Florent Cuvelier still believes. Nigel Adkins does too.
But unless Sheffield United learn how to translate performances into points the talk of gaining promotion this season will be pure fantasy.
Cuvelier, making his first senior start since December 2014 following a series of debilitating injuries, admitted he was struggling to fathom how a match which saw Adkins’ team lay siege to Rochdale’s goal for long periods had ended in the home side’s favour.
Goalkeeper Josh Lillis’ heroics went a long way towards explaining it. Likewise, the Belgian conceded after impressing in midfield, United’s habit of failing to exploit the pressure and possession they exert.
“We are so disappointed to lose, especially when you see how well we played,” Cuvelier said. “In the first half, I don’t think they got past the middle third of the pitch more than two or three times.
“We could have been two or three nil up at the interval but we needed to score goals and we didn’t. Then, in the end, we got punished for that.”
This result, which shattered the visitors’ unblemished record against opponents they had beaten in all seven of their previous meetings en route to Spotland, inflicted minimal damage to Adkins’ hopes of ending his first season in charge with a top-six finish.
With Coventry City, Millwall and Southend all failing to win over the course of a typically unpredictable League One weekend, United are still four points behind the play-off positions, with 13 games remaining.
The same, however, could not be said of the harm it caused to the already-strained relationship between the club’s squad and its support, many of whom delivered their own x-rated verdict on United’s credentials long before the final whistle was blown.
A shade harsh perhaps but, given their mid-table position, inevitable.
“When you play football, what I’ve realised over the course of the past two years is how much of it is all in the head, when you are losing, when you are drawing or even when you are winning, because you need to keep your feet on the ground,” Cuvelier, insisting he is now fully recovered from cruciate ligament and hamstring problems, said.
“We are going to need everybody now. We need everyone to stick together and get behind the team because everyone has a role. Do I think we can do it? Yes.”
Cuvelier, starting in place of the suspended Dean Hammond, possesses the type of talent United must harness in order to prevent their season peteringout.
Before tiring during the closing stages, he demonstrated why Adkins has been determined to persevere with him despite the player’s well-documented fitness issues,.
Combining well with Che Adams, Cuvelier’s first-time shot during the early skirmishes was turned over the crossbar by Lillis but set the tone for a one-sided opening period as Adams and Billy Sharp, released by his strike partner, also went close.
“I was really disappointed to see the goalkeeper save it,” Cuvelier said. “It was a great stop but I was looking forward to running over and celebrating with our fans.”
Adkins, who handed Lillis his professional debut at Scunthorpe, shook the 28-year-old’s hand after he ensured Rochdale recorded back to back wins for the first time this term. After Lillis denied Cuvelier, Sharp and Adams with excellent saves, Adkins must have felt like grabbing him by the throat instead.
Ultimately, though, it was the introduction of Peter Vincenti and Grant Holt which swung the course of this contest. While Vincenti used finesse to pick apart United - George Long had been a spectator until the midfielder caressed the ball home - Holt employed brute force which raised questions about whether it was wise to leave Neill Collins, Adkins’ most experienced centre-half, on the bench.
Had United been able to make the most of their chances, however, their selection policy would probably not have mattered a jot. Instead, they found it almost impossible to break Lillis’ resolve. When they did, Chris Basham was thwarted by a post.
Adams went close again after Vincenti’s intervention but saw Lillis parry away his shot.
Holt shattered United’s confidence and hopes of a comeback when he converted a Michael Rose corner.
Having returned to the club on a free transfer from Wigan Athletic, it was his first effort at Spotland for over a decade, although the centre-forward’s goading of the away support, like United’s marking, left much to be desired.
“When you look at the overall game, everyone is gutted we didn’t put the ball in the back of the net even once,” Cuvelier said. “That was the problem.”
Rochdale: Lillis 9, Rafferty 6, McNulty 7, Eastham 6, Lund 6 (Bennett 90), Canavan 7, Mendez-Laing 6 (Holt 46, 7), Allen 6, Rose 6, Bunney 6 (Vincenti 46, 8), Henderson 6. Not used: Alessandra, Noble-Lazarus, Collis, Camps.
Sheffield United: Long 6, Brayford 7, Basham 6, Edgar 6, McEveley 7, Flynn 6 (Scougall 75), Cuvelier 7 (Coutts 75), Reed 6, Woolford 6 (Done 32, 6), Adams 7, Sharp 7.Not used: Howard, Collins, Campbell-Ryce, Calvert-Lewin.
Referee: Mark Heywood (West Yorkshire).