Marc McNulty’s late winner booked Sheffield United’s place in the Second Round of the Capital One Cup, after a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Mansfield Town at Bramall Lane.
The match looked destined for extra-time as Alex Fisher cancelled out Andy Butler’s opener, but McNulty changed things late on with an eight-yard strike that beat Stags ‘keeper Sascha Studer.
It was a bad night for Paul Cox’s team, who lost both forward Liam Hearn and centre-back Martin Riley through injury.
The Stags got proceedings underway on a sunny, albeit cool, evening in South Yorkshire, and were immediately under pressure by their higher-division counterparts.
Less than 30 seconds had elapsed when Mark McNulty found some space inside the Stags’ half and attempted to take the ball goalwards, but just as he was about to unleash a shot, Ryan Tafazolli got across well to make an important block.
Only a minute later, Martin Riley enjoyed a half-chance for Mansfield when his header was comfortably caught by Mark Howard, following a set-piece cross from the right by new full-back Rob Taylor.
The Blades looked the more settled early on, however, and only a parried save by Sascha Studer prevented Jose Baxter’s sweetly-struck shot from the edge of the area creeping into the net.
Ritchie Sutton was forced to clear the subsequent loose ball out of play at the expense of a corner, which Ben Davies long and beyond the back-post meaning that Andy Butler was unable to turn his header goalwards.
United kept their foot on the gas and ex-Notts County winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce caused the visitors a few issues when he found space down the right flank and delivered a teasing low ball towards the near-post, but Studer was alert to smother the danger.
Mansfield then suffered a major set-back on the quarter-hour mark when Liam Hearn went to ground in evident discomfort.
Worryingly the Stags’ forward was unable to continue and he was helped gingerly off the pitch by physio Chris Bowman, with Sam Clucas introduced as his replacement.
The hosts continued to create opportunities and from their next set-piece, Davies’ corner was cleared back to him, and at the second time of asking he delivered a great ball for Butler, who headed over.
At the other, Paul Cox’s team also caused danger with their first corner-kick on 20 minutes.
Taylor curled a free-kick into the corridor of uncertainty and Howard’s fumble saw the ball drop for Ritchie Sutton, who his back-to-goal effort blocked in a crowded six-yard box, before the Blades cleared.
Nigel Clough’s team continued to look dangerous as the minutes ticked by and the lively Campbell-Ryce, in particular, was at the heart of their attacking threat.
When the 31-year-old cut inside from the right-wing, his stinging cross towards the near-post was beaten away by Studer, as the Stags’ backline remained firm.
Campbell-Ryce soon switched out to the left flank and was equally as dangerous – delivering another ball into the area which was flicked on by Michael Doyle, before Studer claimed.
Whilst Nigel Clough’s team looked good going forward, they were always susceptible to being caught on the counter-attack and that’s what almost happened on 34 minutes.
Clucas picked up the ball in the middle and tricked his way past a few markers to advance goalwards, before he eventually fed the ball through to Simon Heslop.
Heslop did well to hold the ball up under pressure and keeping possession inside the area, eventually slipped a pass back to Clucas, whose low effort was parried wide by Howard.
The team from South Yorkshire were next to go close to finding an opener as Davies’ right-footed free-kick from wide out on the left evaded everyone inside a packed six-yard box and bounced narrowly wide of Studer’s left-hand post.
Doyle then drilled an attempt wide from 30 yards, before the lively Davies took responsibility with a centrally-positioned 20-yard free-kick, which he curled over the target.
The last action of the first period came during three minutes of injury-time when Campbell-Ryce got space down the right flank and played a teasing ball across goal, which nobody could connect with.
Mansfield put their opponents under pressure in the early stages of the second half and were very unlucky not to break the deadlock.
Heslop went close to an opener when his low drive ricocheted off a Blades defender and flew narrowly wide of Howard’s left-hand post with the ‘keeper at full-stretch.
From the resulting corner, Taylor whipped a great ball towards the back-post and although Clucas was off balance, he managed to connect and the ball clipped the woodwork on its way over.
On 53 minutes, the Blades went close at the other end as Doyle let fly with a 20-yard strike, which ricocheted off Heslop and went out for a corner.
Davies, as he did all evening, took responsibility with the set-piece and his back-post cross met the head of a diving Baxter, who was foiled by a spectacular diving save from Studer.
Nevertheless, Butler seized upon the rebound and managed to poke it home from near point-blank range to put his team on course for a passage into the Second Round.
The Blades’ lead lasted little more than four minutes though, as the Stags quickly levelled thanks to a goal which owed a lot to a shade of good fortune.
Lee Beevers had a low shot, which took a deflection and fell to Alex Fisher, whose subsequent eight-yard attempt took another deflection and went goalwards beyond a wrong-footed Howard, and into the net.
With proceedings even, United stepped up the pressure as they looked to progress in this competition for just the second time in six seasons.
Davies was instrumental in everything positive about the Blades and his teasing cross into the area from the right-wing just before the hour mark, was headed narrowly over by Butler.
Fisher was off-target on a couple of occasions as the Stags’ attacking threat became more sporadic against an increasing wave of Sheffield United pressure.
Fergus Bell replaced Jamie McGuire in a tactical substitution, before Mansfield were forced to make their third change when Martin Riley went off with a knock and John Dempster came on for him.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, the Blades came within a whisker of making it 2-1.
Campbell-Ryce provided a superb right-wing ball deep towards the back-post and when Beevers opted to chest the ball down, substitute Michael Higdon pounced and flicked the ball over Studer, but over the target.
United continued to pepper crosses into the six-yard box and both Sutton and Beevers made important clearances as the clash looked destined for extra-time.
But with four minutes remaining, the hosts snatched victory.
Higdon and Murphy linked up in the middle, before Marc McNulty took the ball on, rode two challenges, and slipped the ball beyond an advancing Studer from six yards to give the hosts a hard-earned win.
Attendance: 7,929 (1,250 away supporters).