Sheffield United have beaten more League One teams than Premier League sides this season and if that sorry statistic explains why their grip on their top-flight status is increasingly loose at least they have proof they can still see off those from the third-tier.
Without that habit, Chris Wilder would never have gravitated to the elite and, four years on, they retain it. After chalking up 100 points in League One in 2016-17, United have now defeated Bristol Rovers and Plymouth, two current third division sides.
A throwback fixture brought them a sensation they did not experience between July and January: victory. “A feeling we have not had enough of,” said Wilder. “There is no downside to winning games.” Their prize is a fifth-round date against Bristol City.
Perhaps it was fitting that Chris Basham and Billy Sharp, two remnants of Wilder’s League One champions, scored to eliminate Plymouth. The lowly roots of United’s squad made their subsequent rise more remarkable and there was no hint of complacency from players who have plied their trade at less glamorous levels. “Job done,” said Wilder. “Look at their attitude and professionalism.”
He retained his focus, plus his goalkeeper, defence and midfield, swapping only his strikers as he made two changes. He left little to chance and, while initially wasteful, his side took two opportunities as Plymouth joined Manchester United in a select band of visitors to concede twice here this season.
Maybe it was appropriate, too, that the opener was a reminder of their flagship tactic. Wilder reinvented Basham as an overlapping centre-back in League One and the defender advanced so far he was in the six-yard box to head in Sharp’s cross.
Then the captain, whose last season in League One produced 30 goals, showed he remains potent against such sides. Ollie Norwood provided a defence-splitting ball, Sharp darted around goalkeeper Michael Cooper and slotted the ball into the unguarded net. “Great pass, fabulous finish,” said Wilder.
The assist was a reward for Norwood’s incisive passing, apparent as early as the second minute, when he picked out Sharp, who scuffed his shot wide. He was off target, too, with a later effort. The home side had more reason to rue the misses of his strike partner. Rhian Brewster’s struggles are a reason why it ranked as an imperfect day for Wilder. Selecting the club-record signing afforded him a belated chance to open his Blades account. This was not a particularly sweet 16th appearance.
The £23m man had four chances, three in the first 18 minutes. Twice he missed the target, heading Enda Stevens’ cross and stretching to shoot past the post from John Fleck’s low centre. Twice he was denied by Michael Cooper, the Plymouth goalkeeper. “It should have been more comfortable,” Wilder said.
That profligacy threatened to matter when, for reasons best known to them, neither the referee, Lee Mason, nor VAR’s Jarred Gillett deemed it a penalty as Kelland Watts, whose arms were raised above his head, handled Ethan Ampadu’s shot. “Dear me,” said Wilder; it was surprising his verdict was so polite.
However, fortune favoured Sheffield United when Plymouth squandered the first half’s best chance. Luke Jephcott fashioned it, with a low cross; Plymouth may wish their top scorer had been the recipient rather than the supplier, though, when the unmarked Panutche Camara skied his shot.
Argyle were enterprising opponents. Conor Grant and Will Aimson came close with well-struck shots before Camara scored a cathartic goal. Basham was robbed by Byron Moore and the midfielder shot under Aaron Ramsdale, who ought to have done better.
“If there was another five minutes, who knows?” said the Argyle manager, Ryan Lowe. “But we’ve done everyone proud.”