This might not have been the most glamorous date on the League One calendar but, in terms of shaping the battle for survival, it was certainly significant.
Goals from Jamie Murphy, Jose Baxter and Ryan Flynn ensured Sheffield United ended what has been a testing year on a positive note as Tranmere Rovers were condemned to a heavy and potentially damaging defeat.
But it was the manner of United performance, not the scoreline, which prompted Nigel Clough’s assistant Andy Garner to lavish praise on their players after watching them climb above their opponents to 17th in the table.
He said: “We had a really positive mindset out there, a really positive mentality and that was excellent in a pressure situation.
“We were at home and the onus was on us to give our fans something to shout about. Hopefully we’ve done that.
“For me, what was especially impressive, was the fact that we did that by playing some excellent stuff. There were some very well-worked moves and the boys got their rewards for that.”
Clough has identified character and calibre as the two qualities United must demonstrate in order to drag themselves away from the relegation zone and they possessed both in abundance here.
Murphy, better known for his turn of pace rather than physical prowess, showed good strength to hold off his marker before opening the scoring while the move instigated by Stephen McGinn and Chris Porter, which allowed Baxter to score his fourth goal in five outings, was perfectly executed.
When Flynn underlined United’s superiority midway through the second period, Rovers, now 20th, were a busted a flush although Ash Taylor restored some respectability during the closing stages.
“We always knew it would be tough out there,” Garner continued. “When you are playing someone around you in the table then you know they are going to be fighting for their lives.
“But we did that and, what made the big difference, was getting ourselves in front. That was absolutely key.”
Ronnie Moore harbours grave concerns about his team’s defensive capabilities and, with Rovers entering yesterday’s fixture having conceded 11 goals in their previous four games, makes no attempt to disguise the fact that a rugged centre-half is his top priority during the forthcoming transfer window.
Clough, meanwhile, has problems to address at the opposite end of the pitch with Blackburn Rovers midfielder Alan Judge known to feature on United’s list of targets during the January sales.
Having gone a long way to repairing the holes in a previously porous back four - the South Yorkshire club’s rearguard has now been breached 11 times since his appointment two months ago - Clough could be forgiven for casting envious glances in Moore’s direction given Ryan Lowe’s prolific form this term.
Eight of the centre-forward’s 14 goals for the visitors have been scored away from home and only Harry Maguire’s quick-thinking prevented him from increasing that tally midway through the first-half.
“You’ve got to fight and you’ve got to scrap,” Garner continued. “That’s the mentality the boys are showing now and long may it continue. The mentality whereby they don’t want to give anything away.”
Moore is a familar figure in these parts having overseen nearly 500 games in charge of United’s neighbours Rotherham.
Now enjoying his third spell at the helm of Rovers, the 60-year-old called upon all that experience to ensure the outcome remained in doubt until Baxter and Flynn pounced.
He said: “At the moment, we are putting ourselves in situations whereby we’ve got to score three times to have a chance of winning a game. That’s got to change.”
United, who restored Flynn and Murphy to their starting 11, tested Rovers’ resolve as early as the first minute when Chris Porter saw his claim for a penalty waved away by referee David Webb following a neat interchange with Jose Baxter.
Owain Fon Williams gathered Maguire’s looping header soon after when Tony McMahon launched a free-kick deep into Rovers penalty area.
Another set-piece, this time delivered by Baxter, set in motion the chain of events which saw Murphy edge United in front six minutes later with the former Scotland under-21 international keeping Evan Horwood at bay before firing home from close-range.
Clough, who had emphasised the importance of controlling rather than chasing games during his pre-match address, saw Flynn and Neill Collins go close as the hosts continued to oblige.
But, when Lowe stole a march on Neill Collins and Long, Maguire made his presence felt at the opposite end of the pitch by preventing the former Sheffield Wednesday marksman from sliding home into an empty net.
Nevertheless, the frailties which Moore believes are undermining Rovers’ efforts were again in evidence when Liam Ridehaigh turned Murphy’s centre onto his own crossbar.
Stephen McGinn, who had earlier unleashed a vicious drive from the edge of the Rovers’ area, was involved in the move which saw McMahon go close during the opening exchanges of the second-half.
Baxter extended United’s advantage just before the hour after McGinn and Porter had combined to good effect before the former Everton attacker turned provider by creating the space for Murphy to cross for Flynn.
Taylor reduced the deficit with a powerful strike at the death but it was too late to change the course of the fixture.
“There is still a long way to go and we are still a long way from where we want to be as a team,” Garner said. “But the important thing is we are heading in the right direction.”