Sheffield United 3 Plymouth Argyle 0 match verdict: Two for Jose Baxter in FA Cup as Florent Cuvelier makes long-awaited return

Marc McNulty scores the third goal
Marc McNulty scores the third goal

It wasn’t exactly fashionable or, until Jose Baxter scored the first of two second-half penalities, fluent either.

But after a Bramall Lane barren spell, this FA Cup victory could prove a significant moment in the evolution of Nigel Clough’s Sheffield United side.

Reaching the semi-finals last term galvanised the former England international and his players to such an extent that, having started their march on Wembley perilously close to the bottom of the table, they finished the campaign within touching distance of the League One play-offs instead.

So little wonder that, having entered Saturday’s contest against Plymouth Argyle ranked fifth despite being without a win in three at home, Baxter is targeting another historic run.

“We know anything is possible because we’ve proved it before,” he said. “Everyone was reminding themselves in the dressing room about what happened back then.

“That, if you don’t win matches like these, you don’t get the really big games.

“We’ve had a few draws at our place recently and so it was nice to go out there and achieve a good result, a result which, I don’t think anyone can doubt, we thoroughly deserved.

“To net a good amount and keep a clean sheet can only give us confidence going forward. We’ve found out a lot about ourselves as a group lately and it’s brought us even closer together which, in my mind, can only have a positive effect.”

Three goals, a place in the third-round draw and the return of a talented player from serious injury ensured a week which has seen United come under intense scrutiny ended on a positive note. But, as Clough acknowledged afterwards, their progress was not as serene as the scoreline might suggest.

Argyle travelled north 25 steps below United on the footballing pyramid but, equipped with League Two’s best defence both at home and away since August, narrowed that gap to good effect during the opening exchanges before their hosts’ technical superiority told.

Clough, who watched Florent Cuvelier mark his long-awaited comeback by creating Marc McNulty’s seventh goal of the season, cited Reuben Reid’s miss from the spot as the turning point of a fixture which, following a fractious start, swung decisively in his team’s favour after the break.

John Sheridan, the Argyle manager, delivered a similar verdict but claimed the visitors’ “carelessness” in possession meant they were unable to test the confidence of opponents beaten by MK Dons four days earlier.

“We showed a lot of character out there,” Baxter said. “And a lot of desire to come through.

“In fairness, I don’t think anyone can ever question that about our group because, no matter what else happens, we always give everything we’ve got.

“The gaffer has been reminding us that, even though we’ve had a few disappointments of late, we’ve not been performing badly at all and that we haven’t always got what we deserved. I think he’s right because, despite experiencing some frustrations, we don’t lose many and even when things aren’t going our way we’re able to grind something out.”

“That’s not a knack we’ve always had but it shows we’re growing and coming together as a unit,” Baxter added. “We’re in a much stronger position (in the league) now without truly realising our potential so, as far as I’m con

cerned, that’s a good thing because it shows what we’re capable of and what we can go on to achieve.”

Nevertheless, when Chris Basham was punished for a trip on Lewis Alessandra moments after the interval, it seemed as if United’s habit of snatching a draw or defeat from the jaws of victory was about to cost them dear once again.

Reid, though, ballooned his spot-kick over Mark Howard’s crossbar and United, invigorated by McNulty’s introduction as a substitute, duly seized control with Baxter twice converting from 12 yards and the Scot profiting from Cuvelier’s invention at the death.

United had taken only a point from their last two home fixtures, so the morale boost they will receive is likely to be worth even more than the £27,000 winners cheque.

Psychology also played a part in Baxter’s battle of wits with Argyle goalkeeper Luke McCormick.

“I put the two penalties different ways,” the United midfielder explained. “Luke was trying to get inside my head when I took the second one because he was gesturing to the other side of the net.

“So I said to him ‘If you want me to go that way I will. I’ll put it exactly where you want me too and I’ll still score.’

“That’s what happened and fortunately I did. Goalies always try and put you off in situations like that but you’ve just got to stay calm and back yourself.”

United and Argyle exchanged chances during the early skirmishes with Ryan Flynn, again excelling as an auxiliary full-back, testing McCormick’s handling before Baxter followed suit after a deft turn. Michael Higdon’s neat touch released the former Everton protégé soon after but Jason Banton blocked his shot before Dominic Blizzard went close and Alessandra fired a set-piece inches over.

Reid handed United a repreive after Basham’s mistimed challenge - “The referee got all three decisions correct,” Clough said - but Argyle, who had seen Flynn go close with an angled drive, enjoyed no such luck when Peter Hartley’s error set in motion the chain of events which ended with Ben Purrington upending McNulty.

Having converted once, Baxter repeated the feat when Argyle captain Curtis Nelson was punished for impeding Jamie Murphy before the Scot’s exchange with Cuvelier, making his first appearance since rupturing ligaments in a knee 11 months ago, allowed McNulty to pounce.

“Seeing Flo back out there capped everything else off,” Baxter said. “All of the lads gave him a round of applause when he came back into the dressing room because we know how hard it’s been for him lately.

“Flo deserved that and we wanted to show him that we appreciate what he’s done and the work he’s put in to come back, that, even when you’re not involved on a daily basis, you are still part of the group.”

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 6, Basham 7, Flynn 8, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Baxter 7***, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 6*, Scougall 7** Higdon 6. Substitutes: McNulty*(46) 7, McGahey, Reed**(76), Turner, Kennedy, Khan, Cuvelier***(85).

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE: McCormick 6, Mellor 6, Purrington 6*, Nelson 6, Alessandra 7, Banton 6**, Reid 6, Blizzard 7***, Kellett 7, O’Connor 6, Hartley 6. Substitutes: Bittner, Cox*(71), Norburn**(71), Harvey***(81), Allen Bentley.