CHRIS WILDER’S analysis of what happened at Rochdale would be regarded as treason if you or I had uttered it publicly. But the Sheffield United manager’s assertion his team was second best and the Lancastrians had done enough to deserve all three points instead of sharing the spoils from a gripping 3-3 draw, was strangely reassuring.
So too was a timely reminder that “anyone who thinks promotion for his table-toppers is “going to be a cakewalk between now and the end of April is a bit naive”.
A tidal wave of euphoria has swept Bramall Lane in recent weeks. An eight-point gap has opened up between United and third-placed Scunthorpe. With 11 matches remaining a long-awaited return to the Championship is undoubtedly the Blades' to lose. The United boss has constructed a squad more than capable of finishing the job.
Wilder’s 10 months in charge has been transformational and he is widely regarded by Unitedites as a man who can do no wrong. Even so many of the 3,500 travelling Blades leaving the Crown Oil Arena – Spotland to you and me – would disagree with his match verdict. Yes, United squandered a 2-0 lead achieved in 11 whirlwind minutes straight from kick-off. Yes, having regained it they couldn’t stop Rochdale from forcing a draw. But second best? That seems a little harsh.
Unless, of course, you are a winner and not prepared to accept second best as has been the case from managers and players alike in the recent past. For despite United’s lofty position and entertaining performances, the points haul from their last nine league fixtures hasn’t been a perfect match. Privately this must be of concern for management, if not those fans lulled understandably into a false sense of security by a quick glance at the league table. It wouldn’t take much to put it right but throwing away a two-goal lead, scoring three away from home and still having to settle for a point, does little to steady the nerves.
“Even when we went 2-0 up I was disappointed,” said Wilder. “We got caught in between, they played round us. We never closed the gaps, we never stepped up. When you allow some very good players time and space, which we did, they can hurt you. I thought they were better than us. I thought they were better with the ball and they were better without the ball.”
Stats from United’s last nine matches suggest that being unable to defend a 2-0 lead should come as no surprise. They have taken only 13 points from a possible 27, seven of of those dropped at home. In a truly competitive league at this stage of the season it would normally be enough to set alarm bells ringing.
That during this period the Blades have managed to emerge as clear leaders is partly thanks to the faltering form of promotion rivals Scunthorpe United and Bolton Wanderers. The Trotters have managed just 10 points from a possible 27 and Scunthorpe, trail-blazers for much of the season, a meagre nine.
Of the top four clubs only surprise package Fleetwood Town are producing the form you would expect to see at the so-called business stage of the season. Unbeaten in the league since November 12, 18 matches ago, over the same nine-match period they have taken 21 points, dropping only six.
A 2-0 win at Scunthorpe on Saturday moved Uwe Rosler’s men into second place, five points behind the Blades. Next up for the Cod Army, as United sit out the weekend due to Millwall's FA Cup involvement, is Bolton. They trail Wilder and Co by nine points and are effectively playing their match in hand in what could be a pivotal clash at Highbury.
“Fleetwood are having a great run, full credit to them, and now they are in that second spot it’s changed the dynamics of everything. We’re there to be shot at as we were today,” acknowledged Wilder.
He added: “I said to Keith [Rochdale manager Hill] afterwards I thought they [Rochdale] were the better team and they deserved to win a tight game.”
That said and as disappointed with United’s defending as he was, Wilder was pleased at the way his team fought to at least take one point and extend their unbeaten run to six matches.
“When you don't play well you have to dig in and stick into the game and get something out of it,” he said. “A point is a reward for that attitude.
“We've scored two goals out of nothing really because I thought for the first 10 or 15 minutes they [Rochdale] started better and we've ended 2-0 up. I don't think it was a case of that we absolutely steamrollered them and the goals were coming. We've scored two fantastic goals but we had an issue with the way they [Rochdale] play and we never got to grips with it.”
Mark Duffy gave United a fifth minute lead with a beautifully lofted ball past goalkeeper Ben Wilson. Daniel Lafferty followed that with a stunning striker from 25 yards. After Rochdale scored in each half through Steven Davies and Matt Lund, Billy Sharp restored United’s lead with his 24th goal of the campaign before former Blades loanee Nathaniel Mendez-Laing claimed Rochdale’s third with a neat finish to beat goalkeeper Simon Moore.
“Me and Knilly [United assistant Alan Knill] have had to change the system about three or four times just to get a foothold on the game at times,” said Wilder. “But off the back of that if you don't defend crosses, you don’t pick up people in the box and you allow people to get their head up, good players are going to hurt you and they’ve obviously done that today.”
On the half time substitution of defender Jack O’Connell for Samir Carruthers, Wilder explained: “We just tried to get another one in the middle of the park. Our two [Paul Coutts and John Fleck] were getting overrun. We changed the shape at half time because they were causing us all sorts of problems down this left-hand side.
“The players have had a collective off day. I thought [Chris] Basham was outstanding everybody else has been…(shrug).”
He added: “The biggest thing is that you do get something from the game and I’m delighted that we’ve got that. It’s a great sign, it’s a great talent to have. Players could have walked away today and said ‘we’ve not played well, we’re due a defeat, we’ve done great, we’re at the top’. We’re not due a defeat we want to keep going so to get a result out of this is good.”
Wilder explained that striker James Hanson was substituted after 56 minutes despite signalling that he wanted to continue after turning his ankle on a poor pitch. “I was concerned he might go over again and I couldn’t take that chance. He wanted to carry on but I wasn’t prepared to do that with 11 games to go.”