WIGAN Athletic somehow contrived to throw away a three-goal lead in a scarcely-believable climax to a game of football that they had in the bag - and then very nearly lost at the death.
Goals from Will Grigg and Haris Vuckic had given Latics a thoroughly-deserved two-goal interval lead that, if anything, flattered the visitors.
It looked like a routine home win had been completed at the three-quarter mark when Chris McCann made it three with a fine solo effort.
But that was only half of the story as Latics carelessly left the back door ajar - and watched in horror as the Blades hacked it off its hinges
United striker Matt Done pulled one back within two minutes of McCann’s goal, after good work from Billy Sharp.
The tension inside the stadium was ramped up when Sharp himself applied the finishing touch to Jay McEveley’s left-wing cross with 15 minutes still to play.
And the equaliser finally arrived with two minutes left, when a fabulous save from Jussi Jaaskelainen to deny Sharp proved to be in vain, as Done followed up to tap home.
With the home fans looking on in disbelief, Latics very nearly saw a point ripped out of their grasp towards the end of the six added minutes, when Sharp’s rocket from 30 yards was magnificently tipped over by Jaaskelainen at full stretch.
The two dropped points mean Latics lie five points off automatic promotion, ahead of this weekend’s visit of resurgent Chesterfield.
The feeling of bewilderment at the end was in stark contrast to the vibrance and positivity that had been prevalent for two-thirds of a pulsating evening.
Latics came flying out of the blocks and had their opponents on the back foot from the off.
An early cross from Michael Jacobs clearly hit hit the hand of a visiting defender, but nothing was given.
Latics had a scare with a moment of indecision at the back almost allowed the Blades twice.
On the second occasion, Done couldn’t keep his shot down when he might have done better.
Grigg was seeing plenty of the ball in the opening exchanges, and it was the Northern Ireland international who opened the scoring on 16 minutes.
Jacobs it was who played the role of provider, and Grigg controlled the ball well before producing a superb finish past George Long.
Seconds later it was almost 2-0, Grigg again being played through and this time the goalkeeper making a fine save to divert the ball round the post.
Midway through the half, Grigg thought he was in again, lofting the ball over Long and into the net only to turn and see the offside flag up.
The busy Grigg then dispossessed Chris Basham on halfway, before bearing down on goal and forcing another very good save from Long.
United looked like they were still feeling the effects of Saturday’s stoppage-time FA Cup defeat at Manchester United, but briefly threatened six minutes before the break.
Jose Baxter was first to a loose ball and had his feet taken from under him by Donervon Daniels 25 yards from goal.
The visiting supporters and players were screaming for a red card, but referee Mr Woolmer thankfully ruled there was sufficient Latics cover and brandished only yellow.
Baxter’s free kick also came to nothing, but the Blades came even closer when Done rounded Jaaskelainen before pulling the ball back into the area.
Captain Craig Morgan read the play well, however, and hacked the ball to safety.
Latics would probably have taken half-time at this point, but they pushed forward and added a second goal just before the interval.
A lovely move involving David Perkins and McCann saw the unlikely figure of Jason Pearce speeding to the byline.
The big defender’s cross was a beauty, and Vuckic planted a firm header past the goalkeeper and into the net.
Latics picked up where they’d left off after the break, and a mazy run from Jacobs released Vuckic, who fired just over with his left foot.
The Blades had a couple of chances as the hour mark approached, and Baxter had a snap-shot deflected behind for a corner before Sharp blasted inches over the top.
A visibly tiring Vuckic was then replaced by Yanic Wildschut, who received a standing ovation on his second ‘debut’ for the club.
And the celebratory mood inside the DW was only cranked up a notch when McCann made it 3-0 midway through the second period.
The Blades couldn’t clear their lines, and the Irishman showed quick feet before slipping the ball past the goalkeeper from 10 yards.
That was surely game over, but the visitors immediately threw themselves a lifeline when Sharp’s cross was finished off well by Done at close quarters.
Seven minutes later it was 3-2 when McEveley’s cross was nodded home by the predatory Sharp from six yards out.
Latics almost killed it off when Wildschut and Grigg combined to tee up Max Power, whose shot flew just over.
But the comeback was complete with two minutes to go when Sharp’s shot was brilliantly kept out by Jaaskelainen, only for Done to follow up and equalise.
The Latics players looked crestfallen, and there was very nearly an even bigger sting in the tale right at the end of six added minutes.
With the referee’s whistle almost in his mouth, Jaaskelainen had to be at full stretch to tip over a rocket from Sharp that was heading for the top corner.