NIGEL ADKINS’ solitary year at the helm of Sheffield United was not a happy affair, the anticipated promotion push under a manager who had previously taken two clubs up from League One failing to materialise.
It meant his name was never sung by the locals, unless in a derogatory manner towards the end of that unhappy 2015-16 campaign as the Blades finished a hugely disappointing 11th.
How sweet, therefore, must the chant ‘Nigel, Nigel give us a wave’ have felt last night to the man being serenaded by the 551 travelling Hull City fans?
Almost as sweet, in fact, as the moment half an hour or so later when the Tigers clinched victory over his old club in a penalty shoot-out.
Kevin Stewart, possibly the calmest man in Bramall Lane at the time, settled an enthralling tie with a coolly-taken spot-kick that meant City prevailed 5-4.
Oliver Norwood, making his debut for the Blades, had been the only man to miss from 12 yards, his effort flying high and wide at the very start of the shoot-out.
After that, it was a masterclass of penalty taking as Jon Toral, Will Keane, Kamil Grosicki, David Milinkovic and, finally, Stewart held their nerve for the visitors.
Billy Sharp, Ben Woodburn, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham did the same for Chris Wilder’s men but the damage had been done by that first effort from Norwood.
It was a fittingly dramatic end to a night that had kept the 6,327 crowd engrossed throughout.
Both managers made plenty of changes, nine in Adkins’ case. But this did little to affect the attacking values of two Yorkshire rivals facing each other in Cup combat for a 13th time.
The most recent of those had come at Wembley in 2014, as Premier League Hull edged an enthralling FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. A Bramall Lane that was barely a quarter full cannot compare with a game of such importance under the Arch but this was still a classic tie.
City took the lead in the 18th minute, Toral doing the honours by rounding off a sweeping counter-attack that had seen the Spaniard earlier carry the ball 40 yards. A quick pass out to Nouha Dicko then allowed Toral to continue his run and collect the return pass before firing past Simon Moore.
United’s reply 15 minutes from time was equally impressive, Billy Sharp the man who sent the tie to penalties after being brought off the bench at half-time. As the striker had waited to be given the ‘okay’ to enter the fray, he mischievously took great delight in kicking away the cones that had been laid out by the Hull fitness staff for their players to use for a bit of speed work on returning to the field.
He proved equally destructive 14 minutes from time, Sharp volleying past David Marshall in stunning fashion after latching on to a high ball from John Fleck.
United, visibly buoyed by drawing level, pushed for a winner and Leon Clarke should have done better when picked out by Chris Basham. Fleck then fired high and wide when well placed before Toral was in the right place at the right time in stoppage time to head a Chris Basham shot off the line.
United felt the ball had crossed the line but the officials were having none of it to send the tie to penalties.
There was still time for more drama, as Enda Stevens thundered a shot goalwards that seemed certain to settle the tie in United’s favour only for Marshall to pull off a stunning save.
The late drama was totally in keeping with an absorbing contest in which both teams created – and mainly spurned – a host of chances. Both teams hit the woodwork once, Will Keane denied by a post for City after meeting a Brandon Fleming cross.
John Egan was the Blade cursing his luck at the other end, his effort from close range crashing against the crossbar.
Just moments earlier, Marshall had denied Egan, the hosts’ club record signing, with a smart save. Others to go close for the hosts in the first half included Clarke, whose dinked shot beat Marshall but couldn’t find the target, and Woodburn. City, meanwhile, were left to rue a miss by Jackson Irvine after a delightful dummy from Keane had released the Australian. Hull had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down as Ryan Leonard clattered Irvine to the ground only for referee Martin Coy to wave play on.
Spot-kicks, however, would ultimately decide who went through as Hull held their nerve to earn a spot in tomorrow’s draw.
Sheffield United: Moore; Leonard (Basham 60), Egan, O’Connell; Freeman, Norwood, Lundstram (Fleck 71), Duffy (Sharp 46), Stevens; Woodburn, Clarke. Unused substitutes: Henderson, Stearman, Norrington-Davies, Parkhouse.
Hull City: Marshall; Curry, MacDonald, Burke (Kingsley 36); McKenzie (Grosicki 70), Irvine, Stewart, Toral, Fleming; Dicko (Milinkovic 66), Keane. Unused substitutes: Long, Kane, Bowen, Sheaf.
Referee: M Coy (County Durham).