THE second weekend of February was not a happy one for Sheffield football.
Granted neither United or Wednesday lost. Nevertheless there was an unmistakable sense that a big opportunity had been squandered by both clubs.
The Owls had drawn at home to Reading in what was Steve Bruce’s Hillsborough bow as manager.
That the Royals had won just once on the road all season and were in the relegation zone meant any optimism engendered before kick-off by the appearance in the home dugout of the four-time promotion winner had dissipated long before the final whistle blew.
United fans may have enjoyed a smirk at their rivals’ struggles against a side with just one win to their name from the previous 15 outings.
But the dramatic events at Aston Villa the previous evening meant the Blades had their own concerns.
Three goals to the good with just eight minutes remaining, United had collapsed in a manner totally at odds with a side harbouring genuine hopes of winning automatic promotion.
To have to settle for a point from such a seemingly imperious position did not bode well for the bigger challenges that lay ahead amid the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Championship promotion race.
A little under six weeks on, however, and both Steel City clubs are very much on the up.
Wednesday are breathing down the necks of the top six after extending Bruce’s unbeaten start to life back in Sheffield to 10 games.
Let’s enjoy the rollercoaster. Grasp it, if we possibly can. We have some big games to look forward to.Steve Bruce
United’s response to that shattering finale against Aston Villa, meanwhile, has been to take 19 points from a possible 21, and keep seven consecutive clean sheets.
The most recent of those shutouts came at Leeds United on Saturday suggesting manager Chris Wilder’s men have learned important lessons from that 3-3 draw in the west Midlands.
Chris Basham, the scorer of the winner at Elland Road, certainly believes the roots of United’s newfound defensive solidity lie in the aftermath of that February 8 trip to Villa Park.
“When it felt like squeaky bum time the most was Aston Villa,” said the 30-year-old, “but the video we got shown has really set us back on our way.
“I think the situation is actually helping us to spread our wings. There are no heavy shirts in there, as the gaffer might say.
“It (the video) just showed us how to see out a game. Not the first 80 minutes, when we were brilliant. But the last 10, when we weren’t.
“He asked us why we were making certain decisions. He dug a lot of people out, and I was one of them.
“As footballers we can all be a bit vulnerable at times, but this has really put us back on it.”
Wednesday, too, are in buoyant mood right now. The 4-2 victory over Blackburn Rovers that sent the Owls into the international break on a high means just two points now separate Bruce’s men from Villa in sixth place.
With the former European Cup winners due at Hillsborough on April 6 and fifth-placed Middlesbrough struggling hopes are high in S6 that Bruce might enjoy a third crack at the play-offs in four years come May.
“We have given ourselves a squeak,” said Bruce. “Two months ago everyone was writing the season off into mediocrity.
“Let’s enjoy the rollercoaster, grasp it if we possibly can. We have some big games to look forward to. With eight games to go we need to win six of them probably. Can we do it? We will try.”
Wednesday’s run-in suggests six victories could be a tall order. Not only do Bruce’s men travel to both Leeds and leaders Norwich City inside seven days next month, but they also face testing home games against Villa and Bristol City.
Then there is the less than trifling matter of a trip to a revitalised Preston North End on the penultimate weekend.
Alex Neil’s men, in fact, could have a big say in how things pan out for three of the four White Rose clubs battling to reach the Premier League.
Both Leeds and the Blades are due at Deepdale within four days of each other at the start of April.
With North End up to seventh place on the back of an unbeaten run of 12 games any points taken off the Lancashire club are going to be extremely hard won.
The Blades will be the first of the White Rose trio to visit Preston next month, but Basham insists the confidence running through the squad will go a long way.
“We feel unbreakable,” said the defender, who underlined his adaptability by netting the winner at Elland Road from midfield.
“We are not scared to face anyone.
“We just keep on plugging away.”