There were moments in this match when Daniel Lafferty could have been forgiven for thinking he had been transported back in time to his semi-professional days in Derry.
A pudding of a pitch, two managers desperately trying to persuade their teams to adhere to a game plan and twenty two players seemingly intent on doing anything but.
There were moments of quality, including Lafferty’s strike which, after Mark Duffy’s earlier finish, appeared to have laid the foundations for a comfortable Sheffield United win.
But it was the chaos in between, combined with Rochdale’s refusal to give up the ghost, which made Saturday’s skirmish at the Crown Oil Arena a such memorable spectacle.
The trouble was, from their perspective, United possess plenty of fortitude too.
“We knew what the surface was going to be like, they had a postponed game in midweek, but it was the same for both teams,” Lafferty said.
“We knew it was, by no means, going to be a carpet. It was always going to be a hard, tough away game where we had to graft. I thought, massive credit to them, they dealt with the conditions better than us.”
Chris Wilder, the League One leaders manager, also admitted as much after acknowledging United had “dodged a bullet” despite racing into an early lead.
Duffy’s goal was impressive. Lafferty’s even more so. Billy Sharp scored his 24th of the season after Steven Davies and Matthew Lund had clawed Keith Hill’s side back on level terms before Nathaniel Mendez-Laing ensured Rochdale claimed the draw their efforts deserved.
The result left United five points clear at the top of League One and eight points clear of Scunthorpe in third. But it also served as a reminder that, despite their cushion, top two status is still far from guaranteed.
Credit to Rochdale because they’re a good team.
“We could have got beat but we’re a resilient team,” Lafferty, the Northern Ireland international, said. “Ethan (Ebanks-Landell) made some great blocks when they were trying to nick something. To come to a tough away game, on a terrible pitch, we might look back on that and think it’s a crucial point. We know we’ve got to do better than that though and we know we can.”
BASHAM GETS BETTER
All three of United’s goals oozed quality. Duffy’s effort, after Paul Coutts had taken a short free-kick, was pure precision. Lafferty’s 30 yard Howitzer raw power. The pass which allowed Sharp to thread a low shot through the penalty area was classy but, as Lafferty highlighted afterwards, it was the person responsible for supplying it who probably did most to ensure the visitors did not lose.
Chris Basham might not be the most gifted member of Wilder’s squad but, in terms of guts, determination and work ethic, he has few peers.
“I think it shows the kind of character we’ve got in the dressing room,” Lafferty said. “Some players are probably more technically gifted than others but we’re all prepared to work. Chris Basham, who I don’t think gets the credit he deserves sometimes, was outstanding out there I thought. Whether he’s in defence or midfield. He played a massive part in the third goal. He was outstanding last week on a good pitch (against Scunthorpe at Bramall Lane) and outstanding today on a poor pitch. There are different aspects to football. It’s not all about the pretty stuff. People like Bash can grind out things.”
Despite United’s status as the division’s most prestigious club, something Hill acknowledged following the final whistle, Wilder has assembled an unpretentious group of players since taking charge 10 months ago. But Basham, one of those he inherited after being appointed, personifies it best.
“It makes a big difference, not having egos,” Lafferty said. “One of our main attributes is honesty. If someone is lackadaisical or sloppy, someone will dig them out. We’ve got good honest players who are willing to go that extra yard for each other. If anyone was to get complacent, we’ve got the personalities in there to make sure they get it right. It comes from the manager, to be fair, from the top down.”
ROCHDALE PROVE THEIR WORTH
Rochdale might be without a win in nine outings but are deceptively dangerous opponents. Having beaten second-placed Fleetwood Town, Bolton Wanderers and Southend on home soil this term, they refused to buckle after falling 2-0 down after only 11 minutes although their comeback was aided and abetted by United’s unusually erratic defending.
Davies turned home after the ball was allowed to flash across the penalty area before Lund pounced when Andrew Cannon recycled possession. Sharp’s goal, his 12th in 14 appearances, could have shattered their resistance but Mendez-Laing, like Davies a former United loanee, profited from some poor tackling.
Ebanks-Landell’s perfectly executed tackle and Simon Moore’s fine save prevented Rochdale, who saw Ben Wilson foil Lafferty during the closing stages, claiming victory. But United are tenacious as well as talented.
“It was nice to get on the scoresheet and it was a good goal to score, I’ll probably have it on repeat when I get home,” Lafferty said. “Unfortunately for us, although the two goals we scored were good goals, we gave them up and that was sloppy from us. The basics we’ve been doing, defending crosses and stopping them coming into the box, we gave that up for whatever reason out there.
“We’re all disappointed in there because we knew we were below average. Credit to Rochdale, they were better than us in most aspects and they’re a good team. They should be there or there abouts regarding the play-offs I think.”