Sheffield United match verdict: Blades 1 Rochdale 0

Jamal Campbell-Ryce
Jamal Campbell-Ryce
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They seldom set pulses racing and leave supporters with fingernails that are bitten to the quick but, as Arsenal demonstrated two decades ago, it is possible to construct a successful season on the back of 1-0 wins.

Nigel Clough remains convinced Sheffield United will eventually grow into a team more akin to Arsene Wenger’s swashbuckling Invincibles than George Graham’s gutsy dogs of war.

But, for the time being at least, the League One club’s manager remains perfectly content to see his players grinding out victories and keeping clean sheets.

Neill Collins also emphasised the importance of building an impenetrable defence after Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s fortuitious late goal stretched United’s unbeaten run to five games. However, like his manager, the centre-half insisted Saturday’s victory over an impressive Rochdale side provided only fleeting glimpses of the potential which exists within their ranks.

“The stubborn streak has always been there,” Collins said. “I don’t think, apart from the odd instance or two, that it’s ever really gone away.

“Really, it’s all about having the right mindset, not just among the back four but right the way through the team - having an attitude which demands, when you get in front, that come what may you are going to see the match through.”

“But if we have a group that’s good enough to win League One, then we’ll have a winger or a striker who gets all the accolades,” Collins added.

“Defence is important, but I’ve got no problems with that at all.

“That why we’re relying on people like Jamal or Jose (Baxter) to produce those little pieces of magic.”

Both of United’s home wins in the competition this term have been achieved by the narrowest of margins.

But, against opponents who arrived boasting the division’s second most prolific attack after hitting the target seven times without reply in their previous two outings, this was the most hard-earned.

It might be 32 years, four months and 11 days since Rochdale found the back of the net at Bramall Lane but Ian Henderson and Peter Vincenti went close to emulating Barry Wellings, the former Tranmere Rovers and York City centre-forward, either side of Campbell-Ryce’s effort only for first the crossbar and then Mark Howard to intervene.

United, as Clough and Collins acknowledged afterwards, are still far from the finished article. But, after two false starts at the begining of the campaign, they now bear greater resemblance to the stubborn, intractable unit which came within a place of qualifying for the play-offs and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup last term.

“Over the past few years, I don’t think there will be many people out there with a better clean sheets to games ration than us,” Collins said. “Our back four now is almost completely new and people have got to respect that because it always takes time to get everything exactly right, for things to click properly, but I think we’re doing well.

“But, while clean sheets are important, we’ve also got to score goals. Hopefully we’ll be able to do both.”

With Collins and teenager Harrison McGahey developing into a strong partnership at the back, United dealt effectively, if not always efficiently, with most of the problems Rochdale posed.

Their midfield, despite Campbell-Ryce’s energy, has yet to truly fire but, in Baxter, they possess one of the division’s most technically accomplished and articulate attacking players.

Demonstrating excellent spatial awareness and understanding of how events around him will unfold, Baxter book-ended a fine first-half display with two near-misses before testing Conrad Logan’s handling with a free-kick after the break.

Nevertheless, it was Campbell-Ryce, albeit courtesy of some help from Stephen Dawson, who finally swung the match United’s way.

“We’re still coming together, still evolving,” Clough said. “But we’re seeing signs now that things are falling into place.

“The goals will come, I’m absolutely certain of that, but sometimes one is enough.

“Yes, we can improve, especially around the opposition penalty area.

“Just show a little bit more quality, some better decision-making and execute things with a little more quality at times. But it will come because we’ve got that within the squad.”

“You can’t go gung-ho against Rochdale, though,” Clough continued. “They break well and leave three up top most of the time so you’ve got to concentrate at all times.

“And we did that because Mark, right at the end, only really had one proper save to make.”

United have undergone a dramatic makeover since Clough’s appointment nearly 12 months ago with 11 new faces arriving this summer and only three of the 16 players in their squad when Rochdale last visited their stadium on show here.

One of those, Ryan Flynn, replaced Jamie Murphy when his fellow winger’s participation at Colchester tomorrow evening was thrown into doubt by a dead-leg. Michael Higdon could also return although Marc McNulty was preferred when Clough reshuffled his attack during the closing stages.

“All of the teams, during the first three months of the season, there’s nothing between them,” Collins said. “Everyone is fully fit and feeling positive.

“It’s only when injuries start setting in and confidence begins to wane that the league spreads out.

“In January, there’s still no such thing as an easy game. But some teams are definitely different at that stage to when you’ve faced them before and you know, if you can get on top of them early, that you can win pretty comfortably.

“People might look at that and say ‘well, it was Rochdale at home and that it should be an easy game’. Let me tell you, it was nothing of the sort because they’re a good team with a good manager.”

Collins was right. Hill has now led Rochdale to promotion during each of his two spells at Spotland where he has now won well over 40 per cent of his 300-plus games in charge.

The visitors, who entered this contest averaging more than three goals per fixture away from home since returning to the third tier of English competition earlier this year, seem well-equipped to cope providing they can steer clear of injuries or selection issues.

Vincenti, the Jersey-born forward, drew a smart reaction save from Howard before Murphy twice went close after combining with Campbell-Ryce while Henderson struck the woodwork after Chris Basham, ghosting forward at the far post, tested Logan with a stooping header.

Campbell-Ryce’s goal - his first in a United jersey - saw the ball, worked forward by Craig Alcock and McNulty, spiral over Logan’s head after striking Dawson. Vincenti, who had earlier created the opening for Henderson, thought he had equalised after meeting Matt Done’s centre but Howard proved equal to the task.

“That was a good win for us,” Collins said. “It’s a good three points and it keeps our momentum going. That’s the thing about this league, you can’t afford to drop too many and so it’s was an important three today. Rochdale are newly promoted and it’s always dangerous to play people who have just come up because they’re on a real high.”