Martin Taylor’s presence on the coaching staff at Bramall Lane has gone largely unnoticed this week.
Strange, given the scrutiny that Sheffield United have been subjected to by the media after becoming the first third-tier club to reach the FA Cup semi-finals since Wycombe Wanderers 13 years ago.
A veteran of the team which gave eventual winners Liverpool an almighty scare during 2001’s memorable tussle at Villa Park, Taylor is now tasked with helping Nigel Clough prepare his squad for Sunday’s contest with Hull City who, by virtue of their top-flight status, are regarded as most peoples’ favourites to book a return trip to Wembley next month.
But Taylor, the former Wanderers, Derby County and Burton Albion goalkeeper, told The Star last night that United’s mix of experience, camaraderie and youthful exuberance makes them formidable opponents.
“We didn’t have an inferiority complex when we faced Liverpool,” he said. “And our lads won’t have one now because they know what they can achieve.
“The key is tunnel vision. A total focus on going out there and doing your job because, if that does happen, then you’ll help someone else do theirs.”
The parallels between Wycombe’s march into the last four of the world’s most prestigious domestic knockout competition and United’s progress through six gruelling rounds are uncanny. Both were embroiled in a battle against relegation when they embarked upon their respective journeys and both were written-off virtually throughout.
Clough’s players, of course, have dragged themselves out of trouble after using victories over the likes of Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Fulham to inspire a remarkable sequence of results which means they depart for the capital tomorrow with a mathematical chance of qualifying for the play-offs and ranked as League One’s eleventh best side. After accumulating 30 points from a possible 42 since losing at Crewe Alexandra on February 1, conceding only six goals in the process, United would actually be fifth if their season had begun when Clough was appointed last Autumn.
“In a sense, I think the lads probably needed what happened at Gresty Road,” Taylor said. “It focused everybody and you could see them thinking ‘We’ll get this right together. We’re better than this’ which is exactly what they’ve shown.
“The difference with them now is chalk and cheese. Really, it’s off the scale.
“Because of how well they’ve done defensively, if they score they feel they’ll win. Really, it’s just down to belief.”
Belief also represents the key United’s hopes of overcoming a City team two divisions higher and going one better than Wycombe who, when Keith Ryan reduced the deficit after Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler pounced during the closing stages, threatened to prevent Gerard Houllier’s charges from lifting the second of three trophies they collected that term.
“At Wycombe, like here now, there was a group of us who had been around the block before and played a lot of games,” Taylor continued. “We were a close knit bunch and, when we came out of the dressing rooms, we felt like we were their equals.
“Sometimes, there’s nothing you can actually put your finger on when you’re asked to explain why you go on a cup run like this. But I think, when you’ve got good players, and they give it their best shot against players from further up the ladder, it lifts them up.
“That’s definitely what happened to us in that Wycombe team. We were tight together and there was that nice blend of lads at the beginning of their careers and us older heads.”
“It’s uncanny how history comes around,” Taylor continued. “We went for a walk before a match not so long ago and I said to the gaffer ‘This is exactly like it was at Wycombe you know.’ We were so tired back then because we’d played so many matches but the adrenalin pushed us on because being involved in situations like this is everyone’s dream.”
Emotion, Taylor predicted, will be a powerful weapon once again.
“I hadn’t been back to Villa Park since they built they new stand there,” Taylor, reflecting on United’s third round victory over Paul Lambert’s side, said. “But I remember what it was like walking out in front of the Wycombe fans that day, seeing all the colours and hearing the noise, I think about it even now.
“That’s what it will be like for our boys at Wembley because you know how good the United support is going to be. I only found after afterwards that Lawrie Sanchez, who was Wycombe manager at the time, had the choice of playing the semi-final at Old Trafford but he chose Villa Park instead because he thought it would be better for us.
“It all comes down to opportunity. Liverpool had to bring people like (Steven) Gerrard and Fowler on and if we’d have pulled a goal back a little earlier, then I think we’d have equalised because, honestly, they’d gone.”