Be under no illusion, this season's FA Cup can shape Bramall Lane's future for many years to come: James Shield's Sheffield United Column
If you think the FA Cup no longer means anything, believe its importance has been diminished by the financial behemoth that is the Premier League, watch Regan Slater's reaction following Sheffield United's third round victory over Ipswich Town nearly three weeks ago.
The teenager, whose tackle on Bersant Celina prompted manager Chris Wilder to spawn a new verb, pumped his fists furiously and wore a grin wider than the River Orwell after helping the visitors reach the next stage of the competition and “cementing” the on-loan Kosovan.
Make no mistake, when United return to knockout competition against Preston North End tomorrow, it will be a very important game. And not simply because, after beating Norwich City in the Championship last weekend, they want to win back to back games for the first time since November. This trophy, a true jewel in the English footballing crown, deserves respect and could play a vital role in ensuring the club’s future is safe for many years to come.
Slater, together with fellow Steelphalt Academy graduates Rhys Norrington-Davies, Sam Graham and Tyler Smith, are among a crop of young players expected to push hard for first team places over the next two-and-a-half seasons or so. But, as Wilder constructs a squad equipped to survive the rigors of a promotion campaign, the inevitable influx of tried and tested performers such as Lee Evans, Ricky Holmes and Ryan Leonard, means any first team opportunity must be earned.
A tournament synonymous with great names such as Nat Lofthouse, Stan Mortensen and Sir Stanley Matthews represents an opportunity to further their exposure at senior level and, just as importantly, immerse them in the history of the sport from which they hope to earn a living. Gaining a respect for its former heroes, studying an era when players became stars but remained men of the people, will help them become better professionals and more-rounded individuals.
United and North End, who have appeared in 13 finals between them, will doubtless make changes for their fourth round tie at Bramall Lane as Wilder and Alex Neil, his rival across the technical area, look to negotiate safe passage through the fixture calendar.
But no club, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea included, have the luxury of being able to take some matches seriously and others less so.
Progress, certainly from United’s perspective, will enable them to further the education of their next generation. Affording the contest the dignity it deserves also brings the added bonus of being able to stick the proverbial two fingers up to those who believe finishing second in the top-flight is a more commendable achievement than actually winning something.