Survival far more important than Cup success

Nigel Clough
Nigel Clough
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AMID the jubilation of Sheffield United claiming a second Premier League scalp in as many rounds of the FA Cup, the club’s fight for League One survival was never far from mind.

Manager Nigel Clough has admitted that within seconds of the final whistle sounding at Craven Cottage on Tuesday to signal his side was through to the fifth round at Fulham’s expense, the Blades’ coaching staff were busy catching up with results elsewhere.

The news was mixed, with bottom club Stevenage beating Gillingham and Bristol City, who sit one place above the relegation zone, losing at home to Coventry City.

It means United now sit just one point off the foot of the table in 23rd place but, crucially, they remain a point adrift of safety.

Considering how badly Clough’s side played in losing 3-0 at fellow strugglers Crewe Alexandra a week ago, the Blades would have surely settled for such a position going into today’s home encounter with Shrewsbury Town.

Certainly, midfield player Stephen McGinn believes Tuesday was a good night all round for United.

“I will be honest and say I didn’t realise there were any League One games on,” said the 25-year-old, a summer signing from Watford, when speaking to the Yorkshire Post.

“The focus had been totally on Fulham and I hadn’t realised anything was on.

“That is unusual for me because I love my football and usually know all the fixtures so it was only on the bus that I realised games had taken place and that Bristol City had lost.

“It was good news for us. Stevenage won so they moved a bit closer to us, but Bristol City are fifth bottom so that was the big one.”

United’s win at Fulham may not have been the most exciting of ties with chances proving hard to come by until Shaun Miller popped up in the 119th minute to head in the winner.

Following on from last month’s third-round win at Aston Villa, the Blades are developing a happy knack of knocking out opposition from a higher division. Clough’s former club, Nottingham Forest, who visit the Lane a week tomorrow in the fifth round, now sit in United’s sights.

McGinn, in common with all his team-mates, is looking forward to tackling the Championship promotion challengers.

Before then, however, both Shrewsbury and Brentford are due at the Lane and the Scot is in no doubt as to which games are the more important.

“The league is everything,” he said. “The Shrewsbury game is huge and so much bigger than Fulham. We need to start winning games and getting ourselves out of trouble. No one is too good to be involved in a relegation fight, but we do feel we can put a good run of wins together.

“Getting out of trouble is the 
No 1 target. That is why our emotions can be mixed after a big game like Tuesday. Obviously, we were all delighted to have won but you have to have one eye on the league as well.

“The position we are in is not good, and with last Saturday (at Crewe) being particularly bad, we have to get this right. We were hurting really badly after Crewe.

“That is why you saw the scenes at the end of the Fulham game with the fans. Obviously it was a great win for the club, but part of our reaction was relief that we had put a decent performance in, especially with the number of fans who had travelled to Fulham.

“We knew they wouldn’t be getting home until the early hours and that we owed them a performance.

“After Crewe, the manager had a meeting with us all and asked a lot of questions of us. He asked, ‘Was that an off-day or is it a sign of things to come?’ He wanted a reaction and we all believe Tuesday can be the start of something.”

McGinn is one of a growing number of Scots at the Blades with the recent addition of Stefan Scougall meaning no less than six of the starting XI at Fulham hailed from north of the Border. “We were waiting for the national anthem to play before the game,” laughed the midfielder.

Today could see a similar number start against Shrewsbury, a club where McGinn spent a brief spell on loan last season.

“It is nice to have a few Scots at the club,” added the midfielder. “Coming from Scotland to England isn’t easy, especially at the age Stefan is now. It is really demanding, especially in the first couple of weeks.

“The good thing for him, though, is that from now on we are facing a demanding schedule of Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday. That will keep him busy.

“Above that, we all help each other when it comes to settling in Sheffield. Chris Porter is helping him with a flat. He is very money- prudent. It is not easy being in a hotel so if he needs anything he is more than welcome to give any of us a shout.”

As for the scrap for League One survival, McGinn remains confident. He said: “We have to use Tuesday as a springboard. I felt we played well.

“There were spells at Villa when we were under intense pressure. There were a couple of times when Benteke had a header at goal and I thought ‘that should have gone in’.

“But the other night at Fulham, I never once felt like they would open us up. If anything, on the break we were the more dangerous team. The manager agreed and told us that, with a bit more composure, we could have finished it in normal time.”