AND then there was one. Sheffield United’s season is now all about securing promotion from League One after a calamitous 10 minutes ended any hopes of securing a glamour FA Cup tie against Manchester United.
The Blades, despite being far from at their best on a cold night, had led through Jamie Murphy until just after the hour.
Then, however, Preston North End produced a clinical burst of three goals in quick succession to clinch their own date with the Old Trafford giants at Deepdale on Monday, February 16.
On the balance of play and chances created, United could have few complaints with crashing out of the competition.
Nevertheless, there was still huge sense of disappointment evident among the home fans in a crowd of 13,161 at missing out on not only the chance to take on Louis van Gaal’s side but also a welcome payday for their club due to the fifth-round tie already having been selected for live broadcast by BT Sport.
Last night’s defeat means the Blades will be preparing for the following night’s trip to Notts County as Simon Grayson attempts to mastermind a shock to match the afternoon his League One Leeds United won at Old Trafford in 2010.
Considering how packed the Blades schedule already is thanks to lengthy runs in both Cup competitions, maybe being able to concentrate on the season’s main target – escaping the third tier at the fourth time of asking – will prove to be a blessing in the coming weeks.
Only time will tell on that, of course. But, right now, being knocked out on home soil will hurt, meaning Clough has a job to do to galvanise his players before the weekend trip to Gillingham.
A major problem for United this season when League One opposition have headed to Bramall Lane is that most have done so with the clear intent of putting the emphasis on the hosts to break them down.
Sitting deep and packing the centre of the field with bodies has been the order of the day, a tactic that Clough’s side, who are at their best when breaking at speed, have continually found difficult to overcome.
Last night, however, was different, with Grayson clearly encouraging his side to get forward at every opportunity.
His reward for such a bold approach really should have come in the 12th minute when a woeful attempted back header by Chris Basham was seized upon by Kevin Davies.
The veteran striker quickly weighed up his options before unleashing a first-time shot past the horribly exposed Mark Howard that struck the inside of the post before rolling across the face of goal.
It was a huge let-off for the hosts, who then needed Howard to keep out a point-blank header from Nathan Clarke with a fantastic save just moments after Chris Humphrey had seen his drilled shot from the edge of the penalty area deflected just a yard wide of the post.
United’s goalkeeper was again called into action when he had to acrobatically claw at a looping header by Laird.
The value of Howard’s impression of a one-man barrier to the Preston frontline was underlined seven minutes before the break when, in a rare attack, the hosts went ahead.
A delightful slide-rule pass from Michael Doyle found Murphy, who despite being faced with two yellow shirts, cut inside and drilled a low shot that Thorsten Stuckmann was unable to keep out.
Considering United’s only other chance of note up to that point had been a 27th-minute shot from Marc McNulty that was deflected just wide, North End could consider themselves unfortunate to fall behind.
Grayson’s men, though, needed a fine save by Stuckmann to deny Jose Baxter on the stroke of half-time as his drive from the edge of the area arrowed towards the net.
The Preston goalkeeper’s save meant the tie was still very much alive as the second half got under way with the visitors, again, in the ascendancy.
Howard was called into action as he kept out a Laird shot with a sprawling save, a second or so before Bob Harris just beat Humphrey to the rebound to complete the clearance. It proved, however, to be just a temporary reprieve as, from the very next attack, North End deservedly drew level.
A Harris foul on Humphrey just a foot outside the area created an opening that Paul Gallagher gleefully accepted with a thunderous free-kick that gave home goalkeeper Howard no chance.
Six minutes later, Preston went ahead when United failed to deal with a Gallagher corner and Paul Huntington headed in from close range.
Any hopes of hosting Manchester United a week on Monday were disappearing fast and North End made sure of their own glamour tie when Humphrey was tripped by Jay McEveley, and Gallagher fired in from the penalty spot.
The tie was all but over, meaning the small band of away fans could chant ‘Bring on United’ as home minds turned back to the league and the quest to win promotion.
Sheffield United: Howard; Flynn, Basham, McEveley, Harris; Campbell-Ryce, Baxter, Doyle (De Girolamo 80), Murphy; Scougall (Reed 64); McNulty. Unused substitutes: Alcock, Davies, Turner, Kennedy, Cuvelier.
Preston North End: Stuckmann; Wiseman, Clarke, Huntington, Woods; Kilkenny, Brownhill; Humphrey (Reid 83), Gallagher, Laird (Welsh 87); K.Davies (Garner 87). Unused substitutes: Wright, Browne, Hudson, Ebanks-Blake.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).