On paper, this should have been a routine victory for a Sheffield United side with serious aspirations of playing Championship football next term.
In practise, however, it turned-out to be anything but with Rochdale providing stubborn resistance until John Brayford put the game beyond reach midway through the second-half.
The result, which strengthens United’s grip on a League One play-off place, also stretched their unbeaten run to five games. Which, as manager Nigel Clough emphasised afterwards, could prove significant as they chase an automatic promotion berth.
Momentum is everything. There are no points for style.
“All we are bothered about now is the result,” Clough said.
“That’s all we are interested in now. If you have to smash it away then smash it. Winning, especially at this stage, is the most important thing.”
Matt Done’s return to Spotland had been the main topic of conversation beforehand after scoring four goals in as many outings following his transfer to Bramall Lane.
But in Marc McNulty, the visitors possess another centre-forward of considerable prowess. A fact the youngster underlined by scoring his 11th goal of the season and first in 10 games to put United on course for their 15th win of the campaign. It also, Rochdale will not care to be reminded, helped preserve the South Yorkshire club’s unblemished record at Spotland. The Joy of Six.
“We were speaking to Tony Pulis not so long ago and he told us these were the games, Tuesdsay nights away from home, that got Stoke up when he was there,” Clough said. “It was a lovely finish from Marc - worthy of the pass that put him through - and there aren’t many who would put that away in the manner he did.”
Done, who hit the target 14 times for Rochdale after being converted from a winger to a striker by Keith Hill, replaced McNulty at the beginning of the second period. Rested to protect the ankle injury which has hampered him in recent weeks, Done was an energetic presence in attack. But it was Brayford, another of Clough’s acquisitions during the recent transfer window, who extended United’s advantage before Jack O’Connell reduced the deficit with 15 minutes remaining.
Substitute Nyall Bell went close soon after but, for the most part, Rochdale were kept at arms-length and Clough said: “They are very difficult to play against because they mix it up so well. They go long, they go short and there’s quite a few big lads in the team but I think we showed good match-craft and we deserved that win.
“John probably only touched the ball twice in the second-half but he was still an influence. That’s what lads like him, Paul Coutts, Chris Basham and Matty bring with their attitude, experience and mental strength.”
Rochdale scored more goals during the opening 15 minutes of games than any other team in the division as they blazed a trail towards promotion last term. The third tier of English football might be proving a much tougher proposition for Hill’s side than League Two but old habits die hard with Ian Henderson, their captain and leading scorer, nearly hunting down Terry Kennedy’s first minute back pass before Peter Vincenti also went close.
United, though, also had their moments until something resembling a pattern emerged. Paul Coutts had Rochdale’s rearguard back-tracking desperately as they chased Michael Doyle’s pass while Ryan Flynn and McNulty, among three changes to Clough’s starting eleven, combined to forge another chance although the latter could not connect cleanly with his colleague’s pass.
The demands of the fixture schedule have prompted Clough to utlise nearly every member of his squad in recent weeks. This contest was United’s seventh since the end of January while their opponents, narrowly beaten at Bramall Lane five months ago, have played only four times.
McNulty, returning to the first choice line-up following a five match absence, was among those to benefit from Clough’s selection policy and, in the 21st minute, he rewarded Clough’s faith by edging United ahead.
The summer signing from Livingston, regarded by coaching staff and team mates alike as one of the best natural finishers at Bramall Lane, swept the ball effortlessly beyond Josh Lillis after peeling away from his marker to meet Bob Harris’ pass.
Rochdale, despite losing three of the four games they have played since Done’s departure, remain one of the competition’s most awkward propositions; underlined by their determined response to McNulty’s intervention.
Febian Brandy, previously of United and Rotherham, did his best to unsettle Kennedy and Jay McEveley before being upended by a thunderous tackle from Doyle. Michael Rose nearly deceived Iain Turner by driving an angled free-kick towards the near post rather than the penalty spot soon after.
Ex-Manchester United trainee Brandy tested Turner with another dead ball delivery early in the second-half but, although his shot took a slight deflection, the goalkeeper’s handling was assured.
Not so poor Lillis who should have comfortably gathered Brayford’s long-range strike in the 61st minute only to fumble it into the back of the net instead.
McNulty was withdrawn as a precautionary measure after receiving what Clough later described as “a nasty whack to the shin” before breaking the deadlock: “Marc got a cut there and it could make him a doubt for (Crawley on) Saturday,” he said.
“We’ll have to wait and see.”
ROCHDALE: Lillis 5, Rafferty 6, Eastham 6, Vincenti 7 (Bennett 68), Brandy 6 (Bell 55), Hery 6, O’Connell 6, Rose 7, Logan 6 (Noble-Lazarus 31), Tom Kennedy 6, Henderson 6. Not used: Tanser, Musangu, Allen, Bunney.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 6, Harris 6, Brayford 7 Basham 7, Flynn 6 (Freeman 71), Doyle 7, Murphy 7, McNulty 7 (Done 46, 6), Coutts 6 (83), McEveley 7, Terry Kennedy 7. Not used: Willis, Davies, Adams, Calvert-Lewin.
REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland), 7
GOALS: McNulty (21), Brayford (61, O’Connell (75)
CAUTIONS: Murphy (44)
RED CARDS: None
PLAYER-WATCH: Marc McNulty has been forced to play second-fiddle to Matt Done after the former Rochdale striker’s arrival at Bramall Lane. But he kept Done on his toes by scoring for the 11th time this season thanks to an expert first-half finish.