The Blades are looking to maintain their four match unbeaten run when they welcome Rochdale to Bramall Lane this afternoon.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce claimed the only goal of an entertaining contest with four minutes of normal time remaining when his cross took a wicked deflection off Stephen Dawson and spiralled into the back of the visitors’ net.
But Keith Hill’s side also went close themselves when, 17 minutes earlier, Ian Henderson’s powerful effort struck the crossbar while Mark Howard plucked Peter Vincenti’s late header out of their air.
Rochdale had arrived bristling with confidence after scoring seven goals without reply in their previous two games. Indeed, it spoke volumes about the mood within the visitors’ squad that Hill, Nigel Clough’s counterpart across the technical area, revealed his biggest concern was the state of the pitch.
United caused them problems at times but Hill’s belief in his players does not appear misplaced as they coped with much that came their way although Clough will have been disappointed with the quality of their
However, United’s persistence paid dividends when, in the 86th minute, Campbell-Ryce’s goal ensured all three points remained in South Yorkshire.
Jay McEveley had insisted beforehand that United possess the both the quality and depth of squad to be masters of their own destiny in this season’s race for the Championship.
Clough, speaking at the club’s media briefing earlier this week, effectively endorsed the defender’s claim by indicating he would delay entering the emergency loan market until later this month when, due to the rules
governing the transfer of players, any new arrivals would be eligible for selection across the festive period.
Nevertheless, both the former England international and the Liverpool born full-back identified several areas where United could improve.
Keeping more clean sheets featured among them and, during the early skirmishes at Bramall Lane this afternoon, it appeared doing so against Rochdale would prove easier said than done with Craig Alcock who had earlier dealt comfortably with Henderson, forced to awkwardly deal with looping second minute centre delivered towards the visitors’ forward.
But, for the most part at least, it was United who generally posed the questions with Jose Baxter posing a particular threat.
Indeed, in the fifth minute, he was only inches away from handing them the lead after meeting Davies’ excellent inswinging set-piece with a glancing header.
Despite losing their opening two fixtures of the new campaign, United have shown signs of living-up to their pre-season billing as promotion favourites in recent weeks, claiming the scalps of Peterborough and West Ham before continuing an unbeaten run stretched back to last month’s victory over Crawley Town with a hard-fought draw at Preston North End.
Alcock returned to the starting eleven following injury but Michael Higdon, the former Motherwell and NEC Nijmegen centre-forward, dropped to the bench.
That saw Baxter and Jamie Murphy deployed in the two central attacking roles with Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Davies patrolling the flanks.
Campbell-Ryce, who produced an exceptional individual display against Preston, looked to test his marker early on again but, despite leaving Scott Tanser trailing in his wake after three minutes, his cross towards Baxter was cut-out.
United, who saw Murphy’s half-hearted appeal for a penalty turned down, swapped Campbell-Ryce and Davies midway through the opening period as they looked to drag Rochdale’s defenders away from Baxter, already the victim of several heavy challenges, and Murphy.
Hill, though, has constructed an organised, durable side since returning to Spotland. And, in the 21st minutre, Mark Howard was forced to prevent Vincenti’s cross from sneaking beneath the crossbar.
Vincenti underlined his growing influence by driving forward two minutes later and earning a corner when hhis drive was deflected wide.
Then Baxter, normally so assured in front of goal, lost his footing at the vital moment after escaping the clutches of two markers as United surged forward quickly.
Rafferty was cautioned in the 29th minute for fouling Campbell-Ryce who, moments later, swept a tantalising centre across Conrad Logan’s penalty area which Murphy nearly turned home.
Basham did well to wriggle beyond his marker on the touchline as United, with the pressure building on an otherwise impressive Rochdale eleven, began to grow, attempted to take charge but Campbell-Ryce could not get a touch.
Then, with 10 minutes of the half remaining, Murphy opened his body to shoot but could not find the far corner of Logan’s net while Baxter also went close.
Rafferty was substituted for Rochdale in the 43rd minute, presumably due to injury, with Tom Kennedy entering the fray.
Both teams threw caution to the wind during the opening skirmishes of the second period with Done cautioned for a 54th minute lunge on Alcock as the United defender attempted to launch a counter-attack.
Seconds earlier, Basham’s stooping header had been comfortably collected by Logan following a good passage of play from Hill’s men.
Campbell-Ryce continued to cause Rochdale problems whenever he set-off on a run but, much to the former Jamaica international’s frustration, he had yet to produce a final, killer pass.
That was the case again on the hour mark when he sped beyond two defenders but Ashley Eastham cleared his cross towards Murphy who had tracked forward in support.
Davies was withdrawn in the 63rd minute with Marc McNulty, rather than Higdon, sent on in his place.
Two minutes later, Murphy limped-off the pitch which presented Flynn with an opportunity to force his way back into the starting eleven.
The Scot’s compatriot Neill Collins climbed highest to meet a 63rd minute corner but his header was collected low by Logan.
Rochdale regathered their composure though when Henderson’s thunderous effort on the turn left Howard’s crossbar shaking.
United made their third and final change with a quarter-of-an-hour of normal time remaining when Basham made way for James Wallace.
With Davies now off the pitch, Baxter stepped-up to take a 76th minute free-kick just outside the Rochdale area but although his attempt slipped through the wall, Logan gathered comfortably.
Campbell-Ryce’s persistence paid off late on, though, when he found the back of the net from an acute angle, albeit with a little help from Dawson.
Sheffield United: Howard, Alcock, Basham, Doyle, Murphy, Baxter, Collins, Davies, McGahey, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce. Substitutes: Harris, Higdon, Flynn, McNulty, Wallace, Reed, Turner.
Rochdale: Logan, Rafferty, Bennett, Eastham, Vincenti, Dawson, Done, Tanser, Allen, O’Connell, Henderson. Substitutes: Lancashire, Andrew, Hery, Musangu, Fenelon, Kennedy, Bunney.
Referee: Gary Sutton (Lincolnshire).