On a day when the footballing world paid a silent tribute to the 96 football fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough 25 years ago, it was perhaps fitting that proud Liverpudlian Jose Baxter almost fired Sheffield United to a fairytale final.
In the end, it wasn’t to be - but for large periods of this thrilling FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, around 33,000 United fans dared to dream. They started just shy of the 20-minute mark, when Baxter fired Nigel Clough’s side in front; peeling in front of his marker James Chester, and converting John Brayford’s teasing centre.
The emotion was plain to see as Baxter, a Liverpool fan who began his career across the city at Everton, kissed his black armband and pointed to the heavens. Two close family members - his father, Andy, and uncle Ray - were at Hillsborough on that fateful day in 1989.
“They jumped over a wall because it was getting too crowded, before everything started to unfold,” Baxter said.
“It was a tough time for them, of course, and a tough time for the people of Liverpool as a lot of people lost their lives that day. I’m an emotional player, and I get a bit emotional every time I drive past Hillsborough when we’re at home.
“When I put the armband on before the game, I thought it would be a nice touch if I did get on the scoresheet.
“As I say, the city has been through a lot over the last 25 years but it was an honour to wear that armband today.”
Baxter stood arm-in-arm with fellow Scouser Conor Coady as a 71,280-strong crowd observed a minutes silence and applause to remember of the Hillsborough victims - and the two were instrumental throughout.
Baxter, asked to plough a lone furrow up front, was full of invention while Coady, whose attitude and ability both belie his tender years, provided a healthy dose of industry alongside United’s tenacious captain Michael Doyle. Indeed, Doyle received treatment early on after falling over Coady to win one header.
The chorus of ‘olés’ which greeted a succession of United passes soon after their goal showed the confidence they had brought with them to the capital. Spraying the ball about with aplomb on the lush Wembley turf, Hull City - a Premier League side with considerable pedigree - were chasing shadows, and United still didn’t wilt when Yannick Sagbo equalised.
Instead they regrouped, attacked again and were deservedly back in front less than two minutes later, thanks to Stefan Scougall’s crisp left-footed strike.
A visibly animated Clough, a veteran of FA Cup finals as a Nottingham Forest player under his late father Brian, sprinted down the tunnel as the half-time whistle reverberated around Wembley.
He knew his side - who, remember, were genuine relegation candidates when he took over back in October - were only 45 minutes away from an FA Cup final, and a possible place in the Europa League.
What exactly was said, in arguably the most important team-talk of Clough Jr’s career, remains unclear. But given United’s march to the last four of the FA Cup has been built on defensive solidarity, conceding just minutes after the restart was definitely not on the agenda.
As fate would have it, it was Hull’s ex-Wednesday loanee Matty Fryatt who got it, steering home coolly from close range after a deflected shot landed fortuitously in his path just minutes after entering the action.
“That goal probably knocked the wind out of our sails a little bit,” Neill Collins, the United centre half, admitted.
“We gave so much in the first half; we were fantastic and fully deserved to go in ahead at the break.
“Maybe in time, we’ll look back and appreciate the game as a great spectacle but, right now, we’re just thinking how unlike us it is to concede so many goals.
“But I am sure Hull will say that, too, so I think it was just that kind of game.”
“The manager told us all week to come here and give it a go,” Collins added, “and I think we really did that.”
Hull forged ahead when Tom Huddlestone finished well, and former Blade Stephen Quinn made it 4-2 after coming on as a substitute.
Jamie Murphy’s late goal set up a dramatic finish and, as the clock ticked down, one of Harry Maguire’s trademark direct runs at goal had United fans dreaming again. It was scrambled away, and David Meyler delivered the knockout blow with Hull’s fifth deep into added time.
With several of United’s players prostate on the turf, a round of applause broke out amongst the 33,000 Unitedites in the capital. They were down but not out; visibly proud of the cup run which has transformed their season.
“When you look back to where we were, and where we are now, it’s unbelievable,” Collins added.
“We’ve run a good Premier League side close but in football, and in life, you always want more - especially when you’re 2-1 up at half time, in such a big game.
“But the manager is pleased with our honesty, and every player out there gave everything they could. We left nothing on the pitch, and we can’t regret anything.
“At the end of the day, we are a League One club but we had Premier League support up there in the stands - they were a big boost, and we want to give them something to cheer about.
“I suppose we have, to some extent, but we want to repay them with some real success and hopefully we can do that from now on.”