A little over a day on from Sheffield Wednesday having once again laid down the gauntlet to their bitter rivals with a resounding victory over Oldham Athletic, Danny Wilson’s side provided the perfect retort with a five-star show of their own.
Ched Evans’s double together with goals from Lee Williamson, Michael Doyle and Kevin McDonald meant the Blades sent out a clear message to their bitter rivals.
Namely, anything you can do, I can do better – lyrics famously sung by the character Oakley in the signature tune from the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, words which just about sum up the Steel City scrap for supremacy in League One right now.
The hammering handed out to Rochdale is the fourth time in as many games that the Blades have kicked off after Wednesday and needed a win to leapfrog Dave Jones’s men.
That it should be achieved in such an impressive manner at Spotland suggests United are going to take some stopping, especially as their current two-point advantage is effectively three thanks to a vastly superior goal difference.
Against the division’s bottom club, the three points had been all but secured by half-time courtesy of a typically powerful and ruthless display from Wilson’s visiting side.
In a torrential downpour, United simply had too much for a Dale team who are now 11 points adrift of safety with just four games remaining.
John Coleman’s side are clearly heading back to League Two and, on last night’s evidence, there is every chance two divisions will separate the clubs come August.
United set the tone for much of what followed inside the opening minute when Evans drilled a low shot against the foot of a post after Williamson’s quick corner had caught the Dale defence cold.
It was a warning the home side failed to heed and by the interval they could only reflect on the fact any hopes of breathing life into their survival fight were over due to the Blades having hit back from conceding in the third minute to lead 4-1.
The fightback had begun just two minutes after Jason Kennedy had put Dale in front with a close-range header.
A towering goal-kick from Steve Simonsen was the catalyst as Evans cushioned the ball for McDonald to thunder an unstoppable shot past Dave Lucas from 20 yards.
Such was the ferocity of the Scot’s shot that the former Leeds United goalkeeper had no chance of keeping out the ball.
It was a similar tale midway around the midpoint of the half as the Blades took an iron grip on proceedings courtesy of two goals in three minutes.
First, a slip by left-back Joe Widdowson allowed Richard Cresswell to claim possession before rolling a pass to Evans, who finished in typically predatory fashion after cutting inside his marker.
Then, after Lucas had done brilliantly to parry Stephen Quinn’s shot on 25 minutes, the Dale goalkeeper could only watch in frustration as the rebound fell to Williamson and the former Watford midfielder tapped the ball into an empty net.
Williamson then came within a whisker of grabbing his second five minutes before the break with a deft shot that ran agonisingly across the face of goal.
United, however, would not be denied a fourth goal before the interval as a wonderful sweeping move in stoppage time saw McDonald release Williamson with a sublime pass.
He, in turn, looked up before picking out Evans, who after cleverly creating space to get a shot away drilled the ball under Lucas and into the net.
As the 3,000 visiting fans serenaded the United players with their re-working of the John Denver tune Annie’s Song, the most pertinent question was how many goals Wilson’s side would be able to add in the second 45 minutes.
Initially, however, it was Dale who threatened as Simonsen had to be at his acrobatic best to deny a fierce shot from Andrew Tutte.
Normal service was resumed just before the hour when Michael Doyle’s viciously swerving shot from 25 yards deceived Lucas in the home goal to send the away fans into further raptures.
The chant of ‘Not bad for a one-man team’ – a clear reposte to the suggestion there is little more to United than Evans’s 34 goals – immediately filled the Lancashire night.
Temitope Obadeyi did his best to put a dent in the Blades’ evening by pulling a goal back 22 minutes from time but there was no disguising the joy felt by the visitors from Yorkshire at the final whistle after again leapfrogging rivals Wednesday in the race for the Championship.
Rochdale: Lucas; Byrne, Amankwaah, Holden, Widdowson; Tutte, Kennedy, Jones, Obadeyi; Akpa Akpo, Symes. Unused substitutes: Edwards, Adams, Twaddle, Thompson, McConville.
Sheffield United: Simonsen; Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Hill; Williamson (Flynn 46), McDonald, Doyle, Quinn; Cresswell (Porter 65), Evans (O’Halloran 69). Unused substitutes: Howard, Williams.
Referee: E Ilderton (Tyne & Wear).