Preston v Sheffield United: Cup adventures can spark new surge for play-offs, believes Doyle

CUP football may be dominating the agenda at Bramall Lane right now thanks to today’s trip to Preston North End being sandwiched between two mouth-watering League Cup semi-final encounters against Tottenham Hotspur.

Christian Eriksen and Michael Doyle
Christian Eriksen and Michael Doyle

Michael Doyle, however, admits that amid all the talk of possible Wembley visits and maintaining a quite incredible record in knockout football under Nigel Clough, his own mind has not strayed far from the more mundane matters of League One.

The 33-year-old is in his fifth season at the Lane and desperate to get the Blades back into the Championship. Which is why as much as he enjoyed being part of the side that stonewalled one of the Premier League’s better sides at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night, Doyle is viewing the cups as a tool to get United’s promotion challenge back on track.

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He points to the remarkable upturn in form enjoyed by Clough’s men last season once the adventure that took the South Yorkshire club all the way to the FA Cup semi-finals had truly clicked into gear.

“What we have to do is go and do what we have been doing in the cups in the league,” said the Irishman, who is finding it increasingly hard to hide his frustration at United being 18 points adrift of the automatic promotion places.

“That is the disappointing bit. We have shown we can do it in the cups, we just need that consistency in the league.

“It is frustrating to be talking here to you, in January, about the need for consistency. It shouldn’t be like that.

“But there is still time. We showed last year what a good February can do. After beating Fulham, who were then in the Premier League, we won about 10 games on the bounce and went from second bottom to seventh.

“I don’t know if we made up 18 points by doing it but that is the margin we have to make up now. At the minute, we have to nail down one of those play-off positions and get away from the chasing pack.

“But, after that, we can keep chasing and see how far we can get towards those above us.”

United’s charge from second bottom to one place off the play-offs began on February 8 last year with a 2-0 home win over Shrewsbury Town.

It came four days after the fourth round replay triumph at Craven Cottage and led to Clough’s men going on to win not only 10 consecutive matches but also concede just one goal in that run, a club record.

By the season’s end, a 20-point deficit on the top six a week into February had been cut to just seven while United also stood 25 points better off than the club that replaced them in 23rd place, Shrewsbury.

It was a remarkable swing and one that gives Doyle hope of a similar turn of events this time around. Before that league push can happen, however, United have two more cup assignments as today’s visit to Deepdale is followed by the all-important second leg against Tottenham at Bramall Lane on Wednesday.

Doyle, who led the team out at Wembley ahead of last April’s semi-final defeat to Hull City, admits to being delighted that the Blades are still very much in the League Cup double-header after losing just 1-0 at White Hart Lane.

“Getting to the final of the League Cup would make up for last April,” he said. “As a League One player, that would be massive. I also look at what Bradford did and that shows it is possible.

“Having said that, those 10 minutes at Wembley after half-time (when United’s 2-1 lead gave way to a 3-2 deficit against Hull) still hurt. I am not sure exactly what went wrong. The heat that day maybe had a big impact. We put so much into the first half.

“They also made a couple of changes at the break. I wouldn’t say they caught us totally cold but they did change personnel and formation, which caught us a bit on the hop.

“The big thing, though, is the goals we conceded were pretty sloppy from our point of view. We weren’t marking for the second phase. Things like that should be bread and butter to us.

“After that, we did get ourselves back into the semi-final at 4-3 and kept going to the end. But it just wouldn’t happen for us.”

Asked what he would do differently if, say, United found themselves in the position of being 2-1 ahead on aggregate at half-time against Spurs this Wednesday, Doyle ponders for a moment.

“Shut up shop for a few minutes, maybe,” starts his reply eventually. “Frustrate them and catch them on the counter.

“Instead, against Hull we tried to match them and that wasn’t how we had got to Wembley. We were probably that confident because we had played so well in that first half.

“Speaking to the Hull players after, they were saying that they were gone at 2-1. That almost made it worse, in a way. We should have got through but we got sloppy and they scored from second ball at a corner.

“All ifs, buts and maybes but Bradford showed what can be done in this competition by getting to the final a couple of years ago.”

If United can book a return trip to Wembley at the expense of Spurs, it will mean a sixth Premier League scalp has been claimed under Clough.

Even for a player whose past Cup deeds included two victories at Old Trafford with Coventry City and Leeds United, such a record is remarkable.

“I have been fortunate to play in some great Cup games and get some great results,” said the midfielder.

“But the past year, with the journey we had getting to Wembley, has been brilliant.

“Getting to a semi-final and taking a Premier League side all the way was special. As has been getting to a semi-final this time. We just need to go one better. If we could get ourselves into a good position, I am pretty sure we will be able to see it out. I am confident of that.”

Before Spurs, however, comes Preston. It is a tie that Doyle insists the Blades will not take lightly.

“Preston wasn’t ever going to get lost, just because we had a Cup semi-final to play,” he continued. “It is just as important. We are through to the fourth round and that is a big thing, no matter what games take place either side.”