A TRUE indicator of how far Sheffield United have travelled in the last few weeks is about be revealed.
Evidence to demonstrate they are moving in the right direction is gathering a pace. Three successive wins, two on their travels, have ensured that.
Suddenly the dark cloud hanging over Bramall Lane has dissipated. Manager Chris Wilder’s root and branch reform is finally bearing fruit. Blades fans are in a much happier place and rightly so.
But no one should underestimate the fragility of the recovery. As assorted problems encountered during the last three performances have shown there remains a question mark. Which United is going to turn up? That nagging concern is undermining real progress and until it becomes the exception rather than the rule it will remain so.
An unprecedented squad summit called 18 hours before last Saturday’s 3-2 victory at AFC Wimbledon is testament to that. In medical parlance the patient is in a stable condition. Another way of saying be thankful but don’t raise your hopes too high just yet. The next two fixtures – at home against sixth-placed Peterborough and at free-scoring Scunthorpe United, the surprise package in League One so far this season – will provide a real litmus test.
The depth of Wilder's concern that things could quickly unravel in the face of an uncompromising Wimbledon was revealed by his need to call the squad together for a heart to heart. The subject? Why is it that a club of United's history and size is now a well established member of football's third tier?
It is worth noting that in 2006-07 when the Blades were rubbing shoulders with Arsenal, Chelsea Liverpool and Manchester United in the Premier League, the Dons finished fifth in the Isthmian League Premier Division alongside the likes of Boreham Wood, Tonbridge Angels, Folkestone Invicta and Horsham. That's the measure of progress, or lack of it depending from which vantage point you had at Kingsmeadow.
"We had possibly the biggest chat with them about attitude, about maybe why this club has been in this division for a long time,” said Wilder. “Maybe because of my knowledge of what was coming from Neal's (Wimbledon manager Ardley) team, and I thought you saw that all afternoon. They never give up and they put you on the back foot. It was a big test for us.”
Despite back-to-back wins, the manager still felt the need to make a dramatic rallying call to stand up and be counted. He knew defeat would effectively undermine much of the confidence-building work of the previous fortnight. The players responded, establishing a two-goal lead and dominating an encounter that was more tap room than lounge, from start to finish. It should have been the marker that Wilder and Blades fans were looking for to confirm a sea change. It wasn't.
Flying in the face of their obvious superiority, United conceded twice against what was an exceptionally poor side which in terms of quality had almost nothing to offer. Instead of out-thinking the limited Dons they had to see out what Wilder admitted was a nervous finale to ensure a maximum haul of nine points.
Each of those three fixtures began in the same way, albeit for differing reasons, for supporters and manager alike. But there was a common denominator. A lack of wholehearted conviction due almost entirely to a fear of repeating self-inflicted errors. It seems that unlike honing fitness, ball skills, tactical methods and awareness, psychology cannot be coached on the training ground.
Now United have earned themselves a platform from which to build that mystical inner belief. The X-Factor so prevalent in the eras of Neil Warnock and Dave Bassett. If Wilder regarded the trip to Wimbledon a big test, the visit of Peterborough at the weekend is even bigger. With all due respect to AFC Wimbledon's achievements, Posh will provide a real football exam as will the Iron of Scunthrope a week later.
But they are also opportunty to show Blades supporters their team is worthy of being classed as realistic promotion contenders. No ifs, no buts.
"We've got to look at our game. We really should have put them [Wimbledon] to bed a lot earlier than what we did," acknowledged Wilder after victory in London which was far more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.
"We just slipped into five or 10 minutes of a little bit of sloppiness and taking our foot of the gas when really we should have gone and took the game away from them."
How many times have United fans heard that from assorted managers? Had it not been for Ifs, buts and maybes it would have been a different story.
Now while deservedly surfing the crest of an unexpected wave is the time to change all that. If they really have been taking notice of Wilder's presentation entitled something like Lessons Learned from the Past, the next few days gives United a perfect opportunity to put everyone's mind at rest.