United's FA Cup adventure came to an end on Sunday afternoon but bowed out with a lot of pride after a tremendous game that saw United twice take the lead against a team two league higher and nearly caused the shock of the round.
As the lowest ranked team left in this season's WFA Cup, United, after beating Bradford PA, Chester-le-street, Bootle and Leicester City Development to reach the second round proper for the first time in their history, visited Derby County, who currently lie seventh in the Women's Premier League Northern.
This was a tough first game back for United after the Christmas break but were boosted the recovery from injury to Kim Brown and in the squad of 16 was new signing Holly Fowler.
A very decent crowd of 240 had got behind the home team at kick off but few expected what happened next. With just three minutes played Jen Pearson sent centre forward Tania Marsden down the right flank and with little else on shot from an acute angle. The ball sailed over the Derby 'keeper and landed into the far side of the net. It was so unexpected that it took a moment for everyone to realise the ball had gone in before joyful United celebrations and stunned silence in the stand.
With Derby yet to get into their groove United nearly went two ahead shortly afterwards when Marsden was free to poke a shot agonisingly just passed a post. As the game settled down it was Derby who began to dominate possession. It soon became clear Derby had some very gifted players on the ball but United stayed disciplined and kept their shape.
United 'keeper Kirsty Johnson had to make a vital close range save with her legs but otherwise Derby were reduced to a few long range shots. United had one further chance in the half to extend their lead when a high ball wasn't dealt with and Rachel Ruddach put her shot just wide.
Derby came out for the second half even more determined to find an equaliser. United gave away a rare free kick having defended with such discipline otherwise but Johnson made a top drawer low save to keep the lead intact. However, eight minutes into the half the Derby pressure finally found a way through. Molly Johnson cut in from the left and hit a superb shot that left the Blades goalkeeper with no chance.
United didn't drop their work rate and created a goal out of nothing six minutes later when first Marsden charged down a first defensive clearance and then Sophie Bell charged down the resulting second one to send the ball looping into the Derby net to put the visitors back ahead.
The lead lasted four minutes as mounting Derby pressure from corners resulted in a second equaliser when a corner kick was hooked into the United net by Ellie May.
With 27 minutes of normal time to play the game could have gone either way though Derby were still on top possession wise. The home side did have a few good chances to win the game and United were working extremely hard as a team to bridge to two league gap between the teams as the clock ticked down to the 90 minute mark.
Unlike the men's FA cup the women's competition has to be settled on the day so half an hour's extra time was to be played as both teams regrouped for instructions and to rest aching muscles.
Extra time continued in the same vein with Derby mostly in possession and United looking to break away up field. Nine minutes played and the goal that proved to be the winner was found by Derby. In a scramble Camila Newton rounded Johnson in United's goal to shoot into the net. Another Derby forward nearly touched the ball on its way in and this caused the referee and his assistant to consult about any possible offside interference before awarding the goal.
With three substitutes deployed now for the final tiring 15 minutes United threw everything they had to find an equaliser to take the tie to penalties. All three recognised strikers were now on Marsden, Melissa Celi and Annalise Carroll for the first time this season. Despite late pressure Derby held out to the final whistle.
Initial disappointment in defeat was soon replaced by a feeling of pride through the whole squad. Veteran Rachel Ruddach summed up what most felt: "I'm really disappointed to go out of the FA Cup but I am immensely proud of the team and the way we fought until the end." And manager Dan O'Hearne addressed his players afterwards with: "I've worked with men and womens teams but that was the hardest any team has worked, absolutely immense work rate and the shape was brilliant," adding the performance had set a benchmark ahead of United`s challenge for the three remaining trophies this season.
Blades: Johnson, Hartley, Cawthorn, Hopkinson, Brown (Carroll), Smith (Celi), Pearson, Ruddach (Fowler), Darbyshire, Marsden, Bell.