FOR 15 uncomfortable minutes Sheffield United fans were subjected to a chilling reminder of how it used to be. Thankfully, under the current regime, an isolated incident as the Blades head for Elland Road in what is their biggest Championship test to date.
Nevertheless it served as a warning. A brief window on the trademark era that was Nigel Clough’s as the Blades took their foot of the gas and retreated in defence of a comfortable two-goal lead. Only to concede and hang on as the contest, such as it was until then, turned on its head.
His successor Nigel Adkins might have waxed lyrical about how even wise geese can be goosed when Pluto is in alignment with Jupiter. That may be stretching it a little but you get the drift.
So yes, the home win against Reading was yet another demonstration that United have more than just arrived in the Championship. Manager Chris Wilder talks of striding closer to the 50-point mark and survival. Chris Basham has been playing the “taking each game as it comes” card. Strictly speaking they’re both correct, but no-one is fooled. Not least club co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In an interview with The Star, he pledged that money will be available in January to bolster a promotion push.
Wilder said before the season kicked off that he is ambitious and not just here to make up the numbers in what is his first experience of the Championship. Now third in the table after 13 matches, we all know what the man who has won successive promotions with Northampton Town and the Blades has in his sights.
It’s still early days. The manager is right to play down his innermost thoughts until what is widely termed the business end of the season. But if United are to have a shot at what most at the start of the campaign would have thought beyond reach, playing on the front foot for 90 minutes is imperative. For the Blades attack is the best form of defence. Even the much improved one developed by Wilder.
Jaap Stam’s Reading, last season’s beaten play-off finalists, proved it despite being outplayed for more than an hour. Inexplicably United then suddenly abandoned the game plan which has served them so well for so long since the boss arrived in May 2016.
Result? The Royals dominated the closing stages which became a needlessly nervous finale when Roy Beerens pulled a goal back with five minutes of normal time remaining. Suddenly United went from cruise control to reaching for the starting handle.
"I'm not embarrassed at all to have to defend at the end to see the game out," said Wilder. "They had nothing to lose and chucked plenty at us. We weren't as composed when we got the ball as we normally are and we invited the pressure a bit, but saying that it's a minor criticism and we certainly deserved all three points.
"The first-half was right up there in what we've produced this season. The front two worked their socks off and the skipper was outstanding and deserved his goal. Leon (Clarke) deserved one too, but to a man we didn't have to carry anybody and when we had to defend we did."
Going forward the Blades are formidable. A rare glimpse of them back-peddling over a sustained period, however, revealed a vulnerability which most fans thought had long since been eradicated.
It’s recognition of how influential Mark Duffy has become to the Blades that their decline coincided with his 73rd-minute substitution. The Liverpudlian made a solid contribution in last season’s League One title-winning side. In this campaign he is the latest among those who have made the step up, to improve his game substantially.
High energy and regenerated ball skills, as demonstrated by the quick thinking artistry employed for United’s third goal in the 4-2 win at Hillsborough. A sublime example of determination coupled with complete confidence which took the bounce out of Sheffield Wednesday’s brief revival.
Against Reading, for once the introduction of David Brooks, fresh from signing his much publicised contract extension until 2021 as United ensure, understandably, to maximise their profit when he leaves sooner rather than later, was of little consequence. United were backtracking and then John Lundstram replaced striker Billy Sharp to shore up midfield.
Having said that Wales Under-21 international Brooks gave Clarke a golden opportunity to calm the nerves for most of the 26,265 crowd. But Clarke, who had otherwise chased every ball, squandered his chance.
I’ve managed to get this far before mentioning Paul Coutts’ sublime strike to give United the lead; John Fleck’s energy; Balham’s boundless enthusiasm. To leave anyone out borders on criminal. That’s how good United are at the moment.
Even so it was an encounter in which a reversal of fortune matched the bitterly cold, wet autumnal weather only seven days after the John Street and Kop stands were basking in warm shirt-sleeved sunshine as late summer returned.
For me it was even stranger. Accompanied on my journey from the deep south by a battering from Storm Brian. Then Jarvis Cocker on the train up from London, followed by Sheffield Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri, who joined at Derby on the return trip from the Lane.
Sheffield-bound Jarvis, a Wednesday fan, didn’t bat an eyelid as he pulled into Derby where the Owls were later to lose again and have a man sent off. Neither did he have much truck with The Common People, having opted for first class.
Chansiri, meanwhile, who boarded with his family after defeat at the Pride Park, was in animated conversation for the 90-minute run to St Pancras, clearly perplexed by Wednesday’s continued inability to live up to expectation. His young son appeared fascinated by the Blades crest on my rain jacket. Maybe the Hillsborough defeat produced a convert.
Leeds United, in fourth place, present United with an opportunity to open up the gap between them and one of the promotion favourites to seven points. Three points would also lift them to the top of the table, if only briefly, before Saturday's programme.
It’s a measure of just how far United have come that talking of a winning performance at Leeds is a real possibility. But should it happen in front of Sky’s television cameras, their is only one way to bring it about. The Wilder Way.
A starting strategy of risk a point to gain three. Not the failed protectionist methods, employed by Clough and to a lesser extent by Adkins whose problems were much more complex.
Maybe the Reading experience came at exactly the right moment and served as a timely reminder of just how good United have become.