If the Blades lose to an in-form Chelsea tomorrow, their season will be all but over, as simple as that. Win, and they will have an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley to look forward to.
It is 1936 since they last won at that stage of the competition, and they have had five last-four ties since, four since 1993. But with their Premier League season winding slowly and demoralisingly towards relegation, the escapism of playing even at an empty Wembley – though efforts are going on behind the scenes to see if some fans might be allowed in – is a big prize.
“The most important game for a lot of us will be this weekend,” insists centre-back Chris Basham, who joined a couple of months too late to be involved in the Blades’ last FA Cup semi-final, seven years ago.
“Not to put pressure on anybody but it’s so important because it’s what we’ve got left, we’ve got something to live for, something to say we were involved in the quarter-finals, can we get to a semi-final?
“It’s a big part of the club. When I first joined there was a buzz around the place because of the semi-final against Hull so it would be really interesting to get to a semi-final and play at Wembley, I’ve never done that. I’ve been in one squad at Blackpool back in the day (losing to West Ham United in the 2012 Championship play-offs) and that was it so I’m really excited to try. It would be great to achieve a day at Wembley.”
Although their impending relegation will define the Blades’ season, the FA Cup has been very important to them. Three of their sevens wins in 2020-21, including their first, at Bristol Rovers, have come in it.
“We had a meeting just before the Plymouth (fourth-round) game and one of the lads stood up and said we had to make the Cup important to our season because if you win, it breeds confidence in the players,” reveals Basham. “The players wanted to step up for themselves and prove they could play in the Premier League and why they were wearing the red and white shirt of Sheffield United so the game became a good one.
“Luckily enough we played really well that game and scored a few goals as well.”
Caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom also understands the significance of the game, but has clearly been hammering home the message to his players that on an individual level they have a huge amount to play for in the coming weeks, even if their Cup run ends tomorrow when, one way or another, the tie will be decided.
“I was never lucky enough to play in an FA Cup quarter-final, they don’t come around very often,” says the former defender, who counts Scarborough, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday, Harrogate Town and hometown club Barnsley amongst his former teams.
“Then you have people playing for their futures. The next manager will be watching, whoever that might be. People are always judging, no matter what.”
It is a point he dropped heavily into his first press conference, after his traumatised players were on the wrong end of a 5-0 hammering at Leicester City on Sunday, hours after the departure of manager Chris Wilder was confirmed.
“There’s loads of pride at stake,” stresses Basham. “There’s 10 more games and we’ve got pride to succeed in the cup for the fans so they can have something to cheer about because there’s been nothing so far going our way. There’s pride individually to perform for the new management.
“There is less emotion around the games (without fans allowed) but we won’t be allowing calmness in the dressing room because it’s the quarter-final of the Cup and we’ll try our best not to keep calm.
“There’s everything to play for and nothing better than for us to try and do that.”
The situation Heckingbottom’s side find themselves in will be tough, but he knows it can be worse, having managed Leeds United at a time of huge turmoil.
“It’s totally different, to Leeds, for reasons I won’t go into,” he says. “At Leeds, I wasn’t replacing someone who had dragged the club from League One up to the Premier League. Leeds had 20-odd players who knew they were never going to play, so it was demotivated and it was never going to change until you could get them out.
“They (the Blades players) are lacking in confidence.
“I want the training to be really high tempo and if someone isn’t training properly, I won’t pick them.
“If I can get players understanding what they want, what have we got to lose?
“I’m quite glad I’ve been away from them and we don’t have a close relationship, because I do think that helps. I need to be working with every one of the players to be altering their mindsets.”
Realistically, the Blades will be long-odds outsiders against opponents revitalised and reorganised under Thomas Tuchel, but the FA Cup should never be about realism, just romanticism.
“It’s going to be tough,” admits Basham. “We’re an underdog going into their stadium and we already know how tough it’s going to be playing there because of this season.
“It’s important we try and get through but it’s exciting because we’re in these quarter-finals again (like last season). Can we take the next step?
“We’re the Bristol Rovers this time and we’ll try to perform as best we can. If everyone steps up to the plate and get eights and nines out of 10 we’ve got a chance because we’ve got a lot of quality and lads ready off the bench. We’ve got a few members of staff we want to play in front of us well.
“There’s nothing better than a quarter-final to show you’re ready to play for the shirt. We need to prove to ourselves that we’ve got the pride and courage to get to the next round.”
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