Nigel Clough is hoping Sheffield United’s cup adventures can reignite confidence in his Blades team.
United have had a wobble in their League One form at Bramall Lane this season, failing to win any of their last four league games at Bramall Lane.
Back-to-back draws against Oldham and Notts County plus defeats to Barnsley and MK Dons have dented United’s hopes of putting pressure on the League One automatic promotions spots.
Despite that, the Blades are still in the play-off mix and Clough is hoping United’s cup exploits can provide a much-needed tonic for his players.
Last season, United went all the way to Wembley, losing to Hull City in the FA Cup semi-final, and the run coincided with a huge upturn in their league form.
Having already reached the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup, where they will host Premier League high-fliers Southampton a week tomorrow, United are also in tonight’s third-round draw of the FA Cup.
A 2-0 home win over Crewe in the first round was followed by Saturday’s 3-0 win over Plymouth Argyle, to leave Clough relieved after a “rough week”.
A drab first half was soon forgotten when Saturday’s second-round tie burst into life after the interval.
Former Rotherham United forward Reuben Reid blazed wide a 47th-minute penalty for the League Two visitors and that sparked the Blades into action.
Jose Baxter showed how to convert a spot-kick, as the midfielder twice netted in front of the Kop, before Marc McNulty flicked home a late third.
“Once our goal went in, I saw our confidence returning,” admitted Clough. “It had been a rough week up to that point, it was an important victory.
“It was only comfortable at the end, I thought we struggled in the first half.
“Their penalty at the start of the second half was probably the wake-up call that we needed.”
Asked if he feared a replay after a goalless first half, Clough replied: “We were thinking worse than that when they got the penalty. We’d have taken a replay at that point.
“It’s nice to score three goals, we could have had a couple more as well. Confidence at home is a big thing here, when we haven’t won for a few matches.
“The most important thing was get through to the third round, but secondly to get the goals and win the game.
“We couldn’t score at home on Tuesday night (against MK Dons), despite a lot of pressure, and only got one against Notts and one against Oldham before that.
“It’s nothing to do with the formation, it’s the confidence of players. We put the same amount of balls in the box again today, and we still didn’t get enough people on the end of them. We did play with a bit more freedom after the penalty went in. We said to the lads, ‘just relax and go and enjoy it’.
“Sometimes it’s difficult because of the expectations.
“I thought Jose (Baxter) looked a different player, once the first goal went in, more than anybody. He looked a bit down in the dumps, we were just a bit flat.
“That’s understandable because of the home form.”
What pleased Clough was the impact his substitutes made on Saturday. McNulty replaced a jaded Jamal Campbell-Ryce at half-time, and it was the striker who won the first penalty when he was dragged back by Ben Purrington, before adding a late third goal. Jamie Murphy won the second penalty, fouled by Peter Hartley.
There was also the welcome return of Florent Cuvelier, sidelined for 11 months after a bad knee injury, and it was his cross which set up fellow substitute McNulty’s goal.
“We had such difficult games here Friday and Tuesday – Notts County and MK Dons – and put so much into Tuesday night, that it was a little bit flat in the first half,” explained Clough.
“One or two were feeling the effects, Jamal had played every game of late, and we needed some fresh legs on.
“We go into the middle of December and we are still in both major cups, which is unusual for a League One side.
“That’s why it was nice to get Florent Cuvelier back on, because if we can get him fit this month, it will be an extra body for us in January.
“Eleven months is a long time for a footballer to be out. He did his cruciate at Port Vale in January and he has worked incredibly hard to get back.”
While Cuvelier’s return is a bonus, so was the display of winger Ryan Flynn, standing in at right-back. Clough said: “We had a chat to him in the summer about doing a bit at right-back. We felt he had the capabilities of doing it.
“He can deputise at right-back very comfortably indeed.”
Sheffield United: Howard, Flynn, Basham, McEveley, Harris, Baxter (Cuvelier 85), Doyle, Scougall (Reed 76), Campbell-Ryce (McNulty 45), Murphy, Higdon. Unused substitutes: McGahey, Turner, Kennedy, Khan.
Plymouth: McCormick, Mellor, Nelson, Hartley, Purrington (Norburn 72), Blizzard (Harvey 80), O’Connor, Kellett, Alessandra, Reid, Banton (Cox 72). Unused substitutes: Bittner, Allen, Bentley.
Referee: G Sutton (Lincs).