IT says much about Sheffield United’s achievements this season that even the response to a result which strengthened their grip on an automatic promotion spot was tinged with disappointment.
With United second in the table and now two points ahead of their nearest rivals with only 10 games left to play, Bramall Lane should be bristling with anticipation.
But after Tuesday’s drawn match at Colchester - a game even the undemonstrative Danny Wilson had described as “significant” - many supporters still smarting from last season’s relegation are preparing to watch tomorrow’s visit of Tranmere Rovers with a nagging sense of dread.
Wilson, the United manager, expressed his surprise at such sentiment when he assessed United’s situation following their midweek stalemate at the Weston Homes Community Stadium.
“If you’d have offered us this position at the start of the season we’d have snapped your hand off. There’s much work to do but we’re the ones still in the box seat.”
Nevertheless, the fact that he even felt compelled to comment speaks volumes.
Wilson has suggested that Kevin McDonald (hamstring) and Neill Collins (personal matters) could return to action against Ronnie Moore’s side after missing United last six and four outings respectively.
Collins, a towering centre-half and veteran of Leeds’ charge into the Championship two years ago, will restore some stability to a defence which, having conceded an average of 0.96 goals per game in its first 32 matches of the campaign, has now been breached seven times in its last four.
Statistically speaking, McDonald’s influence is nebulous.
Despite being regarded as the man who makes United’s midfield tick, his five assists leave him trailing Stephen Quinn (13), Richard Cresswell (10), Ched Evans (nine) and even Harry Maguire (six) in the race to become Bramall Lane’s most creative player.
But, in actual terms, McDonald makes a tangible difference to the way Wilson’s side go about their business.
Collins’ Scottish compatriot brings a fluency to United’s play and enables them to combine silk with steel; a potent mix given the fine margins which exist in League One competition.
“Neill and Kevin could come back into contention,” Wilson said. “We’ll take a good look at them in training and, if they come through okay, then that’s the plan anyway.”
Wilson’s assertion that opponents raise their game against his men – invest much both mentally and physically - is borne out by the evidence.
Indeed, 64 per cent of the first 14 teams to take points off United this season have then failed to win their next match.
According to their manager Ronnie Moore, “anything” 16th placed Rovers earn tomorrow, “will be a bonus”.
But neither, he told The Star yesterday, are they preparing to simply “sit back and invite pressure”.
“We are seen as a scalp and that’s something we’ve got to contend with,” Wilson admitted recently. “But it’s not something we should be fearful of because, in a way, it’s a compliment.
“What is does mean is that we’ve got to try and work even harder than anyone else.”
Although United failed to do the ‘double’ over Colchester, they remain on course to finish ahead of Sheffield Wednesday (third), Huddersfield Town (fourth) and MK Dons (fifth).
With a 1.92 points per game average since August, they will inevitably be fast-tracked into the Championship if similar levels are maintained at Hillsborough (1.86), the Galpharm Stadium (1.82) and stadium: mk (1.77).
But, as McDonald demonstrates, football is played on grass not paper.
“This could go right down to the wire,” warned Wilson earlier this week. “And we’ve got to be prepared if that is the case.
“It’s not going to decide anything but you would like to think that the experience we have here will count for something.
“That and knowing we’ve got important names hopefully coming back.”
Sheffield United are unbeaten in their last five games against Tranmere Rovers at Bramall Lane. But the visitors did hold Danny Wilson’s side to a draw at Prenton Park earlier this term. Nick Montgomery opened the scoring for United before substitute Joss Labadie pounced during the closing stages.