Sheffield United 2 Mansfield Town 1: Hammers prize for Blades as McNulty pounces

Marc McNulty scores the winner.
Marc McNulty scores the winner.
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FOR all the history that Bradford City created by reaching the Wembley final in 2012, the League Cup has not been too happy a hunting ground for Yorkshire clubs over the past decade.

Four years ago, for instance, things got so bad that all 10 of the county’s Football League clubs had crashed out of the competition before the end of August – a feat that actually takes some doing.

Maybe, though, this season is going to be different after no less than eight of our clubs booked a place in the second round – an achievement that the White Rose has not managed since 2005.

Sheffield United last night became the last team to negotiate a safe passage through the first round after a late winner by Marc McNulty was enough to see off a spirited Mansfield Town.

And while the Blades laboured for long periods, looking a pale shadow of the side that did so well in the FA Cup last term, the main thing is they got through to earn a meeting at West Ham United in the second round.

Considering Nigel Clough made eight changes to the side that had started the League One season against Bristol City at the weekend, maybe the home side’s below-par efforts were understandable.

Certainly, United struggled for any kind of rhythm with only Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Jose Baxter and goalscorer McNulty genuinely pressing their claims to start against Coventry City on Saturday.

Credit for the rest of those drafted in by Clough being made to struggle should go to the visitors, who were well organised and broke swiftly to ask serious questions of their League One hosts.

With steadier finishing, the Stags could even have caused an upset and added to United’s misery in a competition where before last night they had fallen at the first hurdle in four of the five previous seasons.

Mansfield were well aware of that statistic after being handed a trip to S2 and duly made the short trip north hopeful of claiming a notable Cup scalp.

For much of the first half, those hopes didn’t seem too far-fetched due to the home side labouring for long periods against the well-organised Stags.

Sascha Studer did have saves to make in those opening 45 minutes, the Mansfield goalkeeper beating away a Baxter shot early on and then having to get down smartly to cut out a drilled Campbell-Ryce cross as a couple of Blades players hovered hoping to pounce on a mistake.

But the fact that the two incidents that got the home support in a crowd of 7,929 on their feet were free-kicks from Ben Davies that flashed just wide of the post said everything about how pedestrian the hosts had been in the first half.

Mansfield weren’t much better, the League Two side’s best opening coming through either a mistake or a slip by United.

A weak punch by Mark Howard on 27 minutes, for instance, handed Sam Clucas a chance he was unable to convert due to his instinctive shot being blocked.

Clucas also brought a sprawling save from Howard after Neill Collins, usually the type of centre-half to take man and ball, had uncharacteristically come off second best in a 50-50 challenge with Simon Heslop.

The Mansfield substitute continued to carry a threat after the interval as, first, he got free in the Blades’ penalty area only to be crowded out after hesitating.

Heslop then swooped on the ball to hit a shot that took a deflection wide and, from the resulting corner, Clucas headed on to the top of the crossbar.

United needed a lift and it came eight minutes into the second half courtesy of a Davies corner that Baxter flicked beautifully into the danger-zone from the edge of the six-yard box.

Studer could only parry the ball, allowing Andy Butler to head in from close range.

The relief among the Bramall Lane faithful was evident straight away but, just four minutes later, it was the turn of the 1,252 visiting supporters to celebrate after Alex Fisher’s drilled shot was diverted into the net by a United leg.

For a time after being pegged back, United lost their way to leave the League Two club once again believing an upset was on the cards. However, in the final stages, United again stepped up a gear as McNulty fired over after a poor attempted chest back to his goalkeeper by Sutton.

Michael Doyle then saw his drilled shot deflected agonisingly wide of the upright before McNulty settled proceedings in a manner befitting a winning goal as he evaded two challenges before coolly beating Studer.

Sheffield United: Howard; Davies, Butler, Collins, Harris; Campbell-Ryce, McGinn (Murphy 71), Doyle, Baxter; McNulty (McGahey 89), Porter (Higdon 73). Unused substitutes: Basham, Flynn, Willis, De Girolamo.

Mansfield Town: Studer; Sutton, Riley (Dempster 72), Tafazolli; Beevers, McGuire (F Bell 68), Heslop, Clements, Taylor; Hearn (Clucas 16), Fisher. Unused substitutes: Jones, Thomas, Belford, A Bell.

Referee: G Eltringham (County Durham).