FOR the past two-and-a-half seasons the cups have proved something of a lifeline for Martin Cranie.
This is invariably how it is for someone who is a valued member of the squad, but unable to force his way into the manager’s first choice starting XI.
Cranie, in the process of extending his stay at Sheffield United until the end of the season, appreciates that and it is why the defender is desperate to make the cut for tomorrow’s third-round tie at home to National League outfit Barnet.
“The Cup is big when you are not in the team for league games,” said the 32-year-old to The Yorkshire Post. “There are a few of us not playing on Saturdays so this is a chance for a run out.
“We want to do really well in the Cup. If we can get a little run in the competition it gives us more games and it will lead to us being fitter. That means we are more up to speed when the chances come to step into the team.”
Cranie has two league starts to his name since joining the Blades on a short-term deal as a free agent the day after the summer transfer window had closed.
Both came as a result of a team-mate being unavailable, Chris Basham’s suspension handing the Yeovil-born defender his chance on New Year’s Day at Wigan Athletic – two months after his previous appearance against Nottingham Forest when filling in for John Egan.
It was a similar story last season when on the books of Huddersfield Town and Middlesbrough, Cranie having swapped the West Riding for Teesside shortly before the end of the January window.
By then Boro had already been knocked out of the FA Cup so his chances were limited. Nevertheless Cranie made nine appearances, eight from the bench, as Tony Pulis’s men reached the play-off semi-finals before bowing out against Aston Villa over two legs.
Cranie made 14 starts the previous season with Huddersfield. Five of those came in the cups, as Terriers manager David Wagner rotated his squad with the club’s ultimately successful promotion push in mind.
Those Cup outings did include two meetings with Manchester City, Cranie being part of a Terriers defence that kept out Pep Guardiola’s side in a goalless draw at the John Smith’s Stadium.
No wonder, therefore, he is hoping for an extended run again this term in a competition he knows all about winning after being at Portsmouth when Harry Redknapp’s side triumphed in 2008.
“I was quite young so didn’t expect to play at Wembley,” recalls the defender, who had moved from Southampton to Fratton Park the previous year.
“But just being in and around the squad, watching the final, was great. What still sticks in my mind is when we walked up the steps to get the trophy.
“Seeing all those supporters was a fantastic feeling. I might not have been part of it that day on the pitch, but I was in the squad and able to be around it all, seeing it first hand. That is probably one of the best memories I have in football. We had a few beverages afterwards to celebrate.
“People say the Cup has lost its magic with all the changes that teams make. Others say the big clubs are not interested. But there is never a bad trophy to win. Hopefully we can go on a good run.”
Cranie’s best run when a regular came with Barnsley in 2013, the Reds reaching the quarter-finals before bowing out at Manchester City.
Victory tomorrow against a Barnet team managed by Darren Currie, nephew of Blades legend Tony, would be a step towards those latter stages.
As pleasing as this would be the priority at Bramall Lane remains promotion.
Cranie, having spent the past two run-ins at Huddersfield and Middlesbrough, has a good insight into what is needed to prevail at the top end of the Championship and he insists United are well equipped for the battles that lay ahead.
“The manager has a really distinctive (playing) style,” he said. “I remember coming to Bramall Lane with Middlesbrough last season. It finished 2-1 and I remember thinking, ‘How are they doing this?’
“We were being totally peppered. It was amazing stuff to watch, with the centre-backs charging up the wing. I didn’t know if this was their plan or just off the cuff.
“Obviously since joining the club I know how much hard work has gone in to this style of play. Teams cannot cope with the overload down each side. The gaffer has got it just right.”
Cranie may have had to be patient since signing for the Blades. But after being released by Boro last summer he is delighted for the third consecutive year to be part of a squad chasing promotion.
“I was getting phone calls in the summer and hearing the odd whispers,” he said about life as a free agent, “but nothing concrete.
“Just before I came here there were a couple of Championship clubs interested. I was umming and ahing whether to go there, but then the manager here rang me.
“This was perfect for me. Funnily enough my missus did say at the start of the summer, ‘I think you will end up at Sheffield United this summer’.
“I have no clue how or why she thought that. I had never heard anything. But, funnily enough, the manager did say when I signed that he had tried to get me previously in the January.
“That did not materialise, but I got here in the end, and it shows that if you want transfer news (during the window), just ask my missus.”