Sheffield United captain Michael Doyle believes victory over promotion rivals Preston North End was more significant than their recent Cup giantkillings.
Saturday’s win over third-placed Preston was the first time the Blades had tasted league victory at Bramall Lane since October 21.
Goals from Marc McNulty and Jamal Campbell-Ryce secured three points – only the fourth home success in 11 outings in League One.
All too often this season, United’s league results have not matched their outstanding progress in both the League Cup and FA Cup.
They face a two-legged Capital One Cup semi-final against Tottenham, with installment one next week, after beating Premier League side Southampton in the quarter-finals.
And eight days ago United inflicted a 3-0 defeat on top-flight QPR at Loftus Road to deliver one of the FA Cup shocks of the third round.
Blades supporters could therefore have been forgiven for thinking Saturday’s visit of Preston could have turned into another anti-climax.
Following the two previous FA Cup rounds, against Crewe and Plymouth, the Blades had surprisingly dropped points in the league to Oldham and Fleetwood Town respectively.
Four days after beating Saints in the League Cup quarter-finals, Nigel Clough’s side were frustrated in a 1-1 home draw to Walsall.
So after a goalless opening 45 minutes, United fans maybe feared the worst.
But once McNulty netted his 10th goal of the season, showing a predatory instinct to pounce, there was little doubting the result.
The Blades attacked at will, and Stefan Scougall and Doyle should have scored but dragged their efforts wide, before Campbell-Ryce drilled home a fierce effort through the goalkeeper’s legs.
“It was brilliant to build on last week,” Doyle told The Yorkshire Post. “We said before the game, the most important thing was to match that performance against QPR.
“I think too many times we have had them cup performances, but not backed them up.
“We are at the crucial stage of the season now, where we either have to kick on or sink.
“Getting the result was the main thing, against a side which will be up there. Psychologically, it was a big result.
“Preston will be very close to the top two, at the end of the season, if they are not in it.
“They have good players and we need to take a lot from that win, but not get too carried away.
“As players we are starting to realise what we need to do to win these games.
“Last week (against QPR), we were not expected to get anything, and we have gone out and won. We have made a habit of doing that in the cups.
“But in the league, playing sides like Bristol City here and losing has been disappointing. So to get the win against Preston was vital for us, we couldn’t afford to lose.
“I think a lot of our fans were getting a bit sick of us going and winning a cup game, then not backing it up in the league.
“The players were too. The league is our bread and butter and we have been in this league for far too long.
“Of course you want to do well in the cups, get the publicity, but we know at the end of the season we will be judged on how we perform in the league.
“We want to do well on all fronts, but if we had a choice, we just want to get out of this league and get back to the next level.”
Doyle had a hand in United’s first goal, when a corner was not cleared, the ball dropping for McNulty to pounce.
Former Leeds United midfielder Doyle could have wrapped up the points, but spurned a great chance to get United’s second goal.
The out-rushing Thorsten Stuckmann had already forced Scougall to fire wide, and the visiting goalkeeper was quickly out to fluster Doyle. He had been picked out by Jamie Murphy’s pass, but also missed the target.
“By the time I got the ball out of my feet, the goalkeeper – a big old boy – he’s come out,” said Doyle.
“If anything, looking back, I should have probably dragged it round him because he had sold himself.
“It was a bad miss at that stage, but luckily enough Jamal bailed me out and got the second goal and a bit of breathing space.”
Josh Brownhill’s stoppage-time free-kick caused a few anxious moments for the home contingent, but the Blades held on for victory.
Twenty-two-year-old McNulty’s goal on Saturday means he has now moved into double figures.
The Scotsman continues to impress following his moving south from Livingston in the summer.
He also netted against Premier League opposition in Saints and QPR, but Doyle insists the Blades should not put too much pressure and expectation on the young striker’s shoulders.
“He’s a great little player,” Doyle enthused.
“He’s still a young kid and people can’t be putting too much pressure on him.
“The manager has used him sparingly at times, and you have to do that.
“You don’t want to burn him out, it’s his first time down in England. He has got quality and he is only going to improve here with the players he’s playing with and the staff here.
“He’s getting the goals, and that’s something we probably haven’t had for a long time at this club, an out-and-out goalscorer.”