Derby County bowed out of the Carabao Cup with their heads held high following a 2-1 defeat against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
A youthful Rams’ side took the game to their hosts and were arguably the better of the two sides for large parts of the game.
After creating a host of chances in the first half, the Rams were rewarded for their patience as Louie Sibley scored his first goal of the season to give Derby a deserved half time lead.
Sheffield United, against the run of play, did manage to find an equaliser early in the second half as Luke Freeman headed home a cross, and a lapse in concentration cost Derby the tie as a short back pass was capitalised on by the experienced Billy Sharp who rolled into an empty goal as the Blades advanced to the Third Round of the competition.
However, it was a proud night for Derby’s youngsters who will benefit from their experience at Bramall Lane.
Like the First Round of the competition, manager Wayne Rooney shuffled his pack and elected to choose a youthful-looking Rams’ side with eight players aged 23 or under.
And the youngsters really took the game to their hosts in the first half, creating a number of chances throughout the opening 45 minutes.
Isaac Hutchinson was the first to test the goalkeeper on nine minutes as drove at the defence but his tame effort was saved by Sheffield Unite goalkeeper Michael Verrips.
Sheffield United broke from that attack and a long ball forward saw Rams’ goalkeeper Ryan Allsop race out to the feet of Oli Burke and clear up field towards Kamil Jozwiak. The Polish international took a touch and found Sibley 20 yards from goal but he fired inches wide of the post.
The Rams were passing the ball around nicely, and with confidence, too. They threatened during each attack but the final ball was just lacking.
However, Rooney’s side were picking up good areas on the pitch and creating issues for the hosts.
Stretton was the next to test the goalkeeper midway through the first half as he toe-poked on target but Verrips made a save.
At the other end, the Rams had to be slightly wary of the counter attack as Sheffield United went close to opening the scoring on half an hour. David McGoldrick received the ball out wide and crossed but Daniel Jebbison got his effort wrong and sliced off target.
Derby again strode forward on the counter attack as Sibley and Stretton combined but the latter saw his backheel cleared away in front of goal.
After McGoldrick headed wide from six yards with 10 minutes of the half remaining, Derby raced up the other end and almost took a deserved lead.
And it all started from goalkeeper Allsop. He found Hutchinson in the middle of the park and the midfielder raced forward into the wide-open space.
Hutchinson found Kornell McDonald, who was making his first appearance of the campaign, who found Jozwiak on the right-hand side. The winger crossed into the centre but Stretton’s shot from close range was blocked on the line by former Rams’ defender Jayden Bogle.
With half time approaching, and Derby still in the ascendancy, they were finally rewarded for their hard work throughout the first half as they took a deserved lead.
McDonald played a low cross into the centre which wasn’t dealt with by a Sheffield United defender and Sibley capitalised on the loose ball to give the Rams the half time advantage.
However, that lead would only last eight minutes into the second half as Sheffield United managed to find the equaliser. A cross from Blades youngster Kyron Gordon found the head of Freeman who scored from six-yards to draw the scores level.
Despite conceding, Derby reacted well and were almost back ahead immediately. A through ball found the onrushing Stretton who only had the goalkeeper to beat, but Verrips made a good low stop to deny the goalkeeper.
Soon after, the ball bounced nicely for Jozwiak in the box but his volley was blocked just in front of goal.
Rooney made changes to his side, maybe with one eye on the weekend’s East Midlands Derby fixture against Nottingham Forest and brought on Lee Buchanan in place of Kamil Jozwiak, whilst second year scholar Marko Borkovic made his professional debut, replacing Stretton.
Buchanan was straight into the action, racing forward on the left-hand side before providing a low cross which was deflected against the post.
However, for all of Derby’s dominance, they would fall behind with less than 15 minutes of the game remaining. A poor backpass from McDonald was capitalised on by substitute Sharp and he rounded Allsop to put the Blades ahead.
Derby did not go down with a whimper as Sibley, with 10 minutes of the game remaining, found space on the edge of the box but curled inches over the crossbar.
The Rams continued until the last whistle as they continued to put pressure on their hosts, however, they couldn’t find the breakthrough and bowed out of the competition at the Second Round stage.
Sheffield United: Verrips, Burke (Sharp 69’), Freeman, McGoldrick (Ndiaye 62’), Robinson, Bogle, Osborn, Brunt, Gordon, Lopata, Jebbison (Fleck 46’).
Substitutes: Foderingham, Basham, Brewster, Norrington-Davies.
Derby County: Allsop, McDonald, Stearman, Forsyth (C), Williams, Watson, Brown, Sibley, Hutchinson, Jozwiak (Buchanan 63’), Stretton (Borkovic 67’).
Substitutes: Roos, Byrne, Shinnie, Bird, Morrison.