SUCH is the perilous state of Macclesfield Town’s finances that manager John Askey, in the immediate wake of his side earning this FA Cup third-round replay against Sheffield Wednesday earlier this month, admitted his tactics in the closing stages had been designed not to score a winner.
His strikers, Askey explained, had been told to withdraw to deep-lying positions, the portcullis was lowered and his players tasked with seeing out the final few minutes to earn a replay.
To a club where every penny counts and one midfielder plays for nothing, such a practical attitude was understandable – even if it may not have been one for the football romantics.
Askey’s reward came last night with a crowd of 12,302 and his ‘Macc Lads’ emerged with huge credit after giving the Championship club an almighty scare they will not forget in a hurry.
Leading through Chris Maguire’s third-minute opener, Wednesday looked on course for a comfortable passage to the fourth round only for the visitors to level just after the hour mark through a penalty from lifelong Sheffield United fan Scott Boden.
Unlike the first game at Moss Rose 10 days earlier, Askey’s orders were to go for the Championship club’s throat once level, and but for Scott Kay being denied by, first, Damian Martinez and then the crossbar inside a couple of seconds, Macclesfield could this morning be celebrating a famous Cup upset.
Instead, late strikes by Jacques Maghoma, Jermaine Johnson and Miguel Llera not only gave the final score a flattering look but also booked the Owls a fourth round trip to Rochdale.
As Leeds United will attest, a visit to Spotland will be no formality. Keith Hill’s League Two side will fancy their chances of slaying a second Yorkshire club in as many rounds come January 25.
But, even allowing for Dale’s confidence, a possible path to the fifth round – a stage Wednesday have reached just twice since the turn of the Millennium – has suddenly opened up.
And with league results very much on the up – as last weekend’s 6-0 thrashing of Leeds so spectacularly proved – things are looking up around S6 after a largely desperate first half of the season.
Macclesfield, to their credit, came to Hillsborough determined to play their typical, neat and tidy football.
For instance, one flowing first-half move involving seven or eight passes that ended with Jack Mackreth cutting inside Reda Johnson and bringing a save from David Martinez was a delight.
The flipside of this cultured approach, however, was a defence that looked vulnerable every time Wednesday crossed the halfway line.
Atdhe Niuhu’s height and physique was a particular problem for Town, the 6ft 6ins striker continually proving able to bring the ball down and then find a team-mate even when surrounded by a sea of white shirts.
Time and time again, Niuhu would get the better of the Macclesfield defence and it was only some wayward shooting from those lay-offs that allowed the visitors to escape.
Most of these came from the Owls’ midfield, who, clearly buoyed by the derby humiliation of Leeds, had opted a shoot on sight policy.
So, too, had Maguire, who opened the scoring on three minutes with the kind of blockbuster shot that would have beaten most Premier League goalkeepers never mind anyone plying their trade in the fifth tier.
Collecting the ball out wide on the left, the Scottish international cut inside a couple of challenges before unleashing a thunderbolt of an effort that had hit the net before Rhys Taylor had moved across his line.
Maguire had another pot-shot on 20 minutes that, this time, went narrowly wide before Taylor unconventionally cleared a dangerous free-kick by sliding across his six-yard box and slide-tackling the ball to safety.
It was a strange, if effective, tactic and moments later Macclesfield had another let-off when Joe Connor cleared off the line from Maguire.
Macclesfield rallied before half-time, with Danny Whitaker shooting just wide and Martinez making his aforementioned save from Mackreth.
But, in truth, Wednesday always looked capable of stepping up a gear and only the defiance of Taylor in the visitors’ goal prevented a second goal soon after the restart.
First, Taylor rushed from his line to block Maguire as he looked to roll the ball into the net. The ball then fell to Jacques Maghoma, who could only chip the ball over the crossbar from 30 yards.
Then, as Maguire again raced clear onto a through ball, Taylor bravely dived at the feet of the Owls striker to avert the danger.
The value of Taylor’s bravery became apparent on 64 minutes when Joe Mattock was adjudged to have handballed while trying to prevent Mackreth flicking the ball over him.
Referee Nigel Miller pointed to the spot and Boden did the rest from 12 yards to bring the tie level.
Kay then had his two golden opportunities kept out by Martinez and the crossbar respectively before Mackreth came close to wriggling his way through a host of Wednesday bodies.
Thirteen minutes from time and the tie took its decisive twist as a sweeping move saw the ball worked out to Maghoma on the left.
He took two touches before unleashing an unstoppable low drive that arrowed into the bottom of Taylor’s net.
This time there was to be no way back for the plucky non-League side, as Jermaine Johnson fired in from the edge of the area and then Llera headed in a fourth goal.
Sheffield Wednesday: Martinez; Palmer, Loovens, Llera, R Johnson (Mattock 46); Maghoma, Lee (McCabe 83), Semedo, Helan (J Johnson 64); Niuhu, Maguire. Unused substitutes: Kirkland, Corry, McPhail, McKenzie.
Macclesfield Town: Taylor; Halls, Williams (Martin 88), Connor, Andrew; Turnbull (Holroyd 60), Kay; Mackreth, Whitaker, Winn (Rowe 60); Boden.Unused substitutes: Branagan, Bolton, Kissock, Lewis.
Referee: N Miler (County Durham).
Last night’s results: Page 22.