Sheffield United 1 Rochdale 1: Blades off the mark for the season despite worst display of Chris Wilder's reign
One of the fundamental tenets of sports psychology is prioritising performance over result.
After spending last week scratching his head when two chance laden displays ended in defeat, Chris Wilder probably begs to differ.
Sheffield United produced arguably their worst 90 minutes of football since returning to competitive action nine days ago yet, against a Rochdale team which had earlier been gifted the lead, conspired to snatch a first point of the campaign courtesy of Billy Sharp’s late equaliser.
In truth, it was not difficult to fathom why. United might have been disjointed and, when Andy Cannon edged the visitors in front, dangerously generous.
But they were certainly not dispirited as Wilder, despite being irritated by his team’s attention to detail and decision-making, acknowledged afterwards.
“When we scored, we saw what the players were all about,” he said.
“There were things we did which weren’t great but we didn’t give up.”
United are making a habit of starting quickly but failing to translate possession into goals. When Matt Done and Jack O’Connell both went close during the early exchanges, it appeared this match was destined to follow the same pattern as recent contests with Bolton Wanderers and Crewe Alexandra.
But Rochdale are a canny, streetwise bunch and after dragging the contest into the trenches, finished a scrappy first-half on top when George Long failed to hold Ian Henderson’s attempt and allowed Cannon to stroke the ball home.
Long, who had previously made a superb save to deny Henderson, was seldom called upon afterwards although Harrison McGahey, the former United defender, did prod wide from a corner.
United, who had struggled to figure-out Rochdale’s offside trap, introduced new loan signing Harry Chapman after the break.
But, with Mark Duffy twice miscalculating his angles and Leon Clarke heading just past the far post from the winder’s cross, they appeared destined for another fruitless afternoon until Sharp converted Chris Hussey’s excellent free-kick.
“It’s a start for us,” Wilder said. “It’s not what we wanted because we wanted more but we have to use it and go forward from here.”
PLAYING THE LONG GAME
Long’s performances have come under increasing scrutiny of late. The 22-year-old was unfairly blamed for failing to prevent Jay Spearing’s long-range effort at the Macron Stadium seven days earlier.
But, by presenting Cannon with the opportunity to score after spilling Henderson’s initial shot - or at least diverting it away to safety - he provided his detractors with some more ammunition.
One moment, just before Rochdale’s opener, perfectly encapsulated Long’s situation at present. And perhaps underlines why, despite beginning life under Wilder in chequered fashion, he is worth persevering with.
After dropping a high ball under pressure from Rochdale’s Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Long made a superb block to prevent Henderson from opening the scoring.
“George, when he took up the position, understood that ‘keepers walk that tightrope all the time,” Wilder said.
“He understands that more than most. But it’s how you respond and how the team responds.”
Having joined United less than 24 hours before kick-off, the odds were always stacked against Chapman making an immediate impact here.
The youngster, signed on a season long loan from Middlesbrough, made his debut as a second-half substitute for Done and showed flashes of the talent which saw him impress during a similar spell with Barnsley earlier this year. Chapman is positive, direct and has good positional sense. Like his new club, the winger will improve given more time on the training pitch.
IT’S MORE THAN JUST THE MIND
The likes of Dr Steve Peters and Regina Brandão might be able to focus purely on what goes on between a sportsperson’s ears. But that is a luxury few football managers can afford. Wilder always suspected United would take time to settle after overhauling their tactics and first team squad. Nevertheless, he must also deliver results in the meantime. Avoiding another defeat should ease some of weight on United’s shoulders and help them relax.