progress.
De Girolamo was only denied a goal when the retreating Calum Woods cleared off the line, before the teenager fired just wide from long range.
His goal was just reward for a spirited performance, but Baxter was simply relieved to be in tonight’s fifth-round draw.
“We just wanted to be in the hat for the next round,” he said.
“We want to go far in the FA Cup, it means a lot to us. We went a long way last year.
“The young lads showed great character; they want the ball and got stuck in. They’re good lads. That’s why the manager’s played them and they repaid him.”
With the Premier League’s top three – Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton – exiting the competition, no team will fancy playing United.
Having reached the semi-finals in this year’s League Cup – following on from last season’s FA Cup adventure all the way to Wembley – the Blades now like their chances of further progress if they can overcome Preston at Bramall Lane next week.
“We were just having a laugh in the changing room saying we’ve got to be favourites now after a few have gone out,” joked Baxter. “There are still some great teams in there, though, and that’s what the Cup is all about, the underdogs beating the big boys.”
A replay adds to an already congested Blades fixture list, but manager Clough, who clinched the signing of Cardiff City defender John Brayford before kick-off in a reported £1m deal – having also recruited Derby County duo Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman – paid tribute to his side’s winning mentality.
“It is about building momentum,” he said. “We believe success in all competitions goes hand-in-hand. We don’t like losing, we fight and scrap and we deserved our goal.”
Preston North End: Stuckmann, Woods, Clarke, Huntington, Buchanan, Welsh (Davies 74), Kilkenny (King 62), Humphrey, Gallagher, Reid (Browne 85), Ebanks-Blake. Unused substitutes: Laird, Wiseman, Brownhill, Hudson.
Sheffield United: Howard, Alcock, McGahey, Kennedy, Davies (Harris 82), Dimaio (Murphy 56), Basham, De Girolamo (McNulty 78), Reed, Baxter, Higdon. Unused substitutes: Long, Doyle, Scougall, Campbell-Ryce.
Referee: K Stroud.
Man of the match: Diego De Girolamo.