When Kieron Purtill departed Widnes just over two months ago, it was difficult to find much positivity among Vikings supporters over their 2020 prospects.
Purtill had been charged with steering a primarily young squad that was transitioning from full-time to part-time, and while there was undoubtedly quality within those ranks, a host of Championship rivals’ recruitment was looking ominous.
Purtill’s sudden exit created further uncertainty at the club, with no obvious successor seemingly in waiting.
Fast forward around nine weeks and the mood among fans has changed markedly.
The club secured a significant coup with the shock appointment of former World Cup and NRL winner Tim Sheens, and it has since been able to add 2019 Grand Finalist Logan Tomkins and multiple trophy winner Matty Smith to its squad.
They were still as long as 25/1 to win the Championship with some bookmakers last week, but that certainly doesn’t worry Sheens, who has tasted success at this level before with Hull Kingston Rovers.
“This is a great club with a great story, and it’s a big challenge to try and get it back to where it wants to be,” Sheens said.
“At Hull KR the budget was three times as big as what we’re working with here and the expectation was to go straight back up.
“It’s different at Widnes and with the financial issues the club had at the start of the year it’s at the other end of the spectrum.
“But they’re a good bunch of young men here and you don’t have to force them to do anything.
“We’re not expected to go up, we’re not favourites. But the expectation at a club like Widnes with a Super League facility and having recently been there is to try and get back to that level as soon as we can.
“We’re not predicting anything other than that we’ll prepare the best we can.”
While Sheens’ appointment at the Vikings came as a surprise to many – not least given a CV that includes two NRL titles and a World Cup triumph – the man himself insists there was no temptation to give up coaching at the age of 69.
“I wasn’t particularly thinking that way at all,” he said.
“Those things can get taken out of your control, and it becomes a matter of whether or not other people still want you to be involved.
“It’s the same with players – you don’t always get to go out the way you want to.
“But so far the club and I are getting on really well, although we obviously haven’t lost a game yet or had any issues.
“It’s that time of year when you build morale, and our morale is very high at the moment.
“I just enjoy coaching, being out on the field with a whistle, and the fact I can make a living this way is just a bonus.
“Coaching doesn’t always have to be about the major tournaments – you can get just as much satisfaction from working with young players and trying to improve them.
“I coached Hull KR at Championship level when we came up and I’m very proud of that achievement.
“All coaches are under some kind of pressure – some are expected to win the comp, while others need to stay away from the bottom of the table.
“The pressure of being in charge of a gun side in the NRL can be just the same as one trying to stave off relegation here.
“There are different resources and the amount of media scrutiny is different. I’m not stupid enough to say it isn’t.
“But at the end of the day you’re all under pressure to perform from the fans, and also yourself.”
And you get the distinct impression that Sheens’ drive will ensure his own standards – and those of the Vikings – remain high throughout what should be a fascinating 2020 campaign.