Sheffield United may be languishing in the lower half of the Championship but their uninspiring League form did not prevent them from inflicting Bolton Wanderers' first home defeat in over two months here yesterday.
The Australian David Carney's first Sheffield United goal since his summer move to south Yorkshire proved enough to take his team into the fourth round and ease the pressure on his manager Bryan Robson. Before this, the former England captain's team had won only one of their past seven games and failed to take a single point from four fixtures over Christmas.
"I know Bolton made a lot of changes but I thought we did really well," said Robson, who has lifted the trophy on three occasions as a player with Manchester United. "I always want to do well in the FA Cup and I think the boys enjoyed it being a different competition. If we win games the confidence will return, whether in the League of the Cup."
To judge from his starting line-up, the FA Cup is not Gary Megson's top priority and he could not be too disappointed to see his side exit the competition at the earliest opportunity. Megson made a host of changes from their midweek Premier League fixture against Derby. Most notable among the comings and goings was the absence of Nicolas Anelka, who will now not be cup-tied should he leave the club during the transfer window.
"We chose a side that reflected the fact we have played four games in a couple of weeks and our squad is not strong enough," said Megson, who denied the departure of Anelka was anything more than "a possibility".
"In all honesty we couldn't claim that we deserved anything from that game because we didn't."
Chances during the opening period were at a premium and even the enthusiasm of the excellent away support was tested. All Bolton managed was a Joey O'Brien shot, blocked by Matthew Kilgallon. For United, Derek Geary found his way into the penalty area and headed Chris Armstrong's cross wide while the latter also set up Luton Shelton, who sent a stooping header over the crossbar from five yards.
The game's only goal came just before half-time. Stephen Quinn's through-ball set up Carney, who had moved infield from the right wing, and he shot left-footed beyond Ali Al Habsi from 12 yards into the far corner.
"He [David] had got a bit tired so I rested him over Christmas," Robson said. "He came back fresh today and took his goal really well."
That spurred Bolton into life and made for a far more entertaining game with United keen to exploit the gaps in midfield. At last it felt like a cup tie and while the quality was still lacking, there was at least a growing intensity.
El Hadji Diouf was booked then promptly substituted, a warm round of applause accompanying him as he left the pitch ahead of his departure to Ghana for the African Cup of Nations.
Where Bolton will be in the league when he returns a month or so from now? With him went their cutting edge, and apart from a Lubo Michalik shot that was deflected wide it was United who looked the more likely to score in the latter stages. They were worthy winners.