FOR George Long, today’s trip to Aston Villa will be a return to familiar territory.
The Sheffield United goalkeeper could have the unenviable task of keeping out Christian Benteke as the Belgian striker continues his recovery from a knee injury.
Considering the Villa forward finished last season as the Premier League’s fourth highest scorer, Long could be forgiven for finding the trip to the Midlands a daunting one.
That he does not is down to the fact that Long already has experience of upsetting the odds at Villa Park in a Blades shirt from his days in the Yorkshire club’s youth team.
“I played against Villa down there in the Youth Cup,” the 20-year-old responded when asked about United’s stirring run to the FA Youth Cup final in 2010-11.
“It was the semi-final first leg and we won 1-0 at Villa Park in a hard-fought game. Harry (Maguire) was also in the team. In parts, it was quite scrappy but we did well. It was only the first leg so there wasn’t much celebration afterwards.
“We knew there was still a tough second leg to come at the Lane. Of course, we won that (2-0) and went through to the final. That experience might possibly help us ahead of this tie.
“Once you have been to a stadium, the chances of being in awe of it are gone. Instead, you go there ready to do a job.
“Obviously, there will be a few more fans there than was the case in that Youth Cup tie. But I still think having played there before will be good preparation for both me and Harry (Maguire).”
For the record, the Blades went on to face Manchester United in the 2011 Youth Cup final. They lost 4-1 in the second leg at Old Trafford after drawing 2-2 at the Lane and the hope was that many of those youngsters would go on to represent Sheffield United for many years to come.
Jordan Slew, a regular goalscorer of that run, was sold to Blackburn Rovers to ease financial problems but several of that team remain with the club, even if the likes of Joe Ironside and Callum McFadzean have spent time out on loan this term.
Of those, there can be little doubt that Long and Maguire have proved to be the big success stories of United’s youth set-up with the pair having become mainstays of the first team.
If Villa Park is to witness an upset today, both are likely to have to play a big part.
Long said: “When you come through the youth team with the same players and you then progress into the first team, it is a good thing as you all know each other.
“Last week, four or five of our scholars got given pro contracts. So, in a couple of years, they will be the ones to watch. I am sure they will benefit – just like we have – in coming through together.
“When you are in the Under-18s, the Youth Cup is the big one, and the further we got, the more it became our focus of the season. Once in the quarter-finals, it sort of took over.
“To get all the way to the final was brilliant. It was quite surreal in the later rounds because we were in the spotlight. Five or six had been involved in the first team by that stage, but it was still surreal to be playing in front of such big crowds.”
Today’s trip to Villa is likely to bring both a sizeable attendance and also a tough test for a Blades side whose eight-game unbeaten run came to an end on New Year’s Day with a 2-1 loss at Walsall.
Long said: “When the draw was made, the lads were all delighted. We don’t get too many chances to go to a Premier League team and it would be great to get a result.
“To do that, we will have to be on top of our game, but there is nothing to be afraid of.
“We have been in good form and I think we have a chance of making an upset.
“The Cup is all about ties like this, where a lower division club go to a Premier League team. It is a great opportunity for everyone at Sheffield United.”
Villa manager Paul Lambert’s admission earlier this week that the Cup was something he could “do without” due to the priority of needing to stay in the top flight, the world’s oldest knockout competition has once again found itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Long, however, remains a fan of the Cup.
He said: “There is still a magic about the FA Cup. Look at how many of our fans are travelling. We want to put on a great performance for them.
“Villa have undoubted quality in their side, regardless of whether they take it seriously or not. Either way, this is going to be a good test.
“But, from our point of view, we take it very seriously. This is a competition we want to do well in so we will be going there to give it our best shot.
“A Cup run can help a team in the league. It helps build confidence to get good results in any competition.
“If you have a good run in the Cup it is bound to overlap into the league. That’s how I see it anyway because confidence levels go up.
“Confidence is high here, at the moment. Losing to Walsall was disappointing but before that we were eight games unbeaten. If we can recreate that, it will take us higher up the table.”
United’s form has undoubtedly picked up in the league since Nigel Clough’s arrival, easing fears of relegation.
There is still, though, plenty to do for a team who sit just three points above the drop zone.
Today, though, is all about the glory of the Cup as United look to book a place in the fourth round for the third consecutive season.
Long said: “We will go there as the underdog, which is a change from the league. It is a good chance to express ourselves against quality players. The key is we want to go there and give a good account of ourselves. We don’t want them to roll us over. We want to match them and get some kind of result.
“Obviously, we don’t know their team, but Villa have a good squad. Just look up front, where there is Benteke and (Gabby) Agbonlahor.
“If we were to come up against someone like Benteke, that would be a great test for the back four, the sort of challenge everyone wants. We want to take on players of that calibre.”