IMPROMPTU car park kick-abouts and dips in the River Trent are some of the bizarre methods Martin Allen has employed since taking charge of Notts County.
But there was nothing weird about the manner in which Sheffield United climbed to second in the League One table after posting their seventh straight victory. County showed flashes of the ability Allen hopes can force them back into contention with Karl Hawley nearly snatching a late equaliser with an over-head effort.
But United were not to be denied and the sight of James Beattie making a late cameo for the first time since completing his return only added to the sense of celebration. Ched Evans, who hit the woodwork soon after Hawley’s near-miss, said: “We deserved the win; I thought we should have scored more. The most important thing is getting the win and making sure our run continues.”
Wilson had warned that County, who saw Ishmel Demontagnac sent-off at the death after throwing the ball at Matthew Lowton, would provide a test of United’s Championship credentials. And so it proved when Alan Judge handed them an early lead with a 35 yard free-kick.
However, despite County’s resistance, Ryan Flynn’s predatory instincts and an own goal from Alan Sheehan ensured United enter the next phase of the festive schedule looking to consolidate their position among the automatic promotion places.
“We played well and showed good character,” Evans added. “We just want to keep doing what we’re doing and see where it takes us.”
Confirmation that Beattie had been named among United’s replacements was greeted with rapturous applause before kick-off and, with the contest two minutes old, noise levels nearly reached a crescendo when Evans punched a hole in County’s defence only to drag his pass inches behind the onrushing Richard Cresswell.
Matthew Lowton came within a whisker of depositing a cross on Cresswell’s forehead while Lecsinel Jean-Francois dumped Jeff Hughes on the seat of his pants with a heavy challenge as County looked to launch a counter-attack.
Nevertheless, it was not until Judge handed the visitors the lead in the 16th minute that neutrals watching on TV had anything to cheer.
Neill Collins, whose experience could be key over the coming months, had to bravely flung himself at a Flynn corner preventing Julian Kelly from making inroads.
Referee Jon Moss’ officiating had both camps struggling to comprehend the reasoning behind many early free-kicks he awarded.
United’s patience finally broke when one of those - inexplicably awarded against Harry Maguire as he wrestled Ben Burgess for an aerial ball - resulted in County scoring the opener although a rearguard which had previously gone over six hours without conceding in league competition will not enjoy watching replays of Judge’s set-piece arcing directly into Steve Simonsen’s goal.
Fifteen minutes later, United’s persistence paid-off when Flynn restored parity. County failed to deal with a Stephen Quinn free-kick and when Kevin McDonald and Jean-Francois released Cresswell out wide, the young Scot marked a rare start by clipping the ball home.
Evans and Lowton were both guilty of spurning opportunities as United seized the initiative before the break. But Simonsen was still required to produce a fine block to deny Judge during the dying embers of an enthralling first-half.
Cresswell’s persistence was rewarded after the re-start when he bundled the ball home following some quick-thinking involving Quinn and Evan whose throw-in deceived County’s defence. Sheehan appeared to get the final touch but the United striker’s industry certainly forced the mistake. Only Stuart Nelson’s reactions prevented Collins from extending the hosts’ advantage from another Flynn set-piece with Lowton blazing over the crossbar moments later.
Then, with County gathering momentum, Simonsen did well to palm Jeff Hughes’ deflected effort around a post.
Evans and McDonald went close as United regained their composure before Beattie entered the fray.