Sunderland in semi-final as Smith strikes again

Sunderland 1 Sheffield United 0
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The Independent Football

Despite the abuse the Stadium of Light directed towards Alan Shearer, who somewhat unwisely had been selected as a commentator by Sky Television, Sunderland have always done well by Geordies in the FA Cup.

Dennis Tueart and Bob Stokoe, two of the architects of their 1973 triumph, were Tynesiders and yesterday Tommy Smith, whose father was a season-ticket holder at Newcastle, took them to the semi-finals.

FA Cup semi-finals have been bittersweet stories for Smith. Having scored the goals that took Watford through fifth-round and quarter-final ties last season he was dropped for the encounter with Southampton at Villa Park. "It was a tough time and I took it quite hard," he said.

"A semi-final of an FA Cup is a massive game and I was devastated." The hard, if misplaced, logic behind his manager Ray Lewington's thinking was that he did not score enough goals. This was true in league football and as a pattern it has continued on Wearside, where he has found the net once in the First Division.

In the FA Cup, however, his progress has been entirely different. When he took a pull-back from George McCartney, turned and drove it beautifully into the net, via the tips of Paddy Kenny's gloves, it was his fourth goal in the campaign and the first and last conceded by Sheffield United.

It came in a half in which Sunderland played as well as they have all season. They had the edge on the flanks, driven forward by John Oster and Julio Arca. The sight of the Argentinian being carried off on a stretcher was, for Sunderland, the afternoon's only real negative. United, in search of their fourth FA Cup semi-final since 1993, were caught badly off balance and did not recover until the interval, in which Neil Warnock accused his players of letting the club down.

"My missus could have tackled harder than some of my players did in the first half," he said. "I thought we were bullied and overawed. Tommy took the goal brilliantly and I thought we were lucky to go in at half-time only one down. We had plenty of possession in the second half but we did not have the quality to win the game. Tommy Smith had that one bit of quality."

Smith might have opened the scoring as early as the fourth minute, when his header from Oster's cross was saved on the line by Kenny, and throughout he had the pace, invention and nous to trouble even as tough a defender as the Sheffield United captain, Robert Page.

In the home dressing-room Mick McCarthy warned his players they would be facing an onslaught after the interval and the Blades did indeed come scything down. In the second 45 minutes, Warnock's side had well over 60 per cent of possession.

However, Mart Poom did not have a serious shot to save in the Sunderland goal. Michael Tonge scraped the post with his only high-class free-kick of the afternoon in the first half, while Peter Ndlovu turned and fired over in the second. It was precious little return for what had been an enormous effort.

It may be part of his Yorkshire cussedness but McCarthy did not so much play down Sunderland's triumph as bury it, arguing that semi-finals were pointless unless they were won, an argument nobody from Sheffield who travelled to Old Trafford last season would agree with. And if they were drawn against Arsenal? "Well if Manchester United, Sunderland Tranmere and Millwall all gang up on them, then we might have a chance."

Goal: Smith 15 (1-0)

Sunderland: (4-4-2) Poom, Wright, Breen, Babb, McCarthy, Oster (Thornton 84), McAteer, Whitley, Arca (Thirlwell 76), Smith (Stewart 84), Kyle. Substitutes not used: Ingham (gk), Williams.

Sheffield United: (4-3-3) Kenny, Jagielka, Page, Morgan, Kozluk, Montgomery, McCall (Wright 40), Tonge, Parkinson (Peschisolido 40), Ward (Allison 9), Ndlovu. Substitutes not used: Rankin, Lester.

Referee: S Dunn (Avon).

Bookings: Sunderland: McCartney, Stewart. Sheffield United: Parkinson.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 37,115.