Well, here we are. Two teams in magnificent form, looking to achieve something outstanding by the end of the season, clashing for a place in the last 16 of the FA Cup.
Wrexham's form ought to need no introduction. Achieving the longest unbeaten run in any club's history is a remarkable feat: when that club is 159 years old, it's jaw-dropping. Phil Parkinson's side haven't lost in 22 games, and have won every single home game this season. That's 16 games of terrific entertainment served up for a fanbase which finds itself in the unique position of scrambling for tickets every fortnight to see a side averaging over 3.5 goals per game at The Racecourse, while conceding fewer than a goal a game.
They haven't seen their side face opposition like Sheffield United yet though. A startling 13 points clear of third-placed Watford, The Blades are blazing a trail back up to the Premier League. Their defence is the best in the Championship, and they're unbeaten in 9 matches themselves. No team in the top 4 divisions has won more away games, or earned more away points. Only 2 teams in the top 5 tiers have bettered those figures: that'd be Notts County and us. This could be interesting.
The Red Dragons went top of the table on Tuesday, courtesy of an impressive 3-0 win at Gateshead. Strike partnership Paul Mullin and Ollie Palmer both struck again: that's the 17th time in 48 games starting together that both of them have hit the net, and they've accumulated 41 goals this season between them. Yet there's no guarantee they'll even start this match together: Palmer's been playing through the pain of an injury lately, and Sam Dalby has stepped in admirably. Parkinson trusted him in the third round at Gateshead, and was rewarded with a goal and an assist.
Elsewhere, injury problems are beginning to ease, although Jordan Davies, Jacob Mendy and Bryce Hosannah are still short of a return to the first team fray.
While Parkinson has two decades of managerial experience under his belt and a reputation for cup exploits, United's Paul Heckingbottom is a comparative neophyte. However, he has already developed an impressive reputation within the game since taking the plunge into management in February 2016. At his first club, Barnsley, he won the Football League Trophy and was recognised as a forward-thinking modern coach. That lead to him looking to turn around the careering oil tanker that was pre-Bielsa Leeds United, then heading north to Hibernian before arriving at Bramhall Lane. He has enjoyed a superb season, despite difficult circumstances which might influence his team selection for this match.
Heckingbottom is currently operating under a transfer embargo, and also has a few first team players out through injury. That led the Sheffield Star to speculate that he'd be forced into a dramatic level of squad rotation to avoid picking up injuries with a place in the Premier League the obvious priority. That seems a little fanciful though. Heckingbottom has suggested there'll be minimal changes for this match, and he certainly selected a strong eleven in the last round, as Millwall were beaten at The Den.
He's eager to reinforce his squad for the run-in, though, but acknowledges that tha ability to do so doesn't lie in his hands. Heckingbottom told the Sheffield Star,
When the bill gets paid we can come out. Until then we won't be doing anything. We're looking at possible players and what we want to do and we will find out what that looks like as we get closer to the deadline. What’s happened can’t become a distraction. Nothing can distract us. I’ve told the lads that.
Heckingbottom has done a remarkable job considering the huge bite injuries have taken out of his squad. John Fleck broke his leg last August, and although the Scotland international returned in October, he was injured again and hasn’t been able to return to the first team. Meanwhile, Jack O’Connell hasn’t played for two years since he showed his quality in the Premier League, but Heckingbottom has publicly supported him through his rehabilitation.
Rhian Brewster and Welsh international Rhys Norrington-Davies are both expected to be out until March with hamstring problems, while Enda Stevens and George Baldock might not be risked. Centre backs Ciaran Clark and Chris Basham are both on their way back after knocks, and the benefits of getting pitch time will have to assessed alongside the risk of aggravating their injuries.
The participation of striker Oli McBurnie is also up in the air. McBurnie, who enjoyed a successful loan spell at Chester in the 2014-15 season and experienced the cross-border derby when Kieran Morris' goal earned us a 1-0 win in March 2015, is carrying an ankle injury and as his replacement, promising forward Dan Jebbison, scored the winning goal last weekend against Hull, Heckingbottom might choose to extend his recovery period.
McBurnie has 9 goals this season, a total bettered only by Iliman Ndiaye, who starred for Senegal in the World Cup and has racked up 10 goals alongside a Championship-leading 7 assists. Ndiaye, midfield lynchpin Ollie Norwood, Sander Berge, centre back John Egan and McBurnie have all attracted interest from Premier League clubs during the transfer window, but Heckingbottom is adamant that, with the transfer embargo limiting his options, his players aren’t for sale.
