Since reaching the FA Cup final in May 2000, Aston Villa have won just one match in the competition. Yesterday they suffered their third successive third-round exit, and fourth in five years, as they succumbed to defeat against Sheffield United of the Championship.
Not only did Villa lose, they fully deserved to do so. A United side inspired by Michael Tonge's verve and skill should have been ahead before half-time but recovered from the shock of falling behind two minutes after the break to win with some ease.
Andy Liddell scored their decisive second and third goals in the final eight minutes, after Danny Cullip had cancelled out Gareth Barry's unexpected opener.
"There's no fear factor with us," said Neil Warnock, the Championship Manager of the Month for December. "We love being underdogs, and we were relaxed and played some great one-touch football because there was no pressure on us. I thought it was a great FA Cup tie - but then I'm biased!"
The score was identical to that at Turf Moor earlier in the season, when Villa were knocked out of the Carling Cup by another Championship side, Burnley. Considering that United's recent Cup pedigree has taken them to quarter- and semi-finals in the past two years, and that Villa have won only once away in League and cups all season - a last-minute winner at Bolton - perhaps this was less of a surprise than it first appeared.
From the very beginning it was the lower-division side, currently fifth in the Championship, who coped better with the ever-changing conditions of sleet one moment and bright sunshine the next.
"We didn't play particularly well and our keeper kept us in it in the first half," said the Villa manager, David O'Leary. "The same thing happened to us at Burnley, and you know it's going to be hard in a match like this, but I still thought we would win. We didn't deserve to."
Tonge, taking an advanced role in a fluid formation, was outstanding, constantly driving forward, committing defenders and creating space. While United's best chance in the first half came from Phil Jagielka's header, tipped over by Thomas Sorensen, Tonge crafted clear openings for Andy Gray and Alan Quinn.
If Villa were fortunate to be level at half-time, it was a travesty when they went ahead. Lee Hendrie stabbed the ball into the path of Barry, who shot early. Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny was caught unawares as the ball arced over his head into the net.
The Blades were only behind for a matter of minutes before Jon Harley's cross was misjudged by Jloyd Samuel and Mark Delaney. Cullip, a central defender, took full advantage of the confusion to stab home from three yards.
United were rewarded for their enterprise with eight minutes left, albeit controversially. First Villa had a good shout for handball on the edge of the area. Then Quinn flicked on Nick Montgomery's long ball and Liddell - whom Warnock was about to substitute - was clearly offside. No flag, and Liddell's shot went through Sorensen's legs.
A minute later, United's passage into the fourth round was confirmed. Tonge fed Liddell, and the striker's early shot was inexplicably fumbled over the line by Sorensen.
It was no less than United deserved, and had Tonge finished when Liddell returned the compliment and put him through on goal in injury time, the talented midfielder would have had due reward for his sterling efforts.Reuse content