SEEMINGLY the only question going into the game was how many goals would Sheffield United win by?
The answer was one, the Blades making suitably expected, if not exactly light work of a side 104 places below them in the football pyramid, despite manager Chris Wilder making 11 changes to the team that lost 2-0 away to Liverpool on Thursday.
Wilder apologised in advance for the disruption, saying that Christmas had taken a lot out of his team.
As such, he rather telegraphed the fact that he would effectively be fielding a second XI, albeit one that he stressed was more than capable of securing passage into round four.
So it proved, goals from strikers Callum Robinson and Leon Clarke proving decisive and snuffing out a spirited challenge from Fylde, who caused one or two tremors towards the end by pulling a goal back through forward Jordan Williams.
The National League club, making their first appearance in the third round and flying the flag as the only remaining non-league representatives, fought hard before a crowd of 11,133.
In the second half, especially, they gave it a right good go, and were rightly applauded off the field by both sets of fans.
For Wilder, it was a case of job done and on to the next challenge away to West Ham United in the Premier League on Friday.
“It was an uncomfortable afternoon,” he said.
“We were in a no-win situation, and when you make the amount of changes we did the flow of the game gets interrupted.
“But the attitude of the team was good and getting through (to the next round) is key.
“There were some good individual performances – Luke Freeman was good, I enjoyed watching him – and all the boys contributed; they’ve certainly given me food for thought.
“Credit to Fylde; they were quite dangerous at times and we were up against stubborn opposition with undoubted quality.”
It did not take long for United to stamp their authority on events. Eight minutes had elapsed when Robinson opened the scoring in front of the 675 Fylde supporters in the Bramall Lane end, controlling Freeman’s left-sided cross and turning on a sixpence to fire home right-footed past goalkeeper Sam Hornby from close range.
As his players celebrated, Wilder shouted at them as they made their way back to the halfway line, demanding even more than he had hitherto witnessed.
Wholesale changes or no, the United manager is a winner; a glance at the Premier League table – his side are eighth – would suggest that standards are as high as the club’s lofty placing.
As befitting the probervial FA Cup minnows with nothing to lose, Fylde did not just lie down and let the home side gently tickle their stomach.
Only a superb last-ditch intervention from Mo Besic denied Nick Haughton after the hosts had been opened up by a couple of passes in the 17th minute, and the men in all white – although requiring all hands to the pump for long periods – posed a threat on the counter-attack.
On a relatively mild January afternoon, it was not a classic by any stretch - more the sort of game that might have appealed mainly to diehard supporters and programme collectors.
United went close to doubling their lead just after the half hour, Clarke’s firm header from a corner well tipped over by Hornby.
At the other end, United’s goalkeeper Michael Verrips, making his first senior appearance for them, was in the wars and had to go off injured four minutes before half-time.
In attempting to deal with a ball over the top, Verrips collided with team-mate Kean Bryan and got a bang on the head for his trouble.
After what appeared to be a concussion test (“What is the best provincial newspaper in England?” Answer: The Yorkshire Post), Verrips trudged off groggily to be replaced by Dean Henderson.
The second half was delayed briefly while a new fourth official was getting wired up (the original fell ill), and Robinson almost doubled the advantage in the 48th minute only for his left-footed effort to be blocked at close range.
Within 60 seconds, Fylde should have levelled. Haughton’s free-kick from the right was met with a free header by Alex Whitmore, but he directed the ball inches past Henderson’s left-hand post.
Moments after debutant Jack Rodwell was subbed in the 58th minute, United had a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside when Ravel Morrison headed home and then almost immediately a legitimate second goal following a fine move.
This culminated in Clarke playing in Freeman, whose angled right-foot shot from eight yards came back off a post, Clarke following in to drive the ball home.
It looked like being a nice canter to the winning line from there, but, in the 78th minute, Williams latched on to Dan Bradley’s delightful through pass to lob the on-rushing Henderson, just reward for the valiant visitors.
Sheffield United: Verrips (Henderson 40), Freeman, Robinson (Stearman 85), Morrison, Jagielka, Freeman, Bryan, Osborn, Clarke, Rodwell (Basham 58), Besic. Unused substitutes: Fleck, O’Connell, McBurnie, Sharp.
AFC Fylde: Hornby, Byrne, Jameson, Whitmore, Croasdale, Rowe (Willoughby 65), Philliskirk, Williams, Burke, Bradley (Craigen 85), Haughton (Yeates 65). Unused substitutes: Montrose, Taylor, Lavercombe, Kellet.
Referee: J Gillett (Australia).