There are a couple of interesting stories connecting United players to The Racecourse. The talented John McAtee, who has made 2 Premier League appearances for his parent club, Manchester City, is returning to the scene of his elder brother's greatest triumph: James was outstanding for Grimsby Town in their 5-4 play-off victory last season. Also, Adam Davies is expected to line up in goal for The Blades, revisiting the venue where he made his international debut against Trinidad and Tobago. Davies told the Sheffield Star,
“The Racecourse is obviously a special place for me. That was what I thought of when the draw came out, because it’s where I made my debut for Wales. It’s afterwards it sinks in, when you see all your family there and they are as proud as punch. That’s when you realise.
HEAD TO HEAD
Wrexham have faced The Blades 10 times, and the record is pretty even. Our most recent clashes came in the League Cup, as United eliminated us from the competition twice.
In 2004 we clashed in the second round, and took a 6th minute lead through Craig Morgan. Andy Gray equalised with a deflected strike, but Chris Llewelyn put Wrexham back in front as the first half came to an end, rounding off a thrilling break away goal.
Phil Jagielka got The Blades back to parity with a spectacular header which jammed into the stanchion of the net, and Gray struck again to end any hopes of an upset.
Seven years earlier we met in a two-legged first round tie. Karl Connolly's penalty earned Wrexham a 1-1 draw at The Racecourse after Vasilios Borbokis has given United the lead.
Dean Spink's early goal at Bramhall Lane gave Wrexham hope, but Brian Deane equalised swiftly. Wrexham resisted until the last quarter of an hur, when Dane WHitehouse put The Blades ahead, and Jan-Aage Fjortoft rounded off the scoring with a superb long range chip.
We also faced United twice at The Racecourse in cup ties in the 1988-9 season, and the clashes ended memorably for Dixie McNeil's side. Dave Bassett's United were running away with the Third Division, and would follow up promotion at the end of the season by repeating the feat to cataplut themselves into the top tier. Meanwhile Wrexham were hoping to nudge into the play-offs, riding the wave of Kevin Russell's terrific finishing.
We met in the group stage of the Associate Members Cup. and Ollie Kearns' header from Russell's corner (below) equalised after Tony Agana''s breakaway opener. United had key players missing, and were criticised for their long ball approach by the Wrexham programme, which suggested the following weekend that their style of play might explain why only 50 fans traveller from Yorkshire for the game!
Wrexham needed a positive result at Chester to qualify for the next round alongside United, and achieved their goal with a 2-1 win, only to be drawn at home to The Blades again!
Wrexham put in a supreme effort against a full strength United side, with Joey Jones heroic in his duel withAgana. We deservedly took the lead through Jon Bowden midway through the second half as he spectacularly slammed a Graham Cooper cross home off the bar, but United responded decisively. Within a minute Jones had to clear off the line, and a further minute later he scored an own goal.
Soon afterwards, both sides were down to ten men. Geoff Hunter and Bob Booker had been tussling throughout the match, and their final encounter saw Hunter plant a perfet right hook onto Booker's chin! The United man didn't make much of a reaction, and it appeared that referee Joe Worrell was going to let them both off, but when Booker suddenly lost his temper as the ref lectured both players, Worrell decided to dismiss them both!
That wasn't the of his disciplinary action either! In the last minute Cooper burst forward and fed Russell, who slotted home the winner (below), and the beaten keeper, Graham Benstead, was so incensed at the referee that he earned a post-match red for dissent!
An FA Cup tie at The Racecourse in 1983 went rather less well for us. Keith Edwards scored an early opener, and although on-loan centre back Phil Coleman equalised, Edwards went on to score three more and Kevin Arnott hit a beauty as the Blades ran out 5-1 winners.
We have enjoyed heavy home wins over United though. In the first meeting of these teams, Bobby Shinton struck twoce, and further goals by Steve Fox and Graham Whittle earned a 4-0 win in the old Second Division. Four seasons later we met a division lower, and although Mike Trusson put the Yorkshire side ahead in the opening minute, Jim Steel struck two with Simon Hunt (above) and Steve Dowman also contributing to a 4-1 win.
Ben Tozer's 550th career appearance.
Max Cleworth's 75th career match.