They arrived early but left it late. Sheffield United became the first team to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals last night although they spent an interminable amount of time trying to break through against a clueless Reading.
Only four minutes remained when Vass Borbokis broke down the right and crossed to the far post. Had it been a United striker under it he would probably have missed but fortunately the ball fell to Lee Sandford, who headed into the roof of the net. The irony is that the centre-back was on loan to Reading earlier in the season.
Reading had wanted to sign Sandford on a permanent basis but could not agree terms, a costly decision because it is now United who have a potentially lucrative tie against a Premiership club.
The mystery was why they took so long to find the net. The match was just 25 seconds old when Lee Hodges made a mess of a pass back, Gareth Taylor's shot was blocked and Saunders' follow-up hit the bar.
That set the pattern. United frequently sliced through the hapless Reading defence but were either halted by their own inadequacies or by Sal Bibbo. The Reading goalkeeper was released by United two years ago and for much of the evening it appeared his performance would prove decisive until Sandford's late intervention.
Saunders' strike against the bar was not an isolated one. After 24 minutes, Martyn Booty surrendered possession and Graham Stuart freed the former Liverpool striker with a lovely pass to the left wing.
Saunders cut in and a goal seemed certain as his shot got past Bibbo. The ball had flicked the goalkeeper's arm, however, and that was enough to divert it on to the post.
Reading's defence had displayed any number of ways to allow the opposition forwards space in the first half and little changed in the second. Borbokis was frequently left alone on the right and the visitors were hugely fortunate not to pay for their neglect on the hour.
The Greek international cut the ball back from the byline and Andy Bernal got to the cross first but headed against his own bar. Two quick corners later and Stuart almost back-heeled into the net from a range of two yards but his enterprise was blocked by Bibbo.
Three minutes later Bibbo made an even better save when Bobby Ford's pass sliced through the visiting back four and Saunders burst through the gap. The goalkeeper shot off his line and managed to spread himself sufficiently to block the shot.
With that a replay seemed certain but even United had to score if they had enough chances and Reading finally paid for leaving Borbokis alone. They will have plenty of time to repent.
Sheffield United (3-4-1-2): Tracey; Holdsworth, Marker, Sandford; Borbokis, Ford, Hutchison, Quinn; Stuart (Narcelo, 75); Saunders, Taylor. Substitutes not used: Katchouro, Beard, Burley, Kelly (gk).
Reading (4-4-2): Bibbo; Booty, Primus, Bernal, Swales; Bowen, Houghton, Parkinson, Hodges; Morley, Asaba (Williams, 82). Substitutes not used: McPherson, Meaker, Lovell, Ashdown (gk).
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).Reuse content