Paul Gallagher’s stunning set-piece was cancelled out by Diego De Girolamo’s second-half tap-in as the two sides were made to settle for a replay.
A far cry from the David v Goliath ties that this competition has become so renowned for, just three places separate these two in the football pyramid, their most recent meeting coming only a fortnight ago - the Blades running out 2-1 victors in League One on that occasion.
Preston North End 1-1 Sheffield United
The FA Cup
Fourth Round Proper
3pm, Saturday 24 January 2015
Deepdale, Preston NE
Winners receive £90,000 from prize fund
But Nigel Clough’s outfit have become knock-out competition specialists of late, competing in the Semi-Finals of last year’s FA Cup and reaching the final four of this season’s League Cup.
In fact today’s visitors were in Cup action as recently as Wednesday, running Tottenham Hotspur close before slipping to a narrow 1-0 defeat in a crucial first leg.
Yet despite their opponent’s impressive cup pedigree, it was the hosts who dominated the first half. Gallagher saw a slotted effort blocked by Chris Basham with just minutes on the clock and the tricky Chris Humphreys fast proved a thorn in the United defence.
Humphreys looked likely to break the deadlock himself when Gallagher’s through-ball cut through the Blades’ back-line to send him one-on-one with Mark Howard, only for the flag to be raised before the 27-year-old could finish the move.
Yet for all of Humphrey’s pace and direct play, it was a set-piece that unlocked the visiting defence. Basham felled his opponent from all of 35-yards out, but that didn’t faze Gallagher whose low, driven free-kick nestled into the bottom corner.
It was a strike that knocked the wind out of the Blades’ vocal support and their side never looked likely to replicate the outstanding performance that had seen them put three past QPR in the previous round.
The second half didn’t begin much brighter either, as sloppy defending could have seen the Lilywhites double their lead but Howard was equal to Reid's strike.
John Welsh linked up superbly with Calum Wood moments later, only for the effort to come to nothing, before Woods then had to act as Preston’s saviour at the other end as the game sprang to life.
De Girolamo beat Thorsten Stuckmann with a dinked effort that seemed destined for the goal before Woods ran in to clear the effort away, just inches from the line.
Gallagher should have doubled his tally soon after as the two clubs exchanged blows. His looping shot drifted inches wide of the goal and Reid also saw a chipped effort loft over the bar before De Girolamo finally converted.
Substitute Jamie Murphy beat two men and crossed low from the by-line to leave the Italy U19 international with the easiest of finishes from inside the six-yard box.
Gallagher, De Girolamo and Ebanks-Blake were all denied as the game drew to a close, but there was ultimately nothing to choose between them as the 90 minutes drew to a close.
Preston North End (4-2-3-1): 21 Thorsten Stuckmann; 15 Calum Woods, 5 Tom Clarke (c), 23 Paul Huntington, 16 David Buchanan; 8 Neil Kilkenny 19 John Welsh; 7 Chris Humphrey, 12 Paul Gallagher, 17 Kyel Reid; 40 Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
Substitutes: 22 Jack King for Kilkenny (62), 9 Kevin Davies for Welsh (72), 31 Alan Browne for Reid (84)
Substitutes not used: 35 Matthew Hudson, 3 Scott Laird, 4 Scott Wiseman, 30 Josh Brownhill.
Goal: Gallagher 19
Sheffield United (3-5-2): 1 Mark Howard; 27 Terry Kennedy, 6 Chris Basham, 17 Harrison McGahey; 16 Ben Davies, 22 Louis Reed, 11 Jose Baxter (c), 28 Connor Dimaio, 2 Craig Alcock; 21 Michael Higdon, 23 Diego De Girolamo.
Substitutes: 9 Jamie Murphy for Dimaio (56), 12 Marc McNulty for De Girolamo (78), 3 Bob Harris for Davies (81)
Substitutes not used: 25 George Long, 8 Michael Doyle, 10 Stefan Scougall, 20 Jamal Campbell-Ryce.
Goal: De Girolamo 69
Cautions: Reed, Baxter, Kennedy
Referee: Keith Stroud
Watch the goals from Deepdale with our highlights package