Wembley, Wembley! Irishman Doyle has his sights set on a League Cup final

The Sheffield United midfielder talks to The42 about life in League One and his side’s remarkable cup pedigree.

Doyle celebrates beating Southampton.
Doyle celebrates beating Southampton.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

THE OLD FOOTBALL adage of a ‘cup team’ is one that’s often discounted, but still commonly used.

How can a side perform way above themselves in a cup competition and yet struggle against much lesser opposition in the league?

If there is a team to aptly fit such a description over the last two years it’s Sheffield United. The Blades narrowly lost out to Hull City in last year’s FA Cup semi-final, disposing of Premier League opposition along the way, but finished outside the playoff places in League One.

This season they have knocked out two Premier League teams on a run to the Capital One Cup semi-finals and have Tottenham in their sights this evening. Yet they have only won one of their last eight league games and have dropped out of the playoff places.

Dubliner Michael Doyle has captained United through both cup runs and spoke to about his side’s remarkably contrasting league and cup fortunes.

“Last year we had a really bad start to the season and the FA Cup is what got us going. We beat Aston Villa in the third round playing a 4-4-2 at Villa Park, and we outplayed them. It was only 2-1 in the end but could have been a lot more.

“The Cup kind of began to take over then as we won every round and got closer to Wembley. That gave us a lot of belief and we went from second bottom in the league to seventh. The manager doesn’t fiddle around with teams playing weaker sides or whatever, he wants to win every game. We’re just one of them sides that’s able to get onto a cup run and take scalps.”

Britain Soccer FA Cup There was disappointment for Blades fans at Wembley last year. Source: AP/Press Association Images

‘Just one of those teams’ saw off Southampton in the quarter-finals in what was a tense contest soured somewhat by matters off the pitch.

Disagreements between the United coaching staff and the fourth official led to first-team coach Chris Morgan being sent off, the club being handed a £4,000 fine and Ronald Koeman refusing to shake hands with manager Nigel Clough at full-time.

“It didn’t take a shine off our result but other people will look at stupid little things like that. But it happens every week in football when tensions are high. There were a few things in the game that we felt didn’t go our way and our manager and coaching staff said something to the fourth official. But the pressure in these games is huge, especially with Sky being there.”

Going into the game at Bramall Lane Southampton were hot favourites given their form this season in the Premier League and Doyle admits that they weren’t overly confident they could turn the Saints over.

“We obviously knew they were a really good side and we had great respect for them. I don’t think we really expected to go and win it. It wasn’t that we were being negative or anything but we were just going to give it a shot. I got a feeling for the game early that we were the better side and were dominating.”

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Soccer - Capital One Cup - Quarter Final - Sheffield United v Southampton - Bramall Lane There were some unsavoury scenes in the win over Southampton. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It’s surprising perhaps that Doyle and his team mates weren’t overly confident going into the game, give the results they’ve had against top flight teams.

Indeed Nigel Clough’s side have won all of their last three games against Premier League opposition, including a 3-0 FA Cup win over QPR at Loftus Road earlier this month.

“We’ve been the better side every time we’ve played them [Premier League opposition] as well. Not once when we’ve played a Premier League side in the cups in the last year and a half have we been lucky against them, we’ve always been the better side. On Wednesday we’ll be hoping just to keep the tie alive for when we go back to Bramall Lane in the second leg.”

The busy Christmas period in England brought about yet more discussion on the number of games teams play, with many Premier League managers complaining about a lack of recovery time between matches.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Queens Park Rangers v Manchester United - Loftus Road Louis van Gaal was one of the manager's bemoaning the build-up of fixtures. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Given that top-flight teams play just 38 league games while Football League teams play 46 it must be even more difficult for players of lower division sides, but Doyle thinks that an abundance of games is beneficial to the squad.

“When you play the amount of games as we did last year, we played 60 odd games (Doyle himself played 48), and this year will be roughly the same again, it’s a very positive thing as a team. It means you’re doing something right as the more games you play, the more successful you are with cup competitions and that.”

As a player you can’t play enough games, you just love it. Some months you’re playing eight or nine games, which is a big ask. Sometimes with the Premier League you have to laugh at it a bit because they buy all these players and have massive squads and then they don’t use them. Whereas the likes of ourselves with smaller squads are digging in each week and relying on getting young lads on loan.

At 33 Doyle still has a few years of playing left but he’s also got a close eye on what he will do once his playing days are over. With that in mind he recently returned to Dublin to complete his Uefa ‘B’ Coaching Licence, something he says was a “real eye opener” as to how tough coaching the game is.

Come this evening however his full focus will be on a trip to Wembley and a mouth-watering final against Liverpool or Chelsea.

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