GLAMOUR ties in the cups are nothing new to Nigel Clough’s Sheffield United.
Not after a 13-month period that has seen the Blades take on no less than seven Premier League teams, and beaten five of them.
Less than a week ago, Tottenham Hotspur almost became a sixth top-flight club to succumb to the Blades before eventually clinching a trip to Wembley for the Capital One Cup final.
So, for United, the prospect of taking on Preston North End at Bramall Lane in an FA Cup fourth-round replay is hardly one to set the pulse racing.
Except, of course, the prize at stake tonight is a possible meeting with Manchester United, providing Louis van Gaal’s side can see off Cambridge United in their own replay.
The knowledge that the Red Devils – and a cheque from BT Sport for £247,500 due to the Monday, February 16 tie having already been selected for live transmission – may lie in wait has raised the excitement levels sky-high for not only United but also Simon Grayson’s Preston.
“It is difficult knowing the prize is a possible game against the biggest club in the world,” said United defender Chris Basham, who moved to Bramall Lane from Blackpool last summer.
“We all watch Match of the Day every week and want to pit ourselves against those players. Playing Manchester United at Bramall Lane would be a great occasion.
“But we have to make sure our eyes are on beating Preston, nothing else. They are a tough team but we fancy our chances against anyone, especially at Bramall Lane.”
United have met Preston three times already this season, the league and Cup meetings at Deepdale both ending 1-1.
At the Lane, Clough’s men ran out 2-1 winners courtesy of an impressive performance. A repeat tonight would go down very nicely, especially for Basham as a former Blackpool man with almost 100 appearances to his name for North End’s bitter rivals.
“Their fans don’t like me, being ex-Blackpool,” said the 26-year-old. “I never got the chance to play in that derby, but I know what I am going to get (in terms of a reception from the Preston fans).We have played Preston three times already now and we know they are a tough team. They are a physical team, too.
“But we have got good confidence and it is important to keep that going. We need to keep playing our stuff and be solid at the bac, and not get dragged into what they want us to do.”
United’s list of Premier League scalps since the start of last year include Aston Villa and Fulham in last year’s FA Cup.
This time around, West Ham United, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers have all been humbled by the South Yorkshire club.
Even the two top-flight sides who did beat the Blades looked in danger, at one point, of also succumbing with Hull City having to hit back from 2-1 down to triumph at Wembley in April and Spurs only edging through 3-2 on aggregate last week thanks to an 88th-minute winner by Christian Eriksen.
Basham started all but one of this term’s five clashes with Premier League opposition and he believes the experience can only help United in their quest to finish the season on a high.
“Tottenham, the other night, was the biggest of my career. It was disappointing to go out, but the experience brought us all closer together.
“I think everyone saw that against Swindon (in Saturday’s 2-0 victory over the then leaders), when we had to weather some pressure but still won.
“We do fancy ourselves and are confident. We want to go on a run. That would set us up for the play-offs, too, if we end up in those, because we have proved we can handle the big occasions.”
Thanks to their Cup heroics and the Arctic spell that hit Sheffield between Christmas and New Year, United have a heavy schedule over the remaining three months of the season that will become that bit tighter should they win tonight.
As it stands, Clough’s men have just two blank midweek dates in the diary. This tally, thanks to the fifth-round tie against either Manchester United or Cambridge having already having been moved to Monday, would be cut in half due to the trip to Notts County, rearranged once already, having to be put back further from February 17.
As draining as such a punishing schedule would be, however, the prospect of hosting Manchester United for the first time in almost a decade is a big prize and one that Basham and his team-mates are determined to claim.
“If we get beat,” he said, “then it (the run to this stage) counts for nothing. The main thing is trying to win and get to another semi-final or final.”
In recognition of the physical demands that have been placed on his squad in recent weeks by chasing success on three fronts, Clough made 10 changes for the weekend win over Swindon.
Only Basham of the team that had faced Spurs three days earlier made the starting XI and the Blades’ manager seems certain to juggle his resources again against Preston.
To aid preparations, United trained yesterday at St George’s Park in Burton after the pitches at their Shirecliffe base were left unplayable by an overnight frost.
Last six games: Sheffield United WLLDDW, Preston North End LDDDDL.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).
Last time: Sheffield United 2 Preston North End 1; January 10, 2015; League One.