It took 54 games and 4,860 minutes of football but last Saturday Sheffield United’s management finally had what they had been waiting for all season – a fully-fit 24-man squad from which to select.
Two busy transfer windows and a host of injuries have prevented manager Nigel Clough and his staff from picking what they perceive to be their best XI.
Even when they were sweeping all before them in a glorious run to the Capital One Cup semi-final, Clough was at times having to fit square pegs into round holes.
Yet as they sat down to plot how to negate a buoyant Barnsley team late last week, the Blades coaching staff found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
“We’d got every player available, and we only realised that on Friday when we had 24 players in training,” said first-team coach Andy Garner, who revealed many a starting XI had been jotted down before being thrown in the bin. “We’ve not had that before.”
The upshot of choosing from such riches was a very controlled and composed performance in the South Yorkshire derby at Oakwell, which saw the Blades reinforce their position in the top six at the expense of a team trying to elbow their way into the promotion picture.
And, ominously for the rest of the division, United might be finding their stride at just the right time.
Saturday’s win, coupled with results on Easter Monday, have left the Blades with a cushion of five points over the chasing pack.
Not even a knock that striker Steve Davies carries into today’s game will threaten United’s rediscovered belief.
For as Garner admits, one of the harshest lessons they learned prior to the win at Barnsley involved their decision to stay loyal to the players who had earned them two successive wins when lowly Crewe came to Bramall Lane for their most recent home game.
“We learned a massive lesson after the Crewe game when we stuck with the team that had won twice,” said Garner, whose United team suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat against the desperate Railwaymen.
“We should have freshened it up. Maybe we were wrong in that.
“We’ve taken that on board and learned from that.”
Expect changes then for the visit of South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers tonight, one of those teams in the chasing pack for whom the margin for error is narrowing.
With Davies a 50/50 call, his fellow goalscorer on Saturday –Jason Holt – is taking nothing for granted.
The midfielder – a January loan signing from Hearts – scored his third league goal for the Blades with a rasping half-volley, having started in a more advanced position playing behind Davies.
“It’s good to get a run in the side, it’s down to me to keep my place and the same goes for every player,” said Holt, mindful that the likes of Jose Baxter, Stefan Scougall and Matt Done were all substitutes at Oakwell and will be itching to start tonight.
“I’m enjoying that attacking role. It gives me the chance to get forward and support the strikers, and I’ve recently got myself a couple of goals and a few chances.
“I’ve just got to keep doing what I can on the pitch, but the focus is on the remaining six games, not me.”
That run begins tonight with a second South Yorkshire derby in three days.
United’s position in the play-offs looks relatively safe – with a big enough gap to the teams chasing them and the clubs above them out of reach – but Holt insists there will be no easing up.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “If you look at the league it’s really tight so for us as players with six games left, it’s going to be a tough run-in and one the boys are definitely up for.
“Derbies are always seen as bigger and important games, but at this stage of the season every game is vital. We’ll go into it looking to get the three points, regardless of who we play.”
Holt greeted his crisp volley on Saturday with an ecstatic burst towards the Blades faithful packed behind the goal, a reaction he says was due to the magnitude of the occasion.
“It was a spur of the moment thing. I saw it hit the back of the net and my first thought was to run straight to the fans,” said the 22-year-old. “I don’t regret going into the fans, it was a great moment. The fans were great, it was a local derby and they filled the stand behind the goal. That made it extra special.
“The fans can be massive for us (tonight). As we saw on Saturday, when you’re on the pitch, and they’re really vocal it definitely spurs you on.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed on the pitch. Their support gives you a little boost.”