Nigel Clough admits Sheffield United are suffering a cup hangover, but says the single objective of winning promotion will help narrow their focus.
The Blades have grabbed the headlines in recent weeks, beating Premier League sides Southampton and QPR before pushing Tottenham Hotspur to within two minutes of extra time over two legs of the League Cup semi-final.
There was also added interest in their FA Cup fourth-round replay with Preston last week given the prize on offer to the winners – a glamour home tie against Manchester United.
But amid all that, the Blades’ league form has suffered, with Clough’s side winning just two of their last 10 League One games.
This sequence has seen them fall out of contention for the automatic promotion spots and out of the top six altogether.
While Clough believes the top two are not out of reach – despite a deficit of 18 points – he does concede that the excitement of the twin cup runs has impacted on the season’s primary objective.
“I think there’s an element of a cup hangover in there, certainly, and it’s not a conscious thing,” said Clough, who has steered the Blades to two major cup semi-finals in his two half-seasons in charge.
“We’re not a team that says ‘oh no, we’re going to Gillingham’ or ‘we’re playing Colchester’, we’re not like that.
“But the big games take care of themselves when there’s 25,000 watching and you’re playing live on television.
“There’s no motivation needed in those sorts of games.
“So when you get used to playing in those games it is a comedown afterwards, and it would be for anybody. If you’re a singer playing in front of 25,000 people and then you’re playing in front of 50, can you put the same performance on? Sometimes it’s very difficult to do that.
“We’ve got to find a way of overcoming that. The cups are gone now – our aim is promotion.
“There was a bit of a hangover Saturday (loss at Gillingham), but hopefully now that realisation will kick in and we’ve got to do everything we can to win 20 games, or make sure we’re in the top six after those 20 games.”
Blades midfielder Ben Davies – who missed the majority of those cup runs with a foot injury – believes the senior members of the squad have enough nous to ensure the season does not peter out because of their exploits in other competitions.
“Maybe it is a cup hangover, but we have enough experience to be a bit better than that,” said the 33-year-old.
“Obviously cup games are tough mentally, and physically they take a lot out of you.
“One minute you’re playing Tottenham in front of a full house and the next at Gillingham in front of 4,000.
“It shouldn’t make a difference and we’ve got to realise that if we can get up into the next league then there’ll be more opportunities to be playing in front of 20,000 home and away.
“Physically the cups take it out of the lads but we shouldn’t be looking at it like that.
“It should help us that it is just one goal now.”
Last six games: Sheffield United LDDWLL; Colchester LWLWDL.
Referee: C Sarginson (Staffordshire).
Last time: Sheffield United 1 Colchester 1; August 17, 2013; League One.