On a pitch not fit for professional football, a match not fit for Sunday morning, never mind the fifth round of the FA Cup. Philosophically, there may have been something abstract to appreciate, but, for the 22,210 who forked out cash, regret should have been kicking in around the half-hour mark, by which time it was apparent that this would be 90 minutes devoid of goals and bereft of skill.
However, the fact that Sheffield United fans applauded their team off told a different story and revealed the scale of disillusion that had set in under Bryan Robson.
Guided by Kevin Blackwell for the first time, the enthusiastic reaction was down to the hosts not losing, while there was no shortage of commitment from the likes of Chris Morgan, Derek Geary and Stephen Quinn. There was, in that sense, something for locals to cling to.
For Middlesbrough, who brought over 6,000 fans down from Teesside, there was also the consolation that they had been disjointed for all but 10 second-half minutes and remain in the Cup for today's draw. They will know who they might face when they take on United in the replay at the Riverside tomorrow week. But for the neutral, even the final whistle could not be called consoling. As Gareth Southgate said, it was: "An afternoon few will remember."
But Blackwell will. Three days after being ushered in as Robson was going the other way, Blackwell saw his new players energetically pursuing their Premier League visitors and had, James Beattie's free-kick seconds before the interval been a couple of inches to the left (it hit Mark Schwarzer's post), then it might have been an occasion to cherish for Neil Warnock's returning former assistant.
"We set a terrific tempo," Blackwell said. "We were unlucky with some creative set-plays and there's no doubt they were hanging on a couple of times. There were some meaty tackles. This is a working-man's city and a working-man's club and that was the sort of hard-working side we had out there. That's our ethic."
Middlesbrough is not exactly effete as a town and in Emmanuel Pogatetz and Fabio Rochemback, Southgate has players prepared to scrap and tussle in its image. "Sheffield United were as we expected," Southgate said. "Direct and physical. But the pitch dictated the style of the game. We had to play the conditions and at times we didn't do that so well."
On a pock-marked surface, Boro's passing instinct was betrayed again and again. Julio Arca and Stewart Downing were guilty of mis-control, meaning that rhythm never developed. The Blades were not perturbed by this, and though Blackwell described the pitch as "frustrating", it meant a greater emphasis on free-kicks and corners.
Schwarzer made his first save from a sixth-minute corner – a flying stop to deny Matthew Kilgallon – and 20 minutes later Jon Stead was a yard away from scoring. By then the game was already feisty and home fans were haranguing Chris Foy, the referee. A lot of this was trumped up, and neither Blackwell nor Southgate criticised Foy, but the referee could have been dramatically hard when Boro's David Wheater pulled back Billy Sharp close to half time. Sharp was clean through 20 yards out and the ball was running for him. Wheater's tug back was violent in a non-physical way, interrupting and ending Sharp's progress. But Foy showed the big defender only a yellow card.
As they had to, Boro improved after the interval. Mido was involved for the first time and forced Paddy Kenny belatedly into the action with an overhead kick. Kenny then tipped over a Wheater header from the resulting corner. Downing sent a volley just wide.
Eventually, the new £12.5m signing, Afonso Alves, replaced Mido but the burly Brazilian contributed only a few touches in a contest he will not have recognised as the beautiful game. And then in injury-time Pogatetz met a corner by Downing six yards out but the ball hit Gary Naysmith in a delicate area and was cleared.
Plenty felt they had been kicked there yesterday.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kenny; Geary, Morgan, Kilgallon, Naysmith; Stead (Carney 74) Quinn, Tonge, Martin (Armstrong 67); Beattie (Hulse 80) Sharp. Substitutes not used: Shelton, Lucketti
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Wheater, Pogatetz, Grounds; O'Neil, Rochemback, Arca (Boateng 67) Downing; Mido (Alves 74) Aliadiere. Substitutes not used: Turnbull, Hines, Johnson.
Booked: United: Morgan. Boro: Wheater, Rochemback, Pogatetz, Aliadiere.
Referee: C. Foy.
Man of the match: Geary.
Last eight in FA Cup
Sheffield United or Middlesbrough
West Bromwich Albion
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