ONCE the dust had settled on a pulsating contest, Sheffield United bore the look of a team destined for the play-offs as Doncaster Rovers’ own hopes of gate-crashing the end of season promotion deciders perished.
Steven Davies’s second-half winner meant the Blades had moved eight points clear of the chasing pack, while the gap Paul Dickov’s men must make up on the top six remained in double figures.
Those simple statistics, however, tell a mere fraction of a truly remarkable derby that featured almost as many contenders for goal of the season as it did dramatic twists and turns.
There was no little controversy, either, with referee Scott Duncan failing to award what seemed a certain penalty to the gutsy visitors near the end when John Brayford handled Enda Stevens’s cross.
It meant Davies’s stunning strike had been enough to settle a contest that had seen Rovers create the lion’s share of chances only to be denied by a combination of Mark Howard’s agility in the home goal and his left-hand post, the latter denying James Coppinger.
He had been the game’s outstanding performer and his withdrawal by Dickov near the end drew jeers from the 1,439 visiting fans.
Come the final whistle, however, those same supporters were joining their United counterparts in a crowd of 20,487 affording both sides a deserved standing ovation.
The entertainment had begun early, just 90 seconds having been played when Howard made the first of several crucial saves when he kept out a diving header from Curtis Main.
Rovers went ahead on 17 minutes, a forceful run and sweeping pass to the left by Coppinger setting up Bennett.
He took one touch before unleashing a fearsome arrowed drive that gave Howard no chance.
Parity was restored just before the half-hour, a clumsy challenge by McCombe on Matt Done in the Rovers’ penalty area leaving referee Duncan no alternative but to point to the spot and Jose Baxter did the rest from 12 yards.
United’s second goal of the night came eight minutes into the second half as Matty Done expertly steered a left-wing cross past Stephen Bywater and into the net off a post.
In between the two goals by the hosts, however, it was Doncaster who had taken charge.
First, Howard had to race from his area to clear a second or so ahead of Nathan Tyson as the striker chased a lovely through ball from Bennett in stoppage time. Then, just after the restart, Andy Butler met a wonderful delivery from Bennett with such ferocity that the hacked clearance flew over Jay McEveley’s head and out for a corner.
The resulting flag-kick led to more chaos in United’s area before Coppinger whipped in an inviting cross that was just begging Butler to convert only for the defender to fail to get a touch.
Coppinger then unleashed a ferocious shot from 20 yards that flew narrowly over Howard’s crossbar before going even closer with a stabbed shot from Tyson’s cross that struck a post.
When United followed this let-off by going ahead, Rovers could have been forgiven for thinking it was not going to be their night
Credit, therefore, is due to Dickov’s men, who responded with another thunderbolt from Bennett on the hour that deservedly drew the visitors level.
Main then had a chance thanks to more elusive play out wide from Coppinger, but it was United who snatched the all-important fifth goal.
Again it was a belter as, after collecting a throw-in, Davies beat two defenders before rifling an unstoppable shot past Bywater.
Any thoughts that proceedings might quieten down and Doncaster accept their fate were quickly blown away.
Just 60 seconds after Davies’s strike, Howard had to again rescue his team-mates with a flying save from Tyson after the Rovers striker had been played clear.
John Brayford, clearly taking the lead from his goalkeeper, then bravely blocked Ritchie Wellens’s effort as Doncaster poured forward in numbers.
The break Rovers’ enterprise deserved seemed to have come at the climax, when Brayford’s out-stretched arm blocked Stevens’s cross.
However, much to the frustration of the visitors, referee Duncan waved away the appeals.
There was to be no way back for the visitors despite a late header from Butler bouncing around the six-yard box before finally being cleared.
Cue celebrations tinged with a sense of relief at the final whistle on three sides of the ground.
This was the first of three derbies that will end United’s regular season at home.
And if the clashes with Bradford City on April 18 and Chesterfield on the final day are half as good, regulars at the Lane are in for a treat.
Sheffield United: Howard; Flynn (Alcock 76), Brayford, Basham, Harris (McEveley 28); Coutts, Holt, Baxter (Doyle 64), Freeman; Done, Davies. Unused substitutes: McNulty, Reed, Turner, Adams.
Doncaster Rovers: Bywater; Wabara, Butler, McCombe, Stevens; Coppinger (Forrester 81), Wellens, Furman, Bennett; Main, Tyson (Clarke-Harris 77). Unused substitutes: Evina, Jones, Razak, Marosi, Mandeville.
Referee: S Duncan (Northumberland).
Last night’s results and latest tables: Page 24.