A hymn of limbs and lungs, a game of pure vibes and pure desire, this was an FA Cup quarter-final epic to stand the test of time. And at its very climax a swing of a leg, a ripple of the Bramall Lane net and a noise that will power Sheffield United all the way to Wembley and a semi-final against Manchester City. It was Tommy Doyle’s 25-yard goal in the first minute of injury time that proved the difference against a daring but distraught Blackburn Rovers, a club who were 10 minutes away from their own blessed moment of triumph.
The bare contours of this game offer just a fraction of the story. United started brightly. Blackburn went ahead against the run of play. United equalised fortuitously. Blackburn again went ahead against the run of play. United equalised through Oli McBurnie with 10 minutes remaining. But the common thread running throughout was a full-blooded commitment, a four‑sided assault on the senses, Yorkshire against Lancashire, a spectacle as gripping as a good film and as loud as a war.
The tackles were honest and bloodthirsty. The pace of the game barely let up, belying the ridiculous noon kick-off and the exhausting efforts of both sides in midweek. For Blackburn there is still promotion to play for, the solace of a stirring performance from an improving team. Jon Dahl Tomasson is building something extremely exciting there, and but for the inside of a post and some brilliant saves from Wes Foderingham could easily have been toasting their first trip to the new Wembley Stadium.
“Bitterly disappointed,” was Tomasson’s response. “Our performance deserved more. The first 80 minutes were extremely good, we should probably have killed the game, but you know how cruel and tough football can be. We don’t have the parachute money of Sheffield United or the same budget. But big credit to our fans. I’m sad we can’t give them the dream of going to Wembley.”
But for United it was a lesson in patience and persistence, in trusting the ball and trusting each other. Even as Sammie Szmodics put Blackburn 2-1 up there was little sense of panic. This is the doctrine of Paul Heckingbottom: keep calm, no complaining, win the next battle. Perhaps nothing illustrated this better than the winning goal: a carefully worked move around the houses as the crowd howled for a cross. Finally, the ball ended up at the feet of Doyle. Delayed gratification, they always say, is the best kind.
And after going behind to Ben Brereton Diaz’s penalty, United reapplied themselves to their task. The penalty was an unpopular decision but the right one, Sam Gallagher’s shot hitting the outstretched arm of Jack Robinson at close range. But United had been the better side to that point, and equalised seven minutes later when Max Lowe’s long‑range volley clipped Gallagher and trickled in.
That was how it stayed until the hour, when an error from Lowe allowed Tyler Morton – perhaps the outstanding player in a Blackburn shirt – to steal the ball and start the move that Szmodics finished coolly. And for all United’s possession and pressure it was not an undeserved goal, a reward for Blackburn’s clever squeezing of the midfield and decisiveness in the final third. Contrast with James McAtee for United, who missed two good one-on-ones that might have put the game to bed. But it was McBurnie who kept his composure in the 81st minute, turning inside Hayden Carter with a wicked spin and finishing low into the far corner.
“Potentially one of the biggest weeks in the club’s history,” was the verdict of Heckingbottom a few days ago: a pretty big claim for a club that have won a league title, four FA Cups and eight top-flight promotions. But as Doyle’s shot burst the net, it didn’t feel like an outlandish statement. United are still under a transfer embargo, still enduring significant financial stress, still waiting on a prospective takeover by the Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi, still fighting the prospect of administration and a points deduction.
Against all this, Heckingbottom has crafted a brilliantlittle engine of a team: second in the Championship, aggressive and united, and now one game away from the FA Cup final. In a cruel twist, Doyle and McAtee, both on loan from semi-final opponents Manchester City, will be ineligible for the game.
The money will come in handy from a Wembley visit but what matters above all is the sense of joy and hope: the blithe optimism of a club that has simply rolled up its sleeves and kept going.