United were beaten by two late goals tonight at Rochdale. The U's played a big part in an open entertaining game but were made to pay for not converting their chances when strikes from George Donnelly and Bobby Grant in the last 12 minutes gave Dale all three points.
The game opened at a breath-taking pace, with Clarke saving well from Jason Kennedy inside ten seconds and Tom Craddock rolling a shot against the left hand post after just 30 seconds, a deflection denying the in-form striker who then blasted a second minute drive from the edge of the box which flew only an inch over the bar.
Both of those chances were engineered by strike-partner James Constable, and the opening stages were all United as they pushed Rochdale back towards their own goal with Peter Leven being given plenty of space in midfield to spray his passes around. Leven was the one change to the line-up, coming into the team when Lee Cox was struck down by a virus and forming an immediate partnership with Jake Forster-Caskey in the centre of the park.
The home side, with just the one win at Spotland this season, looked a little edgy to start with until Joe Rafferty came in from the right after 18 minutes and tested Clarke with a left footed shot from 20 yards which the keeper tipped over the top. Grant blazed the resulting corner over the top when he should have done much better, and the opening half was bright and inventive with chances at both ends.
The best chance of them all came to Alfie Potter on 24 minutes when Sean Rigg’s cross from the left was guided across the face of goal and Potter ghosted in but screwed his shot back across goal from the far post and saw it roll harmlessly wide. You would almost forgive Potter for the miss, given the moment of absolute magic 30 seconds earlier when he dummied so far past his full back that he was practically in another postcode before the left back found him again. To the untrained eye Andy Whing fell over on the edge of the box a couple of minutes later, but we know he was trying his own, less successful, version of that dummy.
Mullins, dominant in the air at both ends, met two successive corners in the 33ed minute, the keeper pushing his first header over the bar and the second drifting wide of the left hand post. Craddock then planted a shot into the hands of keeper Josh Lillis on 38 after a flowing move in which Rigg’s sublime flick had allowed Capaldi to race down the left and cross a dangerous ball in.
Another lightning fast break saw Potter burst into the box then latch on to the cross from Craddock on 41 minutes, with only a heroic last-ditch tackle from Ryan Edwards denying Potter a goal as the centre-half threw himself in front of Potter’s shot, and the only blot on a pretty good first half was a booking for the excellent Michael Raynes just before the break which will mean a one game suspension as it was his fifth of the season.
United thought they had taken the lead in the second minute of the second half as Raynes headed a corner from Leven goalwards, Constable flicked on and the ball seemed to cross the line. With no goal-line technology it was waved away, and the lack of serious appeals perhaps indicate that the ball was further away than it appeared from the stands.
Leven uncharacteristically planted a 59th minute free-kick over the bar before Grant drilled Dale's best opportunity well wide of the far post after for once getting the better of the outflanked Raynes and Mullins.
Lillis made the save of the night on 71 minutes as Craddock wriggled into space on the edge of the box and fizzed in a powerful right footed effort that was heading for the top corner until the keeper's finger tips touched it away for a corner, and United had made plenty of chances to win the game. Unfortunately with 12 minutes to go Dale made them pay for that with the crucial first goal. Grant burst free on the left and delivered an inviting deep cross which bisected the United defenders, and there was Donnelly to rise and power his header past the powerless Clarke from eight yards out.
Slightly tough on United who were much improved on their last away game at Port Vale, but when they went searching for an equaliser in the closing stages they were undone once again as the roles were reversed and Donnelly rolled the ball across the box for Grant to tap home with ease and make it 2-0 and game over.
A game they might easily have got something out of, United now make the short trip to Wycombe on Saturday and will be looking to bounce back from this result, backed by a bumper away following.
Report by Chris Williams. Pictures by Darrell Fisher. Stats by PA Sports