Billy Sharp’s penalty ten minutes from time put Sheffield United into the hat for the last-16 of the FA Cup, ending Preston North End’s Wembley dream at Bramall Lane.
Chances were few and far between in a dire opening half and even though the game greatly improved in the 45-minutes that remained, neither side could find that killer pass until Sharp was brought down by Preston’s skipper, Tom Clarke, before converting the spot-kick in a 1-0 victory.
With two tough matches coming up for the Blades, which will see them host Aston Villa on Tuesday before travelling to table-toppers Wolves and then welcoming Leeds to Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder made seven changes from their hard-fought 2-1 win at Norwich last weekend with Ben Heneghan handed his first start since signing in the summer.
Despite only playing 88 minutes since the turn of the year prior to this Cup match, Wilder has maintained that Sharp, who netted 30 goals last season in the Blades’ romp to the League One title, remains very much a part of his plans after reported interest from Bradford City. Tasked with leading the line alongside Clayton Donaldson, it was time for the captain to stake a claim in an altered, albeit strong, United line-up and he made no mistake from 12-yards, shouldering responsibility to prevent an unwanted replay in Lancashire.
The match was a chance for some players to prove their worth with three out of the four new acquisitions from the January transfer window cup-tied, thus giving a fine opportunity to cause Wilder some selection headaches going into a tough fixture period.
Wilder was pleased to see his side progress into the next round to make it back-to-back victories. He said: “We just needed to lift the standards more second half.
“I think we edged a tight game. It wasn’t a classic.
“We are on a little bit of a run. I always thought we weren’t a million miles away from putting a run together. It wasn’t free flowing.
“No one has done any harm with their performances despite it being a scrappy game.”
There was little in the way of goalmouth action in the opening 25-minutes, though, with Alan Browne, who scored twice in the Lilywhites’ 5-1 win over Wycombe in the previous round, dragging a shot wide and Donaldson failing to get his shot on target from George Baldock’s drilled cross.
Alex Neil’s side appeared well-rehearsed on the counter-attack and got themselves in some promising positions, although one would’ve thought that they may pay the price for their lack of profligacy after Simon Moore in the United goal went untested.
Baldock and Daniel Lafferty worked the wide areas well but the finishing product was lacking for Wilder’s men with Mark Duffy, who signed a contract extension during the week which keeps him at the club until 2020, and John Fleck slightly off kilter and unable to pick out the killer pass that the United faithful are so accustomed to seeing.
As an uninspiring first 45 minutes fizzled out the game was in dire need of some inspiration, with the 2,659 travelling Preston fans in fine voice for an impressive away turnout.
They were almost silenced when Donaldson met Duffy’s cross but the striker failed to turn it home as it flashed beyond the post.
If that was a promising opportunity then so too was the next when Preston failed to deal with another one of Duffy’s crosses into the box. It took some quick reactions from Declan Rudd to tip Lafferty’s stinging half-volley over the bar to preserve the deadlock as the game finally looked to have been given a lease of life.
Wilder made two changes on the hour with Ched Evans making his first appearance since September after his ankle surgery towards the end of last year as he replaced Donaldson, while Chris Basham stepped in for Heneghan as the Blades boss looked to shore up the game and avoid a replay at all costs.
Preston’s Daniel Johnson came closest for the two-time Cup winners when he curled a left-footed effort inches wide of an upright, but a clumsy foul from skipper Clarke on United’s Sharp inside the box gave the United skipper a chance to put the home side ahead from the penalty-spot.
Despite going the right way, Sharp tucked away the spot-kick with ten minutes remaining for his 9th goal of the season in all competitions, repaying the faith Wilder has instilled in his captain.
Preston momentarily buckled under the pressure as United finally began to dominate, but they committed men forward and went close through Browne’s curler which Moore had to pat away.
It was a fixture lacking in the magic that so often surrounds the FA Cup, but Widler will be thoroughly pleased that his men pulled through unscathed and are into the next round.
The FA Cup fifth round draw is live on BBC’s The One Show on Monday evening at around 7:20pm, with Sheffield United represented by ball number 16.
Sheffield United: Moore; Stearman, Wright, Heneghan (Basham, 59’); Baldock, Lundstram, Fleck, Lafferty; Duffy; Sharp (C) (Stevens, 90+2), Donaldson (C Evans, 59’). Subs not used: O’Connell, Wilson, Eastwood, Carruthers.
Preston North End: Rudd, Clarke (C), Horgan (Barkhuizen, 59’), Browne, Johnson, Fisher (Woods, 68’), Welsh (Hugill, 68’), Moult, Huntington, Earl, Bodin. Subs not used: Gallagher, Spurr, Maxwell, Robinson.
Referee: Graham Scott
Bookings: Sheffield United: Daniel Lafferty (30’, foul), John Lundstram (58’, foul)
Preston North End: John Welsh (4’, foul), Daniel Johnson (72’)
Scorers: Sheffield United: Billy Sharp (pen, 80’)
Preston North End: None
HT score: 0-0
FT score: 1-0
Attendance: 15,680 (2,659 away fans)
Man of the Match: Richard Stearman (Sheffield United)