No club appreciates the enthusiasm of its supporters more than Manchester City but after watching their hopes of an FA Cup run burst by struggling Sheffield United yesterday they will rather wish the 7,000 who travelled across the Pennines had chosen a different way to show their allegiance, given the bizarre circumstances of the home side's opening goal.
Luton Shelton put United ahead after a low cross into the City penalty area had become lost in a sea of sky-blue balloons, spreading panic in the City defence and taking a deflection that caused left-back Michael Ball to miss his kick.
By the time City had recovered their composure, the Championship side had taken a two-goal lead through Jon Stead. It was a deficit from which City could not recover, even after 18-year-old Daniel Sturridge had scored his first senior goal.
The City manager Sven Goran Eriksson confirmed afterwards that, via the fourth official, he had asked referee Alan Wiley to stop the game before Shelton scored so that the balloons could be removed, although he refused to blame the incident for City's defeat.
"I asked for the game to be stopped, for one minute, so that the pitch could be cleared but it was not," Eriksson said. "At half-time we were told the message had been passed to the referee but he had said that Joe Hart, our goalkeeper, should clear them while the ball was at the other end. If you watch the replay you will see that the ball takes a deflection, but I'm not going to make it an excuse.
"We knew what to expect. We knew that Sheffield would stand up and fight – in an honest way – and it was disappointing that we could not deal with that. In matches like this, it is not enough just to pass the ball to each other and play beautiful football."
United were not even at full strength, their manager, Bryan Robson, having rested several regulars because he has a league match against Watford tomorrow. Given his own background Manchester United, few moments in his troubled Bramall Lane tenure will have felt so sweet.
With rumours over his job security intensifying after the derby defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, Robson must now hope to see this form reproduced in the Championship.
"The frustration is that we know we can play as well as that," he said. "But I believe we can have a run on the basis of our form since the beginning of the year, even though we lost the derby. It is a matter of taking the same mental approach into our league games."
Irrespective of the obstacles on the pitch, there had been a warning a couple of minutes before the first goal that a City defence lacking the injured Micah Richards might be vulnerable as Stead missed with a free header. Then again, allowance had to be made in any judgement for what happened next. As Lee Martin, the winger on loan from Manchester United, drilled the ball into the box it became lost among a cluster of balloons, its collision with one of which left Ball swinging a boot at nothing and Shelton able to stab it into the net.
City responded well enough, with chances for Emile Mpenza and twice for Elano. An equaliser then might have left the home side as deflated as the balloons, now angrily stamped flat by Hart, but the next goal also went to United. Geary crossed from the right, Richard Dunne denied Shelton with a lunging tackle but the ball ran to Stead, who hammered it into the corner of the goal.
Eriksson's half-time response brought an almost instant result as the youth team striker Sturridge came on for Elano, who had ended the first half looking disappointingly rattled, and needed less than three minutes on the field to reveal why he is so highly regarded. Dunne failed to convert Martin Petrov's corner from the left but when it ran through to Sturridge the youngster showed composure and technique, firing the ball in off the underside of the bar with the outside of his left boot.
But that was the extent of City's recovery. And to compound their misery on the field, they discovered afterwards that their dressing room had been broken into at half-time, with up to £2,000 in cash going missing.
A United spokesman said: "The theft involved money stolen from wallets – not wallets themselves."
Goals: Shelton (11) 1-0; Stead (24) 2-0; Sturridge (48) 2-1.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kenny; Geary, Bromby, Morgan, Naysmith; Gillespie, Speed, Quinn, Martin; Stead (Sharp, 49), Shelton (Tonge, 76). Substitutes not used: Hendrie, Kilgallon, Armstrong.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Corluka, Onuoha, Dunne, Ball; Hamann (Ireland, 61), Fernandes; Vassell, Elano (Sturridge, h-t), Petrov; Mpenza (Geovanni, 70). Substitutes not used: Sun, Schmeichel (gk), Sturridge.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Bookings: Sheffield United Martin, Morgan, Quinn; Manchester City Fernandes, Corluka.
Man of the match: Shelton.
Fifth-round draw details
Draw: Today, 13.25. Live on BBC2 and BBC Radio 5. Ties to be played on 16 and 17 Feb. Remaining teams:
Arsenal, Coventry City, Huddersfield Town, Bristol Rovers, Liverpool, Barnsley, Chelsea, Preston North End, Manchester United, Portsmouth, Southampton, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, Wolves.Reuse content