SHEFFIELD United’s record at Wembley is, as no Blades fan needs reminding, woeful.
Five trips to the national stadium, new and old, since lifting the FA Cup on the club’s first visit in 1925, have brought five defeats. In four of those, the Blades failed to score.
The most recent came two years ago in the League One play-off final as Huddersfield Town triumphed in a penalty shoot-out that went on so long that goalkeeper Steve Simonsen missed the decisive kick. The consequences were grave, with defeat triggering a brutal slashing of the wage bill and a round of staff redundancies as United tried to balance the books in preparation for the implementation of Financial Fair Play.
Neill Collins remembers that loss well. It was his first visit to the national stadium, somewhere the Scot had dreamed of playing since boyhood. But, despite Collins netting his penalty, he ended the afternoon punching the Wembley turf in frustration.
“That was a horrible afternoon,” says the 31-year-old defender when asked by The Yorkshire Post about the most recent of United’s Wembley disappointments. “Absolutely horrible.
“We had victory in the palm of our hands after Huddersfield missed the third penalty (a miss that left United 1-0 up with three spot-kicks to take to Town’s remaining two).
“I really thought it was going to be our day. But then it all went wrong. That shows how quickly things can change in a Wembley one-off game.
“I went on holiday straight after and spent the entire time re-living what had happened over and over again. Not the best summer.”
Victory tomorrow in United’s first FA Cup semi-final in 11 years would, Collins readily agrees, go a long way to making up for the disappointment of that Huddersfield loss.
While Hull City start as clear favourites due to their Premier League status, the dependable Scot insists the Blades can finally slay their Wembley demons.
“This time it feels very, very different to 2012,” said Collins. “The play-offs basically boil your entire season down to one game. Before that final against Huddersfield I had a feeling in my stomach that was a mixture of excitement and a fear of failure.
“We had worked all season long and yet everything was going to come down to 90 minutes or two hours. Or, as it turned out, penalties. I am sure come Sunday that we will have butterflies in the stomach but, let’s be honest, no-one thought we would be in the semi-final of the FA Cup this season. That means there is no pressure. Don’t get me wrong, we want to win. But people’s jobs don’t rely on it, unlike 2012.”
Collins has been a mainstay of United’s run to the semi-finals. Alongside Harry Maguire in the centre of defence, the Scot has started all seven ties and played a major role in restricting Aston Villa, Fulham, Nottingham Forest et al to just five goals. Until Tuesday’s derby win over Rotherham United, Collins had also started every league game. It means he has played a full part in United’s charge up the table since slipping to second bottom at the start of February.
The Cup, however, is what this season has become all about for the Blades and Collins admits the run to the last four has taken everyone by surprise.
He said: “If someone had asked me before this season what my best Cup memory as a player had been, I’d have probably said when I scored in the last minute for Wolves against Cambridge (in 2008). It was in the third round and we had to win for the manager (Mick McCarthy). My goal made it 2-1. The other big memory I had before this season was my first Cup game for Sunderland against Crystal Palace.
“They were in the Premier League at the time and I marked Andy Johnson. We had a right ding-dong battle and Sunderland won (2-1). That was a massive thrill because I was reasonably young. As much as I enjoyed those two moments, nothing can compare to this season’s memories. There have been four to choose from already.”
Collins would dearly love to play at Wembley for a third time on May 17, not least because as a boy he grew up loving Cup final day.
“As a kid, I would watch the finals on TV,” he recalls. “I loved it. Two moments stand out. (Eric) Cantona’s volley for Manchester United against Liverpool that won the double.
“And then in 1999, (Ryan) Giggs’s incredible goal against Arsenal. I watched it with my dad, John. He was caning Giggs. He then went to the toilet and as he came back, Giggs set off on that run. We gave Dad some stick over that. Knowing Dad, he will probably be caning me at Wembley on Sunday. Maybe I can do the same as Giggs and score? Mind, I don’t imagine it will be like Giggsy’s. More likely a header. But I’d take that.
“To be fair, I’d take anything. Wembley was the scene of our biggest disappointment (in 2012) and now we want it to be the total opposite. Wembley is the sort of place where you can’t have an ‘OK’ memory. It is either elation or despair. Nothing in between, because so much is at stake.
“I just hope it is our turn to have the happy memory.”