Second semi-final, 4.07pm
13 April ~ Sheffield United head to Wembley today for their fourth FA Cup semi-final in recent times. The three previous matches have seen slim margins of defeat. There was a devastating 2-1 extra-time loss in the all-Sheffield semi-final of 1993 and 1-0 defeats at Old Trafford to Newcastle in 1998 and Arsenal five years later, both when the Blades were a Championship side. In the last 40 years, 41 clubs have played in a major cup final and that number will increase by one today whether it is the Blades or opponents Hull City.
On November 9, United sat second from bottom in League One when they travelled to Colchester in the FA Cup first round. When they threw away an early two-goal lead, fans were resigned to another setback in what had been a horrific start to the season that had seen Nigel Clough replace the novice David Weir as manager in early October. It took a last-minute penalty to seal victory and so the cup run began.
The Cup success didn't immediately transfer to league form – we only won two of our next seven matches – but without this run I don't think we would be in the top half of the table now and still with a slim chance of the play-offs. Ten wins on the bounce in league and cup from the beginning of February lifted the Blades out of the relegation zone; their run now stands at two defeats in 17 with 13 clean sheets. A settled back four has played a huge part in the team's success with 21-year-old centre-back Harry Maguire especially impressive along with right-back John Brayford, a loanee from Cardiff.
Much has been made of Hull's missing players, particularly Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, but a team set for their best-ever League placing have plenty of quality beyond the two cup-tied strikers. Still, while United are only the ninth third-tier side to reach the semi-finals in 94 years, each time we have faced higher-placed opposition in the cup this season we have shown little fear, exemplified by the fine win at Villa Park in the third round.
Under Nigel Clough the goals have rarely flowed – we have only scored as many as three in a league match twice since he took over – but the team spirit is visibly the best it has been in years and we are difficult to break down. Under Clough every player coming into the starting 11 knows their role and what is expected of them. He said recently: "You got to the seaside for a day out, you go to Wembley to win." The FA Cup was of course the one major honour to elude Brian Clough. Could Nigel yet succeed in one of the few areas where his father failed? Ian Rands