AS the Sheffield United squad cursed the London traffic that turned a five-mile bus ride into a bum-numbing, two-and-a-half hour marathon slog ahead of last night’s Capital One Cup semi-final first leg, a return to the capital was probably one of the last things on their wishlist.
However, after a battling display at the home of Premier League aristocrats Tottenham Hotspur on a freezing night, a possible return trip to Wembley on March 1 is still very much in the offing for Nigel Clough’s men.
The Blades will start next Wednesday’s return leg a goal behind after a dour contest that made a mockery of the two divisions and hundreds of millions of pounds in annual revenue that separate these two clubs.
But for a rush of blood from Blades defender Jay McEveley that literally handed Spurs the lead through an Andros Townsend penalty, United would be level at the halfway stage of a tie that will have its intensity levels cranked up at Bramall Lane.
Certainly, a crackling atmosphere awaits Maurico Pochettino’s men in South Yorkshire as United will look to ape the recent achievements of Bradford City and Hull City in reaching a major Cup final.
Their preparations will also be a lot more relaxed than yesterday, when after travelling down by train in the morning Clough’s squad spent the afternoon in an Islington hotel.
After leaving in what seemed plenty of time to make the five-mile trip, however, they took until 7pm to arrive at White Hart Lane and bring about a 15-minute delay to the kick-off.
For Clough, the delay before a big game at Spurs was nothing new. As a player with dad Brian’s Nottingham Forest, he was once made to wait more than an hour for a semi-final tie to kick-off at the home of the north London club due to a bomb alert
That experience may well have been a factor in why his United side started so composed in a tie that proved to be something of a slow burner.
Twenty two minutes had elapsed before the first chance of note, Jamal Campbell-Ryce firing across the face of goal after again getting the better of Ben Davies on the right flank.
And it was another 60 seconds after that before the crowd that braved the freezing temperatures had a save to watch, Mark Howard turning away Eric Dier’s flicked header from Townsend’s free-kick.
That it then took until the decisive 74th-minute penalty that Townsend fired past Howard for either goalkeeper to be called on again to do anything but deal with a back pass or catch a corner said everything about how lacking in tempo the first leg proved to be.
There had been positive signs that the tie may spark into life as the interval approached, not least when Stefan Scougall shot narrowly wide from 20 yards after being found by Louis Reed.
Dier also had to execute a perfect slide-tackle on Jamie Murphy as the Blades midfielder looked ready to burst into the area, while at the other end Townsend shot wide and then Emmanuel Adebayor did the same after initially wriggling free from the shackles of McEveley.
Even allowing for these moments of danger and a late Dier header that bounced just wide of Howard’s right-hand post, though, there was little doubt as to who was the happier of the two sides at the break.
That remained the case until McEveley’s moment of madness with the only moment of concern for the visitors up to that point coming when a loose pass from Ryan Flynn looked to have handed Adebayor a clear run on goal only for Chris Basham to nip in just in time.
As the game entered the final quarter, Pochettino brought on Mousa Dembele and Roberto Soldado in an attempt to bring some much-needed urgency to his side. Harry Kane did have a shot blocked by Bob Harris as the tempo upped slightly but it seemed that even the introduction of more than £40m worth of talent could not spark Spurs into action.
Then, though, came the night’s defining moment on 74 minutes as the ball found Soldado inside the six-yard box. In attempting to control the ball, the substitute took a poor touch and that allowed McEveley to get across.
However, instead of heading behind, his hand came up to touch the ball and referee Neil Swarbrick rightly pointed straight to the spot. Townsend did the rest from 12 yards with a firm finish to the left of Howard.
McEveley tried to make amends with a flicked header from a free-kick 11 minutes from time but the ball flew over the crossbar before Murphy had a shot that fizzed just wide.
Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Davies; Townsend, Mason (Dembele 64), Stambouli (Paulinho 74), Eriksen; Adebayor (Soldado 64), Kane. Unused substitutes: Friedel, Rose, Kaboul, Lennon.
Sheffield United: Howard; Flynn, Basham, McEveley, Harris; Campbell-Ryce, Reed, Doyle, Murphy; Scougall (K Wallace 86), McNulty (Baxter 82). Unused substitutes: Turner, Alcock, Higdon, Kennedy, Adams.
Referee: N Swarbrick (Lancashire).