NIGEL CLOUGH believes the possibility of a Steel City derby in the FA Cup quarter-finals will galvanise both Sheffield United and Wednesday this weekend.
The Blades, the lowest ranked side still in the competition, host Nottingham Forest tomorrow, while Stuart Gray’s Owls also have an eminently winnable tie today as Charlton Athletic come to Hillsborough.
With several of the Premier League’s biggest clubs going head-to-head in the fifth round, a possible route to Wembley and a semi-final appearance has opened up for a host of the game’s lesser lights.
Hull City, for instance, will fancy their chances of reaching at least the last four if they can negotiate Monday night’s trip to Brighton & Hove Albion.
For Sheffield’s two clubs, a similar level of anticipation exists ahead of their own ties with United manager Clough admitting that an all Steel City meeting in the quarter-finals would be a mouth-watering prospect.
He said: “A less fashionable team (Wigan Athletic) won the Cup last season and I felt that helped to freshen up the competition.
“It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that it could happen again, either. Or that a Football League club could have a big run. Our neighbours are still in the competition at home to Charlton. Then there is Brighton v Hull – there is a possibility there.
“Maybe a Championship team will get to the quarters or the semis. Or one from League One.
“It all depends on how kind the draw gets in those later stages. If you come up against an Arsenal or a Chelsea then you could struggle.
“But with Manchester City facing Chelsea and Arsenal drawing Liverpool, two of the big clubs will be out.
“So it could be a change from the big six and for me that is what the Cup is all about. It is great for the supporters of those clubs as well.
“Our neighbours are going into their game against Charlton reasonably confident and hopeful of getting to the last eight so the whole of Sheffield is hoping for a Sheffield quarter-final.
“This is an amazing city in that it supports two football clubs of such size. Two big clubs, probably equal in size. Not many cities would support that with the fervour that they do. I sense there is a real buzz about the city this week.
“We are a little bit conscious that we have to temper it with the dose of reality that we are in the bottom four of League One. But, without getting carried away, we are in the last 16 of the FA Cup.”
Of the two Steel City clubs in action this weekend, the Blades appear to have the hardest task.
Even allowing for the outstanding displays that were enough to see of Aston Villa and Fulham in the last two rounds, United are in for a tough test as Forest, unbeaten in 16 games, head to Bramall Lane.
Nevertheless, having negotiated four tricky rounds thanks to a quartet of victories on the road, Clough has huge faith in his United players as they take on the club he served so admirably for nine years.
“We are two games away (from a possible Wembley trip),” said Clough. “We have a home tie to get through but it is certainly a possibility. It would mean a lot, though not as much as keeping the club up this season. We have to do well in the Cup in tandem with getting out of trouble.
“I wish we were three or four points better off. We should be, as we have dropped points when we should have won.
“It means we have to go into Sunday with an eye on the league. We will be totally focused, even if the league is in the background. The players know we are potentially two games away from Wembley. I believe we can do both.”
Across the city, Wednesday manager Gray is equally hopeful that his Cup rookies can book the club’s first appearance in the quarter-finals since 1997.
Only defender Glenn Loovens – who reached the final with Cardiff City in 2008 – of the current Owls squad has played in an FA Cup quarter-final but Gray, while far from taking Charlton lightly, believes the Owls can today book their place in the last eight, when they would hope to do better than the club’s class of 1997 who suffered a 2-0 loss to Wimbledon.
He said: “Charlton will be a big challenge. Chris Powell has them organised and they will have 11 players dreaming about reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals, just like our lads.
“The pleasing thing is it is on our pitch. We had testing ties at Macclesfield and Rochdale, and we came through those. Now we have to put a show on for our fans.”
Gray believes the FA Cup run has helped Wednesday’s recent upturn in fortunes in the Championship, which sees them sitting nine points clear of the relegation zone. He accepts Owls’ fans will start dreaming of a Wembley return – 21 years after beating their Steel City rivals in a FA Cup semi-final at the national stadium – if they triumph today.
He said: “The draw has to be kind, if we get through this and reach the quarter-finals, so we can get a home draw again.”
As for United, the fixtures are piling up thanks to a combination of the Cup and the weather, with this week’s fixture against Peterborough United having been postponed.
A draw tomorrow, therefore, could be seen as a nightmare scenario due to United then having to travel to the City Ground a week on Tuesday – when they are due to face Colchester United in the league.
Clough, however, does not share that view. He said: “I will take a replay over getting knocked out. We want to stay in the competition.
“Fulham caused us a problem because we had to knock a fixture back to play the replay but we will take that. We want to try and stay in this competition for as long as possible.”
Match previews: Pages 2-5.