Fifth in the table with only eight matches remaining, Paul Heckingbottom’s side enter today’s game against Stoke City knowing that a win will see them take another important step towards a return to the Premier League.
Speaking ahead of the visit to the bet365 Stadium, Heckingbottom acknowledged that form and character will ultimately decide which clubs qualify for the end-of-term knockouts.
But with only six points separating United from Coventry City in 11th, he identified another important quality teams hoping to reach the top-flight must demonstrate.
“Disappointment is part and parcel of football, I know people like to pretend otherwise, but it is,” Heckingbottom told The Star. “So being able to handle it, bouncing back from it, that’s vital and it’s going to be so important now.
“I’d like to think, if we do things right, then we’ll get to where we want to be. But there’s going to be some hiccups and difficult moments along the way. We know that.
“So focusing on the things you can control yourself, and not worrying about what anyone else is doing, that’s crucial. That’s what helps you collect points.”
“There’s so many of us in and around it who are playing each other between now and the end,” he continued. “We’ll be trying to win every single match but we might not be able to do that.
“We’ve had to come back from set-backs to put ourselves in this position to begin with. Arsenal are the only team I can remember who went through an entire campaign unbeaten, with their Invincibles in 2004. The fact that was the last time it happened, well, that just shows that the best around have to have that quality where they stay concentrated and just carry on no matter what.”
United are preparing to hand Filip Uremovic his debut after signing the Croatia international from Rubin Kazan, although international clearance had yet to be provided when Heckingbottom addressed the media on Thursday. Ben Davies, George Baldock and Billy Sharp could also feature as the fitness issues which have blighted United over the past few months begin to ease.
After returning from Staffordshire, United then face fellow promotion hopefuls Queens Park Rangers before hosting second-placed AFC Bournemouth next weekend.
“There’s eight games left, there’s so many teams involved in it playing each other,” Heckingbottom said. “There’s going to be more ups and downs. If we don’t get the job done, then we’ll be disappointed. It’s a 46 game season. The form we’ve had recently is probably automatic promotion form. We just need to recognise why we are doing well and the sacrifices we’ve made.”
City are 15th but, Heckingbottom acknowledged, pose a serious threat.
“They’ve had patches of promotion form and patches when they’ve dipped a bit,” he said. “That explains the table. But they’re a big club, and with the way Michael (O’Neill) wants them to play, they’ll be right up for it.
“The turnover of players, with the finance, they’re getting to a point where they can free up the money. I expect him now to start shaping it really. Everything they do, I expect to be an improvement.”