Nigel Clough had conceded in the build-up to their 42nd game of the season that a glory run to the semi-finals of the League Cup and a further headline-grabbing adventure in the FA Cup had left his players struggling to rise to the more mundane grind of the League One promotion race.
How can a team that frighten the life out of Tottenham in front of 30,000 screaming fans find those levels again when three points are on the line at a half-empty Gillingham?
It was a question Clough put to his players ahead of the visit of lowly Colchester United last night, and one they answered emphatically.
Two goals from Jose Baxter bookended a performance full of attacking intent, but it was the performance of debutant Matt Done that caught the eye.
The deadline-day signing from Rochdale, who scored 14 goals for a side challenging the Blades in a congested play-off push, scored a fine second for his new club in a 60-minute performance that provided a strong first impression.
The 26-year-old displayed the measured finishing, speed, guile and threat from deep that the Bramall Lane faithful have been craving as Clough’s men reclaimed their place in the top six.
It was only the fourth time this season that the Blades have scored more than two goals in a game, and unsurprisingly, given the story of their marathon campaign, two of those came in cup competitions; against Plymouth here and Premier League QPR at Loftus Road.
The other occasion in the league was, coincidentally, against Colchester back in September, when a three-goal salvo in the last 10 minutes turned defeat into victory.
If that performance indicated their spirit, then last night’s reprise showed their attacking strength, exemplified by Done.
Done’s inclusion was one of three changes made by Clough, but there was a fourth amendment the manager would not have planned for with goalkeeper Iain Turner called upon at the 11th hour after Mark Howard injured his back in the warm-up.
The deputy proved able in the first minute, touching Sammie Szmodics’s near-post connection onto the post after Gavin Massey had exploited hesitancy down the Blades’ left.
The palpable tension in the stands was eased somewhat on eight minutes.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce, another player restored to the starting line-up, whipped over a free-kick which Baxter bundled home at the second attempt, though Colchester’s defence and goalkeeper Sam Walker should have dealt with the threat more adequately.
Colchester midfielder Tom Lapslie was proving a nuisance. Twice he found space on the edge of the area to unleash thunderous drives that Turner was grateful to see fizz high and wide.
Chris Porter had a spring in his step. Released by the Blades just three weeks ago, the striker had already scored twice in three games for the Us ahead of his swift return to the Lane.
He drew a smart save from Turner on the counter-attack on 25 minutes following Matthew Briggs’s drive from his own half after Campbell-Ryce had slipped and lost possession when jinking his way into the visitors’ box.
Jamie Murphy should have doubled the lead after a slick one-two with Baxter on the edge of the area, but shot just wide.
That interchange hinted at the kind of incision of which United were capable – the second goal emphasised the point.
Bob Harris collected a cleared corner 20 yards outside his own penalty area, and, spotting Done’s run over the halfway line into space, arrowed a sublime volley straight into the debutant’s stride.
Done raced into the area and switched the ball onto his left foot before curling it beyond Walker.
He thought he had a second nine minutes into the second half with another crisp finish, but referee Chris Sarginson rightly adjudged that he had handled the ball spinning onto John Brayford’s cross.
United had now set up camp in the Colchester half and it was only a matter of time before they scored a third, central defender Jay McEveley obliging with a fierce drive from 25 yards.
Szmodics served a reminder of Colchester’s threat with a curled finish beyond Turner in the 70th minute. But 10 minutes later, Baxter snuffed out any hope of a comeback with a firmly-struck penalty after Briggs had tripped Marc McNulty.
After shaking off their cup hangover, the Blades are heading somewhere in the league again – upwards.
Sheffield United: Turner, Brayford, Basham, McEveley, Harris, Campbell-Ryce (Holt 61), Doyle, Coutts, Done (McNulty 67), Baxter, Murphy (Adams 82). Unused substitutes: Willis, Davies, Reed, Kennedy.
Colchester United: Walker, Clohessy, Wynter, Eastman, Briggs, Massey (McEvoy 88), Fox, Lapsie, Gordon (Sembie-Ferris 52), Szmodics, Porter. Unused substitutes: Watt, Marriott, Lewington, Vincent-Young, Bonne.
Referee: C Sarginson (Staffordshire).