BY rights, John Brayford should be enjoying life as a Premier League footballer.
After working his way up through every division from the Conference to the Championship, the full-back’s dreams of reaching the top flight came true last summer courtesy of a £1.5m move from Derby County to Cardiff City.
As Malky Mackay’s second signing, Brayford was looking forward to playing a big part in the newly-promoted Welsh club’s first season among the elite for more than half-a-century.
The reality, however, has been rather different with the 26-year-old’s only appearances in the red shirt of Cardiff having come in two League Cup appearances.
Worse still, he failed to make the bench in any other game before agreeing to last month’s loan switch to Bramall Lane.
That brought a reunion with Nigel Clough, his manager at both Pride Park and Burton Albion in the days when Brayford was a teenager and the Brewers were still non-League.
Since then, the former England C international’s season has taken a decided upturn with his four appearances for the Blades having brought a draw and victory over Premier League Fulham plus a much-needed league win against Shrewsbury Town a week ago.
Only the 3-0 loss at Crewe Alexandra has blotted his copybook, and tomorrow could bring another highlight as United host Nottingham Forest with a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals at stake.
With Brayford a former Derby man, he is expecting a rough ride.
“I can’t imagine the Forest fans will have too many kind words to say because of my Derby connections,” said the Staffordshire-born full-back when speaking to the Yorkshire Post. “The rivalry is a special one.
“If they give me stick, that is up to them. All I know is how big this game is. There aren’t too many opportunities for a League One team to get into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
“But we now have that opportunity and we have to take it. We are the lowest ranked side still in the competition and while some people might see that as a negative and dismiss us, I think it is something we should wear like a badge of honour.
“We are here on merit. We beat two Premier League clubs and deserve a shot at the quarter-final.”
For Brayford, the move to South Yorkshire has helped banish the memory of those frustrating few months in Cardiff.
Even a change of manager that saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer succeed Mackay failed to bring a change of fortunes for a full-back who has slotted in superbly on the right flank for the Blades.
“I do feel to have settled in well,” he said. “Obviously, I know the gaffer and how he works so that has helped a lot. It has also been nice to play football.
“When the gaffer got the job here, I wasn’t thinking of joining him or anything like that. At the time, I was still hoping to do well at Cardiff. I had only just moved there and it was a big chance for me. I went there with the impression I would play.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and a few loan options came up in January. This one took my fancy. Part of that was down to the manager and also the chance to play for a massive club.”
When Brayford signed, United had dumped Aston Villa out in the third round of the Cup a couple of weeks earlier. His debut then came in the 1-1 draw with Fulham, but it was at Craven Cottage in the replay when the full-back really began to display his talents down the right.
Now, the focus is on making Forest the fifth FA Cup scalp claimed by the Blades this season.
Brayford said: “It might not look as difficult as our previous ones did against Premier League opposition, but Forest will see this as a great chance to progress themselves.
“It is going to be a great tie. Obviously, I have a bit of history against Forest from my Derby days. A lot of them were good memories, too.
“There was the game at the City Ground where Derby were 1-0 down after 30 seconds and also down to 10 men.
“But we came back to win.
“That was a special day. I always remember what it was like afterwards. We celebrated with the fans and you could see on their faces what it all meant.
“It was a great day, great night. Looking at the Sheffield United fans after we won at Fulham, there was a similar atmosphere. Moments like that are brilliant.”
Brayford was an apprentice at Burton when the Brewers, then in the Conference and managed by Clough, stunned Manchester United by earning a third-round replay with a goalless home draw.
It gave him an early insight into just what makes the Cup such a special competition.
“I have seen both sides of the Cup,” said the Blades loanee. “Losing to Crawley (when with Derby in January, 2011) was a bad one. They were still non-League at the time. The game was live on TV and you know when the cameras turn up that there is the chance of an upset.
“Unfortunately, we were that upset. It wasn’t a nice night and the manager was unhappy afterwards. He made sure we knew that.
“We were a Championship club and he said we shouldn’t be losing to a non-League team. After a result like that, we deserved everything we got.
“Obviously, the boot was on the other foot against Fulham this season. I was also at Burton when they drew with Manchester United.
“I was only 17 so not involved, but what an amazing time for the club and the town. People will never forget that.
“I wouldn’t say seeing those games against Manchester United made me even more determined to be a player. I was determined about that anyway. But it showed what the FA Cup can be like for a club.”
As for the Blades, victory would put the club through to the last eight for the first time in a decade. It would also leave United potentially just 90 minutes from an appearance at Wembley.
“We can’t think like that,” said Brayford. “Obviously, playing at Wembley would be a dream. But, as we stand here now, it is a distant one.”