A PLETHORA of presents will have already been unwrapped this Christmas, but Sheffield United will be hoping patience proves a virtue as they wait for their festive gift of choice.
It will arrive if the second-placed Blades take a maximum- points haul from back-to-back home games with Oldham and Northampton, which would see them reach the 50-point milestone before the strains of Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve and ahead of opening 2017 with a trip to Gigg Lane to face lowly Bury on January 2.
Though there would still be around half of the season to go, the psychological value of achieving that feat inside the old calendar year would surely be considerable.
This is the challenge facing the Blades players over the demanding holiday spell with three games taking place in the space of a hectic week.
Acknowledging the pressing festive mission for the Blades, who trail leaders Scunthorpe by three points and are a point ahead of third-placed Bolton Wanderers, winger Matt Done said: “The gaffer said after the Coventry game that this is a vital part of the season.
“He said that while it cannot make or break (things), that it can change things very quickly in a short amount of the time.
“We are aware of that and go into the festive period with every best intention of winning every game and making sure we are there come the middle of January.
“You cannot lie, you do look at the table. You take every game as itself and then look at the results around.
“We are in the top two and it is in our hands. We see where we are after every game, that is all we can do.”
On successive home games, which will be played out in front of two expectant Bramall Lane audiences, he added: “We have been very good at home for the majority of the time this season.
“The two home games over the festive period is a positive for us and we enjoy playing at Bramall Lane at the moment and I do not think teams enjoy coming here. It is a knock-on effect and we look forward to that.”
The Blades’ collective intent and confidence levels ahead of their festive challenge are understandably high, given their excellent league position and by the way that they dug out a key victory late on during a difficult night in Coventry 11 days ago.
It was just the sort of gutsy win that all successful promotion aspirants must accumulate, with captain Billy Sharp’s late winner at the troubled Sky Blues having rightly been lauded as one of the club’s important moments of the campaign amid a surreal atmosphere at the Ricoh Arena, according to manager Chris Wilder.
Not that there are any vestiges of complacency in the Blades’ mindset under Wilder, who has consistently spoken about the need for his side to stay grounded amid a nine-month marathon of a season when some bad moments will inevitably arrive along with the good times.
While many from the outside may view today’s fixture with rock-bottom Oldham as a home banker, a caveat is provided by their home game with struggling Bury on November 22.
The Shakers produced a thoroughly spirited performance that belied their lower league status and frustrated the Blades continually until the hosts finally found a way deep into stoppage-time, thanks to loan defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell.
It was a reminder that the Blades have to earn the right and battle and scrap for their rewards, something that Done is conscious of and believes that the team possess among a dressing room where the spirit, he says, is “special”.
On the game with Oldham, whose ranks include former Blades winger Ryan Flynn, Done added: “It will be a tough game. Bury are really struggling at the moment and they came here and made it difficult and we got the winner in injury-time.
“We cannot really look at the league table and say, ‘Well, they are at the bottom and we will win it.’.There is not really much difference anywhere in this league. You look at Chesterfield beating Bolton and anyone can beat anyone.
“As long as we turn up and do things right, it will be a tough game for them and we know that. We are concentrating on ourselves and not really looking at the opposition.
“I have been in changing rooms before where you sense that there is something special going on. You can sense it here where the lads are really working for each other.”
Last six games: Sheffield United WDLLWW Oldham LDLDWL.
Referee: M Heywood (Cheshire).
Last time: Sheffield United 3 Oldham 0; March 12, 2016; League One.