In an era when Premier League millions are everything, the FA Cup may be a distraction but surely being in it is preferable to a third-round defeat on your home ground by League One opposition.
That was the fate Aston Villa suffered as a Sheffield United side with just one league away win to their name this term created the day’s biggest upset thanks to Ryan Flynn’s goal nine minutes from time.
It was a reminder of the beauty of the world’s oldest knockout competition and a kick in the teeth for Paul Lambert, the Aston Villa manager, whose comments before the match had suggested that the old pot ranked pretty low on his list of priorities. Villa have only a survival fight to focus on and Lambert, who stressed his comments were taken out of context – “I never demeaned the competition one bit” – has another embarrassment on his CV alongside last January’s Capital One Cup semi-final defeat by Bradford City.
“It hurts like hell,” said the Villa manager whose team were booed off at half-time – when they trailed to Jamie Murphy’s goal – and again at the end after Flynn, struck the winner six minutes after home substitute Nicklas Helenius had briefly restored parity with his first goal for the club.
In fairness, Lambert had only articulated a widely held view about the Cup’s place in the modern scheme of things – something that his Sheffield counterpart, Nigel Clough, acknowledged as he savoured a famous victory. “I can understand Paul’s sentiment in their position, but for us and our 6,000 supporters, you saw how much it meant. It is still a special, special competition.”
Clough was a losing finalist as a player in 1991 with a Nottingham Forest side managed by his father Brian, who never won the old trophy, and this match provided impressive evidence of the improvement he has overseen since replacing David Weir at Bramall Lane in October. United had lost only once in nine games before this match and started on the front foot with left winger Murphy scoring after 20 minutes, stepping inside from the flank and unleashing a shot that took a deflection off Ciaran Clark on its way in.
Villa’s poor response illustrated their lack of creativity. Lambert fielded a strong side – although Brad Guzan was on the bench, Ron Vlaar, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Nathan Baker were unavailable – yet they struggled to open up a Sheffield side who sit 18th in League One. “We need that creativity, it just is not there at that minute,” Lambert said.
United absorbed their pressure and not until the cusp of half-time did Villa come close to a response, the goal-shy Christian Benteke twice heading wide from crosses by Marc Albrighton.
Attacking the North Stand where most of the Sheffield fans were congregated, the Blades started the second period strongly. Flynn, a Scottish winger who was a trainee at Liverpool, gave Villa’s left-back Antonio Luna a torrid time, twice coming inside to test Jed Steer.
The visiting goalkeeper, George Long, did not have to make a save until the 56th minute and that was from a misdirected cross by Albrighton. But with a quarter-hour left, it seemed their blushes were spared when a deflected Andreas Weimann shot ran to Helenius who drove a low shot beyond Long.
Yet back came Sheffield. “It just gave us that little kick up the arse and we went at them again,” Clough said. Chris Porter and Flynn both missed presentable chances before the latter’s winning finish. Cutting across the box from the right, he left Fabian Delph in his wake then carried the ball past Clark before arrowing a spectacular shot into the top corner from 15 yards.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Steer; Bacuna, Lowton, Clark, Luna; Delph, Westwood; Albrighton, Weimann, Tonev (Helenius, 60); Benteke.
Sheffield Utd (4-4-2): Long; McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Hill; Flynn, McGinn, Doyle, Murphy (Miller, 90); Porter (Kennedy, 89), Baxter (Coady, 80).
Referee: David Coote
Man of the match: Flynn (Sheffield Utd)
Match rating: 7/10