Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, acknowledged this FA Cup second round tie had assumed “even greater significance” following his team’s recent disappointments at Bramall Lane.
Michael Higdon returned to the starting 11 together with Jose Baxter while Michael Doyle captained Nigel Clough’s side. Luke McCormick donned the gloves for Plymouth Argyle who tasked Reuben Reid with spearheading their attack.
So, as they returned to action following Tuesday’s League One defeat by MK Dons, Plymouth Argyle were left in no doubt that the South Yorkshire club were deadly serious about attempting to repeat its march into the semi-finals last term.
Neither, though, were Clough and his players under any illusions about the threat the visitors posed.
Despite being a division below them on the footballing pyramid, John Sheridan’s side had made the journey to South Yorkshire brimming with confidence and, as the former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder admitted before leaving Devon, intent on progressing themselves.
The early exchanges of today’s encounter suggested his belief was not misplaced as Argyle immediately attempted to impose themselves on the match. Jay McEveley, having earlier blocked Lewis Alessandra’s attempted cross,
denied the 25-year-old a clear shooting opportunity with a perfectly timed tackle inside the penalty area.
United had not been overwhelmed. But the League Two club’s contribution during the opening nine minutes confirmed that whatever they achieved would have to be earned.
Nevertheless, in the 10th minute, Ryan Flynn nearly gave United the lead. The Scot, again being asked to operate as a makeshift full-back, edged forward without being challenged before unleashing a low 25 yard drive which Luke McCormick could only parry. However, the Argyle goalkeeper enjoyed a stroke of good fortune when the ball flew agonisingly behind the onrushing Higdon. Anywhere else and the striker, returning to United’s first choice 11 in Chris O’Grady’s absence, would almost certainly have scored.
That was the cue for United to push Argyle back with Jose Baxter testing McCormick’s handling after escaping his marker’s clutches just outside the ‘D’ after Curtis Nelson had done well to head a Jamal Campbell-Ryce centre away to safety.
McCormick dashed outside his box to hack clear from Baxter midway through the opening period as the arm-wrestle continued. He had been the busier of the two goalkeepers at this stage but, like Argyle when they moved forward, the action became fractious around the final third.
Higdon did his best to rectify the situation with a decent lay-off for Baxter when the ball again failed to drop kindly and present itself for a shot but the latter’s drive was blocked.
In the 33rd minute, Dominic Blizzard caused Mark Howard some concern after trying his luck from aroound 35 yards out. The ball eventually flew wide of the far post and into The Kop. But it did prompt a surging run forward from Flynn which ended with the auxillary defender going much, much closer with a low shot.
It drew a round of applause from sections of the home crowd but others were growing increasingly impatient about United’s perceived failure to put crosses into the dangerzone. Despite, it must be said, Argyle’s willingness to track back and get men behind the ball in a deliberate attempt to tempt United into launching hopeful punts forward.
Higdon used his chest to release Murphy in the 40th minute but, with Argyle double-marking the Scot, he was forced to lay-off to Campbell-Ryce and his cross flew wastefully towards the corner flag.
United introduced Marc McNulty for the start of the second-half at Campbell-Ryce’s expense. However, two minutes later, Plymouth spurned a glorious opportunity to seize control of a game which was now beginning to spark. Chris Basham tripped the lively Alessandra inside the area and, after a moment’s thought, referee Gary Sutton pointed to the spot. Reid, though, ballooned his spot-kick yards over the crossbar.
Baxter showed him the way in the 55th minute when he edged United ahead. Peter Hartley was stripped of possession and although Sutton allowed Purrington’s initial tug on McNulty to go unpunished, he awarded another penalty when his assistant signalled the same offence had taken place again. Baxter placed the ball low to McCormick’s right and, while the Argyle goalkeeper guessed correctly, he was powerless to keep the ball out.
In the 63rd minute, United were awarded another penalty when Murphy was hauled back by Curtis Nelson who, like Purrington, was cautioned. The end result was also the same although Baxter, this time, drilled a low shot into the other corner of McCormick’s net.
Sheridan, the Argyle manager, made a double substitution with 19 minutes remaining in an effort to change the course of a half which had seen United go about their business with much more spark and intent.
Ollie Norburn and Lee Cox came on for Purrington and Banton but, seconds later, a loose piece of play nearly let Murphy in again only for Hartley to recover in the nick of time.
Higdon was enduring a frustrating afternoon with some polished link-up play releasing team mates at times but, on those occasions when a pass went astray, his detractors in the stands quick to make their displeasure known. Four minutes after Argyle had made their change, he was inches away from collecting the ball yards from goal after making a short, sharp run into space but it took an unpredictable bounce and bobbled behind his right boot.
Louis Reed came on in the 76th minute when Scougall was afforded a rest ahead of next weekend’s League One encounter at Fleetwood Town.
Baxter could, indeed probably should, have claimed his hat-trick but dragged wide of the far post before Argyle made their third and final change as Harvey entered the fray for Blizzard.
There would be no milestone for Baxter but, with Florent Cuvelier making his long-awaited return from serious injury with five minutes of normal time remaining, he would not begrudge the Belgian one bit.
Indeed, Cuvelier, who ruptured knee ligaments on loan at Port Vale nearly a year ago, could have claimed a third goal himself after darting forward in support of McNulty but the Scot shot wide rather than pass and immediately raised an apologetic hand.
Cuvelier showed no hard feelings when, in the 89th minute, he exchanged passes with Murphy before releasing Mcnulty whose clinical finish confirmed United’s progress.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard, Harris, Basham, Flynn, Doyle, Murphy, Baxter, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce, Higdon. Substitutes: McNulty, McGahey, Reed, Turner, Kennedy, Khan, Cuvelier.
PLYMOUTH ARGYLE: McCormick, Mellor, Purrington, Nelson, Alessandra, Banton, Reid, Blizzard, Kellett, O’Connor, Hartley. Substitutes: Bittner, Cox, Norburn, Harvey, Allen Bentley.
REFEREE: Gary Sutton (Lincolnshire),