(Score at 90 mins 0-0; Sheff Utd win 6-5 on pens)
SIMON TRACEY, the Sheffield United goalkeeper, found the perfect way to atone for gifting Rushden & Diamonds their extra-time equaliser in last night's third-round FA Cup replay at chilly Nene Park. His save from Jon Brady in the penalty shootout followed by Marcus Bent's successful spot-kick, earned the First Division stragglers a fourth-round trip to Tottenham or Newcastle.
After a barren 90 minutes, the tie burst into life as the additional half hour approached its midway point. Shaun Derry fired United in front from Paul Devlin's pass in the 103rd minute, the ball going in off the Nationwide Conference club's captain, Ray Warburton, as he tried to clear.
Yet within two minutes, the South Yorkshire-born Warburton materialised in the opposite six-yard area to head a captain's goal after Tracey unaccountably fumbled a Brady corner. In the spot-kick lottery which ensued, the first 10 players to step up all found the net with ease.
Then, ironically, it fell to Brady, the scorer of Rushden's riposte in the first meeting, to fail from the 12-yard mark. Doubly so, since it was Tracey who had also erred to allow the Australian his goal at Bramall Lane, who now parried his kick to safety. Bent then sealed United's victory by despatching the ball beyond Billy Turley, whose penalty save 10 days earlier had given the non-Leaguers their second chance.
Turley was entitled to feel hard done by, having given a massively assured performance over the two games. Not that Rushden, who stand second in the Conference, ever came under concerted pressure, for United were unable to maintain their momentum after Turley tipped Devlin's fifth-minute drive from 22 yards on to and over his bar.
United's new manager, Neil Warnock, had presided over two League victories either side of the original stalemate. This, however, was an evening to disabuse him of any complacency. The Northamptonshire club's manager, Brian Talbot, said afterwards: "It was very, very cruel. We are so disappointed but I couldn't possibly have asked any more from my lads. You wouldn't have known there were supposed to be three divisions between the teams."
Warnock, who is well acquainted with the quality of the Conference having led Scarborough to promotion more than a decade ago, suggested that defeat might prove a blessing for Rushden in the long run. "Going out at this stage is the best thing that could have happened to them," he said. "It will help them concentrate on getting into the League. With the players they've got, and such a superb set-up, they must get there as soon as possible."
On a pristine pitch, the Diamonds matched the Blades thrust for thrust, though neither could find a cutting edge during the first 90 minutes. Rushden's David Town wasted two chances in the first half, while Derry forced an outstanding save from Turley with just three minutes of normal time remaining.
Sadly for Talbot and the vast majority of the 6,000 crowd, the pounds 130,000 keeper from Northampton had left his penalty-saving skills in Yorkshire. But if Rushden's goal did not remain intact to the end, the same could not be said of their dignity.
Rushden & Diamonds (4-4-2): Turley; Wooding, Rodwell, Warburton, Underwood; Brady, McElhatton, Butterworth, Burgess (Hamsher, 119); Town (Desouza, 65), Collins. Substitutes not used: Heggs, Mison, Mark Smith (gk).
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Tracey; Kozluk, Murphy, Sandford, Quinn; Devlin, Derry, Woodhouse, Hunt (Katchouro,79); Martin Smith (Hamilton, 104), Bent. Substitutes not used: Gysbrechts, Doane, Duke (gk).
Referee: B Knight (Orpington).