MALKY Mackay, the Watford manager, issued his players with some simple instructions moments before October’s battle at Bramall Lane.
“Don’t be afraid,” he told a hushed dressing room. “This isn’t the Sheffield United of old. There is no need to be nervous.”
Marvin Sordell appeared to reinforce the Scot’s message when he scored the only goal of the game after a quarter of-an hour.
Four traumatic months later, United travel to Hertfordshire intent on returning the favour and reminding those already penning their Championship obituary that they could be making a presumptuous mistake.
The sight of Nick Montgomery defying medical advice by captaining Micky Adams’ side to victory over Nottingham Forest on Tuesday evening proved that, while results might be in short supply, United still possess huge reserves of character.
“If you had 11 Mont’s in your team then you’d be fine, wouldn’t you,” Alan Cork, United’s assistant manager, said yesterday. “He works his socks off.
“He shouldn’t have been out there because of his (knee) injury but he wanted to take part because he cares passionately about this place.
“You can’t put a price on that, you really can’t.
“You know with Monty that, come what may, he’s always going to give you absolutely everything. He never, ever leaves anything out.”
Having fallen behind to Dele Adebola’s fortuitous strike, United scored goals through Sam Vokes and Matthew Lowton to deliver their first maximum points haul of the Adams era and ensure they head to Hertfordshire within six of safety.
Nevertheless, the fact that this was only their fifth taste of success since last locking horns with Mackay’s side demonstrates why Cork, deputising at the pre-match press conference, is loathe to pronounce their survival campaign as being completely back on track.
“If the lads continue to play like they have been then they’ll give themselves a real chance,” he said. “There’s every chance they can go on a run of three or four more.
“In the second half (against Forest) the crowd was magnificent for us. It was like the old days again and it sent a real tingle down your spine.
“That was the first time we’ve had a little bit of luck too. Hopefully that has changed because you do need it.
“We had a few words during the interval,” Cork, who made over 50 league appearances for United as a player, added. “Sometimes you’ve got to tear into them and other times you’ve got to pat people on the back.
“I lost it not so long ago against Derby because I couldn’t understand why their small goalie was never getting challenged for any high balls.”
Adams and Mackay are cut from the same coarse cloth, having both started their careers in the lower leagues before forcing themselves up the footballing ladder.
But while Adams looks to stamp his own combative persona on a squad which Watford’s coaching staff believe has lost some of its brutal edge, Mackay is likely to adopt a markedly different approach at Vicarage Road tomorrow.
As one newspaper article profiling the former Queens Park and Celtic defender’s efforts there put it: “He came up the hard way but preaches the beautiful game.”
Cork said: “They tend to play 4-3-3 away from home and 4-4-2 at their place so it will be interesting to see if they approach this one any differently. They’ve got a young side with a few old heads and a decent goalscorer up front in (Danny) Graham so it should be a good game.”
United, who are 23rd in the table, head south looking to record back-to-back wins for the first time since November when Millwall and Crystal Palace were put to the sword.
“We were a little naive at times against Forest but that’s football,” said Cork. “It’s never, as much as you might try, going to be perfect, but the boys got what they deserved.
“In fairness to them, that’s not always been the case since we came here (in December). One thing that has never been in question is their character.”