I refuse to keep my reports to only 500 words - especially when a game is as exciting as this one, (three times that length isn't out of the question).
Prior to this season, everyone commented that it would be a rebuilding year. The change of manager to Jon Dahl Tomasson after 5 years of Tony Mowbray meant we should expect to be middle of the pack. However, it's the middle of March, we've consistently been in a playoff position, and were still in the FA Cup as at 12pm on 19/3/23.
Blackburn has defeated Premier League opposition in both the EFL Cup (West Ham) and more recently to reach these Quarter Finals of the FA Cup (Leicester City). It's been 10,081 days since Blackburn were last at Wembley Stadium (We'll take you at your word - Ed) and we've never been to the new version. It's finally in our sights - albeit, no longer in both of the FA Cup and the league playoffs.
While Sheffield United have sat firmly above us in the table all season, we've been on a good run of form in the league. United on the other hand have been dropping points every other match and it's been only two weeks since we defeated them. The first ten minutes seemed to me our tactics were going to be very physical play. In that time, a Rovers defender shouldered a Sheffield player over the end line, and Lewis Travis, Ryan Hedges, and Sam Gallagher were consistently forcing players off the ball.
Aynsley Pears was the hero of the opening few minutes though, as he had two beautiful saves in the first 10 minutes where Sheffield had good chances at a goal. The Blades seemed to have no problem picking out men cutting their way through our defence. Sustained pressure for minutes at a time, with shots on goal and corner kicks, made me wonder how long Rovers could keep up their defence.
We're very much a team that sits back at times and does a great job of defending, but sustained pressure eventually finds weaknesses. However, United was the first to concede a goal, as being the Quarter Finals, we were playing with VAR. A shot by Gallagher was reviewed, awarding Blackburn a penalty. While the penalty shot for handball was the correct decision, it was harsh giving Jack Robinson a yellow card, as it wasn't purposeful, and he tried to move his arm out of the way of Gallagher's shot.
After the review, Ben Brereton-Diaz couldn't put it in untouched, but the fingertips of Sheffield keeper Wes Foderingham weren't enough to prevent Rovers from going up by 1…not for long though.
A corner kick for wasn't cleared, the resulting shot was going wide to the right of the goal. However, whilst trying to block it Gallagher deflected it with his knee into the opposite side of goal. Pears didn't have a chance. Blackburn didn't give up though, as the following few minutes saw a free kick header barely knocked over the bar, and another just over the bar on the resulting corner. Both the home and away support were roaring in the stadium, as the first half was a classic entertaining affair. To quote the commentators “both sides look threatening from set plays”.
While some of the Rovers players were a bit more anonymous in the first half (not sure I even heard Sammie Szmodics' name the entire half), overall our quality of play was high, and it could be anyone's game in the second half. The second half was an end to end affair. It seemed like 3 goals to each team wouldn't be out of the question. Both teams had chances, however everything for either team seemed to fizzle out in the box with one touch too many or a poor pass. But it was an exciting game of football. The best chance for Sheffield to go ahead came when Lewis Travis had a terrible back pass that put Sheffield 1-on-1 with Pears. A brilliant save with his foot kept it level at the hour.
At the other end, the Blades protested for an off-side, but Szmodics had timed his run perfectly to fire Rovers ahead once more on a great steal from Tyler Morton, another player I would have criticised for being unmemorable in the first half. A stunning shot from Ryan Hedges along the grass hit the post and somehow didn't deflect in was where we could have put the game to bed with less than 20 minutes left.
Perhaps the most notable thing about JDT's tenure, in addition to the better form, is that the players seem to be better conditioned. The hustle deep into the game was the same as players showed from the start. Perhaps any substitutions were being saved in the case of extra time, but they weren't needed for exhausted players. Blackburn's tactical change to shore up the defense instantly went wrong. You rarely see substitutions make such an immediate impact, unfortunately our changes were to our detriment.
Even as a Blackburn Rovers fan, the tying goal for Sheffield cannot be denied as a great play. Oli McBurnie made a wonderful turn and carried it around two defenders to put it in from an impossible angle. And that wasn't even Sheffield's best goal. Seconds into stoppage time is one of the goals of the season, as Tommy Doyle put it into the top corner from far outside the box.
As a Blackburn Rovers supporter, you have to celebrate where you can. The money that's in the game nowadays means we won't be winning the Premier League again any time soon. However, beating a higher division team to reach the FA Cup quarter finals must be celebrated as a successful cup run.
While a first visit to the new Wembley was in sight for much of the day, we sadly have to wait a little longer. It was a memorable day of football, and a cracking match at that, but it's too bad the result went against us. Time to focus on the league.