Sheffield knocked out in the bitter cold with bitter result

 

THE English FA Cup fifth round became a pretty exclusive club this weekend, but Aston Villa managed to gain admission yesterday. Whether they deserved to get the keys to the door, however, will be hotly disputed in south Yorkshire.

Like Manchester United, Villa beat First Division opposition to complete a group of two without the words either or attached to their number in last night's draw. But they got there in controversial circumstances.

No one should question Villa's superiority - their tidy approach play and movement passed Sheffield United to distraction; it was their goal that was in doubt. The home team made it obvious they believed that Savo Milosevic had dived for the 63rd minute penalty, and clearly the bulk of the 18,749 crowd, who booed and pelted the Serb with snowballs for the rest of the game, agreed.

To add to United's considerable annoyance, they had a claim for a penalty of their own turned down in the first half when Gary Charles handled a 24th minute cross from Roger Nilsen. Television evidence suggested Mr Wilkie was lenient then, just as he was harsh later.

The incident that left Bramall Lane seething occurred when Tommy Johnson put Milosevic clear of the United back four. The £3.5 million striker was pulled back by Chris Short, a foul that probably should have yielded a spot kick, but the referee waved play on.

Milosevic stumbled, recovered his feet and then pushed the ball to the right of Alan Kelly. That touch was too strong, however, and he fell to the floor. The United goalkeeper, who was booked, immediately signified to the stadium that Milosevic had dived, but the referee pointed to the spot.

There followed scenes of considerable anger that in more violent, less restrained times might have caused a pitch invasion. Instead, a hail of snowballs came from the stand behind the goal, and it must have required considerable effort from Dwight Yorke to retain his concentration. If he was put off, he hid it wonderfully, however, impudently chipping the penalty past Kelly.

The drifts were nearly a foot deep in some of the pavements around Bramall Lane, which showed the labour required to clear the snow and allow this game to be played. After about 20 minutes there must have been some who wondered whether it was worth the trouble.

The normal script in situations like this is for the Davids to go for the jugular early in the hope that some of the slingshot does not rebound in their faces. But United, who knocked Arsenal out in the previous round, seemed not to have read it, and it was Villa's silky movement that was the dominant theme.

Dominant but not decisive in the first half. So, although they had bags of possession, the Premiership team created half chances rather than the 24 carat variety. The best came in the 29th minute when Andy Townsend threaded an immaculate pass through the core of the United back four. Johnson turned smoothly, evaded a tackle and then thumped the ball from 20 yards, forcing Kelly to dive to his left to save spectacularly.

Villa had obviously heard something that has escaped the First Division, because a string of long shots were aimed at Kelly who dealt with them with some aplomb. Still, his composure would have been shaken if Yorke had launched himself at Milosevic's 33rd minute chip instead of falling rather lamely to his knees.

For all Villa's pressure, it was United who made the best first half opportunity. Don Hutchison headed for the bottom corner after David Tuttle had knocked Nilsen's free kick back across the area after 37 minutes, but although the effort was accurate it was not powerful and Mark Bosnich leapt to stop the ball.

The second half followed a similar vein of Villa supremacy, until the goal, after which the home team poured forward in pursuit of an equaliser. Doug Hodgson had a volley that was narrowly wide and the ball was ricocheting round the visiting area as the match reached its conclusion.