United put their faltering campaign back on track in style with this emphatic victory over Notts County.
Danny Wilson’s side produced a performance bristling with power, purpose and poise to warn their promotion rivals that they will not relinquish their grip on second place without a fight.
Goals from Stephen Quinn, Ched Evans, Matthew Lowton and Neill Collins fired the Blades into an unassailable lead by half-time and although County rallied after the break they simply had no response to opponents in such ruthless, determined mood.
Alan Judge’s free-kick during the closing stages was a worthy consolation before captain Neal Bishop capped a miserable evening for County when he was dismissed for a clumsy challenge on Quinn.
Evans, whose prowess remains the most potent weapon in United’s formidable armoury, showcased the talents which earned him a nomination for League One Player of the Year by claiming his 27th of the season soon after Quinn’s opener.
But it was Kevin McDonald, marking his return from a hamstring complaint, who emerged as the architect of this irresistible display.
The former Scotland under-21 international has been sorely missed since hobbling-out of last month’s game against Preston North End.
But his presence in midfield saw United rediscover their poise in spectacular fashion with Lee Williamson reasserting United’s authority before Julian Kelly ensured County enjoyed a final laugh.
Curle has proved an instant hit since arriving at Meadow Lane four weeks ago.
The former England international, who made over 60 appearances for United, inherited a squad boasting a strong United contingent after replacing Martin Allen.
One of those - Jonathan Forte - has been at the vanguard of Curle’s County revolution. Despite making only five starts for his hometown club, Forte has blossomed into a forward of some repute since arriving on the banks of the Trent earlier this term but was left burying his head in his hands after inexplicably shooting wide immediately after the interval and was subsequently withdrawn.
On a pitch more suited to growing potatoes than showcasing their favoured passing game, United, with Richard Cresswell and McDonald both restored to the starting 11, were forced to adopt a more robust approach against opponents also harbouring ambitions of reaching the Championship next term.
County made the early running with both Judge and Bishop making their presence felt in midfield before Evans pole-axed Krystian Pearce by powering a venomous shot into County’s defender’s unmentionables.
Pearce, who stepped-off the bench when Damion Stewart withdrew during the warm-up, was still catching his breath when three moments of magic saw United seize control.
First Quinn answered Wilson’s call for more members of the team to contribute in the final third by capping a delightful interchange involving Williamson with a clinical 17th minute finish.
Barely five minutes later Evans continued his sparkling form by stroking the ball beneath Stuart Nelson from an acute angle at the near post.
If there were any doubts about the County goalkeeper’s culpability for United’s second goal, he certainly could not be faulted for the third; Lowton taking everyone by surprise in the 27th minute by drilling home from range.
It was the perfect start for a group of players who, despite making the short journey south tucked behind leaders Charlton Athletic, had seen a combination of injury, suspension and chequered form gnaw away at both its confidence and lead over the chasing pack in recent weeks.
County, stunned and shell-shocked, responded by forcing Harry Maguire and Nelson’s counterpart Steve Simonsen to make important blocks with the latter flinging himself across the six yard box to gather a Ben Burgess header.
Nevertheless, Cresswell wasted a glorious opportunity to extend United’s lead still further when he elected to try and thread the ball between Nelson and the near post rather than find the unmarked Evans.
No matter as Collins duly obliged with a powerful header following a short corner routine involving Quinn and McDonald.
Nelson tipped over a fine attempt from Lowton soon after the re-start with Michael Doyle also trying his luck.
Judge’s 78th minute set-piece reduced the deficit but when Bishop collected his second yellow card, Williamson replied with a looping 89th minute finish following substitute Will Hoskins’ incisive run.
Kelly pounced in the 90th minute but it was an empty gesture.
NOTTS COUNTY: Nelson 6, Sheehan 6, Edwards 6, Bishop 7, J Hughes 6, Judge 7, Forte 6 (Adebola 59, 6), Freeman 6, Burgess 6 (L Hughes 59, 6), Sam 6, Pearce 6 (Kelly, 67). Not used: Bencherif, Mahon.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen 7, Lowton 7, Doyle 7, Evans 8, Williamson 8, Collins 7, Cresswell 7 (Beattie, 74), Maguire 8, McDonald 8 (Williams 67, 6), Quinn 8, Hill 7. Not used: Howard, Egan.
Cautions: Williamson (42), Bishop (45)
Red cards: Bishop (80)