SO much has changed since Notts County last visited Bramall Lane. And so little.
Sheffield United are still expected to challenge for promotion despite losing seven of the players who featured 10 months ago.
The visitors remain decent outside bets having parted company with six.
It is still far too early to speak of season defining fixtures but, even if United repeat December’s success over their rivals from the Midlands, County manager Keith Curle is convinced tomorrow’s League One fixture represents a benchmark as to the progress of his team.
“If we finish above Sheffield United then we’ll go up. I’ve got no doubt about that,” he told The Star.
“A lot has happened both on and off the pitch there but I still make them favourites for the division.”
Curle, who took charge eight weeks after a goal from Ryan Flynn and Alan Sheehan’s error condemned County to defeat in South Yorkshire, made 61 appearances for United during a playing career which also encompassed spells with Manchester City Wolverhampton Wanderers and England.
By his own admission, the 48-year-old was not the most gifted of individuals when he first entered the world of professional football.
But what Curle initially lacked in ability he made up for with sheer bloody-mindedness.
It’s a characteristic he has ensured is in plentiful supply behind the scenes at Meadow Lane since taking charge following Martin Allen’s departure in February.
“Character is just as important as ability,” Curle said. “Probably more important.
“I’ve spoken to several players who we ultimately didn’t go on to sign because I didn’t feel they had the attitude and determination to drive themselves on.
“In a sense, I was fortunate enough to take charge of a club that wasn’t performing to its potential and had quite a lot going on behind the scenes.
“That enabled us to put our mark on things; shape the whole operation as we thought it should be.”
“Players here enjoy doing the ugly side of the game as well as the nicer stuff,” Curle continued.
“I first had success as a player because of my athletic ability more than anything else.
“I learned the game as I went along after that.”
Good teams, as United manager Danny Wilson reminded recently, are not born. They evolve.
Coming only eight games into the new campaign, this meeting between second placed County and their hosts in sixth provides another opportunity for two sets of coaching staff to explore the possibilities, partnerships and permutations with exist within their respective camps.
Curle has informed his chairman Ray Trew that County will finish “around” tenth and that “anything higher than that is a bonus”.
Secretly, with his squad winning 16 of their 26 games under his tutelage, including five this season, one suspects he harbours more lofty ambitions despite being loathe to voice them in public.
“We like to play football but we also are happy to do the hard stuff,” Curle said.
“I’m pleased that we’ve been able to carry on our form from last year but there’s a long way to go.
“People shouldn’t under-estimate the good work Danny has done because he’s had a lot to get to grips with too.
“United can score. We feel we’ve got players who can trouble them too.”
“I don’t think Sheffield United are going to be frightened of the physical side of this division,” Curle added.
“We’ve got lads who can handle that side too.
“Now, I feel that if Plan A doesn’t work then we’ve got a Plan B and even a Plan C.
“That’s probably one of the biggest differences between us back then and now.”
Curle, brought to United by Neil Warnock, inevitably cites Wilson’s predecessor as a major influence having later served under him at Crystal Palace and QPR.
Another source of inspiration can be traced back to his days as an aspiring young defender at Bristol Rovers where a certain Ian Holloway was also busy making a name for himself as an energetic midfielder.
Holloway, of course, has performed wonders in the dug-out at Blackpool and Curle acknowledged: “I still speak to Olly a lot. He doesn’t necessarily have the best players or the best budget but he’s got an idea of what he wants his club to be and the lads who come in clearly buy into that.
“It’s what we’re trying to create here too.”
United, still unbeaten in the league this term, inflicted a 5-2 defeat upon County en route to May’s ill-fated play-off final with Huddersfield Town.
“I owe Sheffield United one,” Curle said. “Well, two in fact.
“For beating us last season and also for not going up.
“I had some great times there,. It was a club I was proud to represent and I still look out for their results now.”
Teams and ref
United (possible): Howard, McMahon, Collins, Maguire, Hill, McAllister, Doyle, McDonald, Gallagher, Kitson, Blackman (4-4-2).
County (possible): Bialkowski, Leacock, Liddle, Regan, Kelly, J Hughes, Campbell-Ryce, Labadie, Arquin, Judge, Zoko (4-4-2).
NEil Swarbrick (Lancashire): Has booked 11 players in four outings so far this term. Appointed to the Select Group last year, he took charge of Chelsea’s 6-0 Capital One Cup success over Wolves in midweek.