FA CUP: Blades will aim to cage Tigers from the start

Hull City's Curtis Davis celebrates a Tigers goal.
Hull City's Curtis Davis celebrates a Tigers goal.
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HISTORY beckons for either Hull City or Sheffield United this weekend.

Steve Bruce’s charges have the chance to write their names into East Riding football folklore as the first Tigers side to reach an FA Cup final.

The Blades, meanwhile, have an opportunity to become the first club from outside the top two divisions to reach English football’s showpiece occasion.

Quite a prize on offer, therefore, for both combatants in Sunday’s all-Yorkshire semi-final at Wembley to go with the prospect of walking out at Wembley once again on Saturday, May 17.

Hull’s first semi-final in 84 years and United’s first since losing to Arsenal in 2003 promises to be a fascinating affair.

The bookmakers suggest it will be Hull celebrating at the final whistle. Such thinking is understandable.

The Tigers are 12th in the top flight following last weekend’s win over Swansea City and heading for their highest league placing of all time.

And in Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies, they boast two of the Premier League’s most consistent performers this season.

Wembley, and its wide open spaces, seem made for Huddlestone, in particular. The £5.25m signing from Tottenham Hotspur will love stroking the ball around on a surface that is more akin to a bowling green.

That said, Nigel Clough’s Blades definitely cannot be discounted. They have embraced the role of underdog throughout a run that began last November in the functional surrounds of Colchester United’s Community Stadium home.

Since then, United have negotiated trips to the Abbey Stadium, Villa Park and Craven Cottage en route to reaching Wembley.

As Chris Porter, the club’s top scorer in this season’s Cup with four goals, explains elsewhere in this supplement, they were second favourites in each and every one of those games.

Even a trip to Cambridge United, then clear at the top of the Conference and boasting a 100 per cent record on home soil, fell into the ‘decidedly dodgy’ category, a point underlined by the live cameras turning up, TV producers anticipating the humbling of one of English football’s oldest and proudest of names.

They were to leave disappointed, thanks to goals from Jose Baxter and Jamie Murphy. Six months on, the Blades are heading to one of the world’s finest stadiums.

United will, no doubt, follow the approach that has served them so well this season against teams from higher divisions. Namely, keep things tight in the opening 20 or so minutes before gradually feeling their way into a match and then unleashing the attacking talent of Murphy and Ryan Flynn out wide plus the tricky skills of Baxter through the middle.

Nowhere has this worked better than at Aston Villa in the third round. Paul Lambert, by admitting staying in the Premier League was the priority over doing well in the Cups, had become embroiled in something of a media storm in the days leading up to United’s visit.

It created an unease that Clough’s men added to by stonewalling Villa for the opening 20 minutes. Then, once Murphy had skipped inside from the left and fired the visitors ahead, the Blades took control.

Villa equalised through Nicklas Helenius with 15 minutes remaining, but the League One side never wavered in their belief and were rewarded when Flynn netted what turned out to be the winner. If there was such a thing as a blueprint for a League One club to bridge a two-division gulf in class, that afternoon at Villa Park is it.

Clough’s planning for Wembley is likely to be along similar lines, meaning the onus will be on Hull to set the early pace.

That does not always suit Bruce men, who have proved to be slow-burners in the cups this season. In fact, only three of the 14 goals scored by Hull in eight FA and League Cup ties have been scored in the first half. This should suit a team like United, who prefer to play their way into ties rather than go for the throat from the first minute.

The beauty of the FA Cup is that, unlike the Premier League where fourth place is regarded as the ‘Promised Land’, triumphing is all about the glory and not the balance sheet.

Sure, the accountants will be delighted with the £1.8m prize money that comes with lifting the famous old trophy. Or, for that matter, the £450,000 cheque that will be handed to both losing semi-finalists this weekend. But for the players, it is all about the glory. It is about walking out at Wembley to a magical mix of noise and colour. It is about the chance to join the famous Cup legends of the past. And, above all, it is about creating memories that will never be forgotten.

Tens of thousands of fans will head south this Sunday and converge on north west London hoping and praying that their team can prevail.

Whether that proves to be Hull City or Sheffield United, what surely cannot be in doubt is that this has finally been a season that has seen the White Rose bloom in the FA Cup.

Not since 1992-93, when the two Steel City clubs went head-to-head under the Twin Towers, has Yorkshire boasted two semi-finalists.

Before that, we have to go back 84 years to a time when the last four of the world’s oldest knockout competition featured more than one team from within the Broad Acres.

Hull, of course, were one of those who battled through to the semi-finals. Few are unaware of that after so much has been made in recent weeks of it being the only previous time Hull have got this far.

Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday, so dominant in the Twenties that five of the last seven League titles of the decade went to either Leeds Road or Hillsborough, gave the 1930 FA Cup a distinct Tyke flavour with only eventual winners Arsenal preventing a clean sweep for the county in the semi-finals.

The last winners from within the Broad Acres were Leeds United 42 years ago. Worse still, Yorkshire has had just three finalists since then – a paltry tally for the largest county in the country.

The identity of a fourth will be known by Sunday evening. Glory really will beckon then.