IT might not have been the most coveted or lucrative prize they were chasing this season, but Danny Wilson’s demeanour when John Fleck’s penalty sealed Sheffield United’s fate betrayed how desperately he had wanted to deliver the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to Bramall Lane.
The former Glasgow Rangers protégé and one-time Wilson transfer target converted in cool fashion following misses by Harry Maguire and Ryan Flynn to ensure Coventry City reached the Northern Area semi-finals at the South Yorkshire club’s expense.
Wilson, who had previously spoken of his desire to reach next spring’s showpiece at Wembley, harboured ambitions of edging a step closer to the capital when David McAllister’s late goal took the tie into a shootout.
United, however, boast a miserable record of failure in such situations and promptly crashed out of the tournament when only Joe Ironside proved capable of finding the back of the net to leave Wilson shaking his head in frustration.
Both managers had described last night’s fixture as a big and important game.
Unfortunately for those hardy souls who made their way to the Midlands, the contest itself did not live up to the hype until the closing stages.
Indeed it was fitting that an own goal - scored by United’s Maguire - was responsible for breaking the deadlock.
The centre-half, usually so assured at the heart of the visitors’ back four, misjudged his angles following an otherwise uneventful shift and sliced Steven Jennings’ cross into his own net to gift City a lead they held until 11 minutes before the final whistle.
Richard Cresswell, Callum McFadzean and Matt Hill all went close to clawing Wilson’s men level but, from a South Yorkshire perspective at least, the emergence of Diego De Girolamo was arguably the most memorable moment of an otherwise forgettable evening until McAllister restored parity.
De Girolamo, the latest graduate of United’s prestigious finishing school at Shirecliffe, enjoyed relatively little action after entering the fray.
But, making his debut only a matter of weeks after being handed a professional contract, he appears certain to grace much bigger stages than this.
Much has changed since United’s previous outing at the Ricoh Arena.
Andy Thorn, the manager whose City side had held United to a hard-fought draw four months earlier, departed after directors concluded that, despite their perilous finances, successor Mark Robins was better equipped to ensure their points tally remained comfortably in the black.
New heroes, meanwhile, have also emerged in South Yorkshire where Shaun Miller, a peripheral figure at the start of the campaign, is now among the first names on the visitors’ teamsheet.
The former Crewe Alexandra, who has scored five times in only four games, was excused from duty against opponents who recalled the equally prolific David McGoldrick.
However, John Cofie was handed a rare chance to further his claims for a prominent role at Carlisle this weekend.
The on-loan youngster, who Wilson earlier this week once again denied is set to be recalled by Manchester United, showed brief glimpses of the technique which captured the imagination of Sir Alex Ferguson and his staff.
A delightful cameo - which showcased Cofie’s touch and turn of pace - came close to prising apart the City rearguard while the teenager combined effectively with Matt Hill soon after.
However, it was McAllister who brought United back on level terms when Joe Murphy spilled Michael Doyle’s 78th minute attempt.
Robins, previously of Rotherham and Barnsley, might not have been the most glamorous name linked with the City hot-seat when beleaguered owners Sisu Capital decided to dispense with Thorn’s services.
Nevertheless, the 42-year-old has proven a sound enough choice, with United’s League One rivals entering this match now 15th in the table ahead of the crucial festive period.
Wilson’s charges, who are fourth, harbour more lofty aspirations than simply avoiding the drop and, with progress rather than promotion on the agenda, initially set about their task with relish.
However City, naming a near full-strength squad, predictably made the smoother start.
Cresswell, partnering Cofie in an experimental United attack, scooped an early range finder over the crossbar before Cyrus Christie and Carl Baker, the City captain, fluffed their lines in front of George Long.
Baker continued to pose a threat throughout the early skirmishes and, but for Hill’s timely intervention, would have headed his team into a 15th minute lead after meeting Gary McSheffrey’s cross.
Murphy had been a relative bystander at the other end of the pitch until Ryan Flynn’s 26th-minute set-piece evaded Cresswell but threatened to sneak inside the far post.
He was called into action again moments later when Doyle, returning to his former club, unleashed a looping 25-yard volley which warmed the City keeper’s gloves.
Darryl Westlake and Baker exchanged shots as an otherwise dour first half threatened to spark into life.
But McSheffrey’s woeful effort, which sailed wide following an intricate City move, perfectly summed up the opening 45 minutes of action.
Hill, robbing Christie of possession deep inside his own half, was inches away from converting Cofie’s cross after exchanging passes with the centre-forward just before the hour.
Maguire’s 58th-minute faux pas breathed fresh impetus into City, though, with Franck Moussa testing Long’s reactions while Cofie went close with a 30-yard strike.
Flynn’s low centre flew agonisingly beyond Cresswell and McFadzean but McAllister made no mistake when Doyle, after De Girolamo’s free-kick had been cleared in unconvincing fashion, proved too hot for Murphy to handle.
COVENTRY: Murphy 6, Baker 7, McSheffrey 6, Jennings 6, Christie 6, Wood 6, Edjenguele 6, McGoldrick 6, Moussa 6 (Fleck 76), Bailey 6, Adams 6. Not used: Dunn, Clarke, Barton, O’Donovan.
UNITED: Long 6, Westlake 6, Maguire 6, Hill 6, Flynn 6, Doyle 7, McAllister 6, Cresswell 6 (Ironside 71), Cofie 6 (De Girolamo 71), McFadzean 6 (Chapell 66), Williams 6. Not used: Coyne, Philliskirk.
Referee: M Brown (East Yorkshire) 7.
Shootout: McSheffrey (scored), Ironside (scored), McGoldrick (scored), Maguire (saved), Baker (scored), Flynn (missed), Fleck (scored.)