If, as seems increasingly likely, the play-offs represent Sheffield United’s most realistic route into the Championship next term, then the ability to perform under pressure will define their campaign.
So last night, against a Colchester side embroiled in a battle for survival rather than promotion, Nigel Clough’s side passed a potentially significant test of character.
Goals from Jose Baxter (two), Matt Done and Jay McEveley saw United climb to sixth in the table after a fluent and, when required, gutsy display against lowly but spirited opposition.
True, this result will not set pulses racing or send shockwaves rippling through the rest of the division. But, given the circumstances and the manner in which it was achieved, Clough could be forgiven for regarding it as being among the most satisfying of his reign.
Barracked, bruised and lampooned after losing at Gillingham three days earlier, United prepared for the visit of Colchester with their backs pinned firmly to the wall.
The weight of expectation upon their shoulders was a burden at times. But, for the most part, the pre-season title favourites went about their business with a verve and freedom of expression which bodes well for the mental and physical challenges which could lie ahead.
Done, a transfer deadline day signing from Rochdale, impressed on his debut.
Showcasing the pace and persistence which persuaded Clough to invest a sizeable chunk of United’s recruitment budget in his talents, he capped an impressive debut by doubling their lead in stylish fashion after Baxter’s instinctive opener.
Jay McEveley extended their advantage with a long-range effort after the interval before Sammie Szmodic’s provided Colchester with a lifeline which Baxter quickly snatched away when Paul Coutts was felled in the penalty area.
It was the first time United have scored more than three goals at home since November 2012.
Clough and Tony Hume, his counterpart across the technical area, know first hand that football is seldom a straightforward business. The United manager entered this match boasting a 50 per cent win ratio but confronted by claims he favours a negative approach. Accusations as unfathomable as the fact a squad capable of beating West Ham, QPR and Southampton can find League One such a grind.
Hume has also had to placate restless fans in recent weeks although his troubles stem from a miserable home record. Colchester have won more matches on their travels than at the Weston Homes Community Stadium since August and, true to form, they showed flashes of resistance until Baxter’s 79th minute penalty sealed the game.
A no-nonsense defender during his own playing days, Hume will not have appreciated the lax marking which allowed Baxter to edge United in front during the early skirmishes. But despite their perilous predicament, Colchester still possess plenty of fighting spirit with Iain Turner making two important interventions before Clough’s players seized control.
The demands of a fixture schedule which sees United play six times in the next 21 days has prompted Clough to make wholesale changes to his starting XI in recent weeks. Seven of those who featured at Priestfield Stadium were called upon again with Done, Michael Doyle and Jamal Campbell-Ryce also deployed.
Turner, a late replacement for Mark Howard who injured his back in the warm-up, has proved himself to be a more than capable deputy in recent months. Indeed, less than 60 seconds had past when the former Scotland international produced an excellent reaction save to deny Sammie Szmodics at the near post.
Seven minutes later, United took the lead when Baxter, scoring for the first time since December, prodded home from a set-piece created by John Brayford’s persistence along the flank.
Only Alex Wynter’s skull prevented Done from doubling their advantage soon after when he attempted an acrobatic overhead kick but Tom Lapslie served notice that Colchester still posed a threat by firing an angled drive over Turner’s crossbar.
United, patient in possession and always probing, responded when Brayford again slipped his marker’s clutches before failing to find Done with a short, prodded pass.
But the move, instigated by Doyle and the quietly impressive Coutts in midfield, confirmed that intelligence allied with industry held the key to this game. And perhaps a shade of good fortune too.
Two slips from Campbell-Ryce presented Colchester with the opportunity to launch a counter-attack midway through the opening period which ended with Porter drawing another smart save from United’s stand-in keeper.
Porter, who made nearly 120 appearances for the hosts before moving to Essex last month, clearly had the bit between his teeth.
Then, seven minutes before the interval, a move of supreme simplicity and beauty saw United double their lead.
Jamie Murphy hooked the ball to Bob Harris who swept an inch perfect cross-field pass towards Done.
The transfer deadline day signing from Rochdale cut inside, steadied himself and assessed the options at his disposal before placing an unstoppable finish into the bottom corner of Sam Walker’s net.
McEveley powered home from long-range on the hour after combining with Coutts.
Szmodics pounced in the 70th minute before Baxter claimed his second of the evening following Matt Briggs’ trip on Coutts.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 7, Harris 7, Brayford 7, Basham 7, Doyle 7, Murphy 7 (Adams 83), Baxter 8, Done 8 (McNulty 67), Coutts 8, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 7 (Holt 61). Not used: Davies, Reed, Turner, Kennedy.
COLCHESTER UNITED: Walker 6, Wynter 6, Gordon 6 (Sembie-Ferris 53, 6), Briggs 6, Eastman 6, Clohessy 6, Massey 6, Szmodics 7, Lapslie 6, Fox 6, Porter 7. Not used: Watt, Marriott, Lewington, Vincent-Young, Bonne.
REFEREE: Christopher Sarginson (Staffordshire), 6
GOALS: Baxter (8, 79), Done (38), McEveley (60), Szmodics (70).
RED CARDS: None
PLAYER-WATCH: Matt Done caught the eye on his debut but Paul Coutts, the former Derby County midfielder, looks a particularly astute purchase by Nigel Clough. Strong in the tackle and composed on the ball.
VIEWPOINT: Sheffield United entered this match under huge pressure. But they passed their latest test of character with flying colours.