Some folk argue that success in knockout competition has simply distracted from their failings in the league, writes James Shield.
Others, like Marc McNulty, believe triumphs over the likes of West Ham, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers serve to highlight the potential which exists among the Sheffield United ranks.
“I think it gives a huge indication about what we could do,” he told The Star earlier this week. “There’s no doubt about the quality here and that there’s enough to push for promotion.
“The players believe that, the managers believe that and there’s still a long way to go. We’re not exactly where we want to be in the table but we’re still in a good position and aren’t pushing any panic buttons yet.”
Tomorrow, six days after scoring his ninth goal of the season during an FA Cup victory at Loftus Road, McNulty hopes to take part in the first of several “massive games” Nigel Clough’s side must contest between now and the end of the campaign.
Preston North End, their fourth round opponents, visit Bramall Lane 12 points above United in the League One table and knowing that a win would open up a seemingly unassailable gap between themselves and the division’s sixth ranked team.
Nevertheless, Clough’s squad know better than most about how reaching the later stages of major domestic tournaments can rejuvenate faltering promotion bids. Twelve months ago they were 20th. Nearly 30 games and an FA Cup semi-final later, they finished in seventh place.
McNulty, a summer signing from Livingston, hopes the prospect of another last four appearance, against Tottenham Hotspur in the Capital One Cup later this month, will inspire a similar sequence of results.
“I wasn’t a part of things last year but I was lucky enough to be in touch with people at the club and watch what happened on television. I think because of how well things went towards the end of last season, folk just expected things to carry on in exactly the same vein but that’s not always the case. It doesn’t always follow.
“But we’ve shown we can beat some of the very best. Now we’ve got to do that on a weekly basis.”
Preston make the journey to South Yorkshire in rude health having lost once since November 10.
Only AFC Bournemouth, in 2013, have secured automatic promotion from the third tier after trailing the top two by more than seven points on January 9 in the past 10 seasons. United, 15 behind second placed Bristol City and without a league win in six, must overcome the history books as well as Simon Grayson’s team.
“We’ve got some great games coming up and some really important ones,” McNulty said.” We’ll be playing twice or three times a week for quite a long while now but we’ve got the squad to cope I think.
“There’s quality in the Premier League teams but we’ve got quality too.
“Just because we’ve beaten Premier League teams, doesn’t mean that we can expect to beat ones from our division. But, confidence wise, of course it helps.”
Likewise tormenting Rio Ferdinand, an 81 time England international, during last weekend’s outing in the capital.
“Coming down from Livingston, this is the stuff you dream about doing as a kid,” McNulty continued. I’m going to learn so much from playing against people like Rio because he’s different class.
“Rio didn’t say anything to be during the game. He gave me a few bumps but it was more dealing them out to him.
“You’ve got to give him respect but I didn’t treat him any differently to any other player because, once you cross that white line, you’ve got to look after yourself. That’s the way it’s got to be.”
McNulty adopts the same straightforward attitude towards Clough’s own ‘tough love’ approach. The 22-year-old centre-forward was recently accused of being “a little bit lazy” by coach Andy Garner despite entering tomorrow’s fixture having scored eight times in his last 18 appearances.
“You not looking for a cuddle all the time,” McNulty admitted. “Sometimes you need a kick up the a**e and I’m no different.
“It’s all part and parcel of football and the manager has been brilliant with me. He knows what I’ve got to do and how “I’ve got to improve because he has the experience. I haven’t.
“Of course I’d love to play every week. But the manager knows best and he picks the team.
“I respect his decisions totally because he’s been there seen it and done it just like his staff have. They know what’s best for my development and what I’ve got to do to improve.”