Guessing which Sheffield United team will turn up for any given game has provided a welcome distraction from the problems of yet another bitterly frustrating season.
The one capable of giving their namesakes from Manchester a God Almighty scare in the FA Cup at Old Trafford? Or the languid, dishevelled looking bunch which, only a month later, were comfortably beaten by Bury on a cold, wet evening at Gigg Lane?
The only thing consistent about Nigel Adkins’ side this term is its propensity for inconsistency, capricious performances and haphazard results.
Predictably, Bramall Lane witnessed another schizophrenic display against a Crewe Alexandra squad which threatened to claim an improbable point until Billy Sharp spared United’s blushes with a clinical finish three minutes from the end of normal time.
“We made an exhilarating start and should have been four or five up by the time we went in front,” Adkins, who had earlier seen Che Adams and Ryan Flynn fire the hosts into a 2-0 lead, said.
“We got pegged back, yes, but everyone should be happy. Because we needed to win and that’s what we’ve done.”
Crewe had attempted to sign Adams before his transfer to United two years ago and he rubbed salt into the wound by scoring the goal which should have been the foundation for a comfortable victory.
When Flynn converted after the break, Adkins could have been forgiven for thinking the contest was over but, not for the first time since taking charge, he was wrong as first David Fox and then Harry Davis drew Crewe level.
United’s prodigious youth programme - five of their seven substitutes were home-grown players - proved to be the club’s salvation once again during the closing stages.
The winner, scored by Sharp, was crafted at the Steelphalt Academy as Ben Whiteman and Louis Reed combined superbly to prise apart Crewe’s rearguard and allow their fellow graduate to head past Ben Garratt.
The goal, Sharp’s 17th of the season, saved Adkins the pain of explaining an embarrassing collapse and, quite possibly, United’s slim play-off hopes too.
“It didn’t matter what anyone else did,” he said.
“We needed to win, which is what we did, and for me, everything else is irrelevant.”
If United’s recent returns have sometimes been baffling, the facts and figures of Crewe’s campaign make thoroughly miserable reading indeed.
The visitors, still without an away win since November 24, have spent all but two of the past 37 weeks rooted in League One’s relegation zone. A situation which, Jon Guthrie admitted beforehand, has taken its toll both mentally and physically on Steve Davis’ squad.
For almost all of the first-half, their powers of resilience were again sorely tested as United threatened to build a commanding lead. But it was not until just past the hour mark that the hosts tightened their grip on the contest courtesy of Flynn’s overhead kick.
Fox immediately loosened it again with a low shot which snaked past Long from 20 yards before Davis equalised and, much to United’s relief, Sharp did what he does best.
“We kept going,” Adkins said.
“We showed character and resilience. Yes, we went too deep second half but we showed guts and the ability to bounce back.”
United, having been reminded of the need to make a fast start following last weekend’s defeat at Millwall, began yesterday’s fixture in positive fashion with only Garratt’s razor-sharp reflexes preventing them from taking a second minute lead.
Brayford met Matt Done’s corner at the far post and, despite making a clean connection with his header, Crewe’s goalkeeper was able to claw the ball away.
United went again when Paul Coutts, recalled after injuries and international obligations robbed Adkins of Alex Baptiste and David Edgar, found Sharp having confused his marker with a well-executed feint. The centre-forward, who moments later endured yet more frustration when he saw a 15th minute shot bounce back off a post, saw a close-range snap shot blocked.
But, three minutes later, Adams provided the breakthrough United’s enterprising play deserved when he swept home from inside the penalty area.
Tom Hitchcock, on loan from MK Dons, nearly profited by a rare moment of defensive indecision midway through the half but, for the most part, the action ebbed continuously towards Crewe’s box until they finally rose from their slumber at the beginning of the second period.
The fact United’s lead remained so slender at the break represented, for the opposition at least, a small victory of sorts.
Adkins’ men survived their first real spell of pressure when George Long denied Charlie Kirk and substitute Billy Bingham in quick succession before Bradden Inman’s appeal for a penalty, following a tangle with Dean Hammond, were waved away by the referee.
United took full advantage of the midfielder’s escape when, in the 62nd minute, Flynn pounced. Coutts made strides down the flank and found Sharp but, although Guthrie intervened, the midfielder acrobatically turned the ball home.
Crewe, however, improved as the afternoon wore on and reduced the deficit through Fox within six minutes. Then, with only seven remaining, Davis scrambled past a helpless Long as United’s defence went AWOL.
But Sharp had the last word when Whiteman lofted a delightful pass towards Reed whose equally impressive centre was duly dispatched.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham, Flynn, Coutts (Reed 79), Sharp, Done, McEveley, Adams (Calvert-Lewin 79), McGahey, Hammond (Whiteman 70). Not used: Howard, Sammon, Kelly, Brooks.
Crewe Alexandra: Garratt, Turton, Guthrie, Davis, Nugent (Bingham 46), Inman, Fox, Jones (Ainley 75), Kirk, Hitchcock (Dalla Valle 67), Bakayogo. Not used: Ray, Atkinson, Cooper, Richards.
Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).
Attendance: 18, 539.