Sheffield Utd 3 Rochdale 2: Collins uses his head to seal points for Blades

Sheffield United’s victory came at a cost when you look at the bruised and battered face of Neill Collins.

WINNER: Sheffield United's Neill Collins celebrates scoring his side's third and winning goal. Picture: Philip Oldham/SportImage.

The rugged centre-half – overlooked by previous manager Nigel Clough last season – has become a key figure in Nigel Adkins’s defence this term.

He stuck his head in where it hurts, literally, in one first-half clash where an opponent’s boot left his face with a gash above the eye, bruised and several stud marks impressions which broke the skin.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But there was never any doubt the 32-year-old would not shy away, and after Rochdale had levelled for the second time on Saturday, up popped Collins in front of the Kop to crash in United’s winner.

“It was a boot right to the head, and I couldn’t believe I never even got a foul for it,” said Collins.

“The studs went right across my face. There’s no stitches, just glue. But I think his boot’s broken.

“That’s a big part of the job, putting your head in where it hurts. That’s what I have made my career out of.

“It was good to get a goal at the other end, and doesn’t feel as sore now we have won. It wouldn’t have been my face that would have been hurting if we had lost, it would have been my pride.

“It’s good to get the victory, and deserved in the end.”

Collins only made 12 appearance for United last term, ending the season on loan at Port Vale, after falling out of favour under Clough. But his experience in defence is vital for United, and chipping in with goals from set-pieces – Saturday’s effort was his third of the season – is a welcome bonus.

Collins’s winner was the result of hard graft at United’s Shirecliffe training ground, Jose Baxter’s corner headed home by the defender.

“Sometimes you hear people say it’s a training ground routine, but that was straight off the training ground,” he said.

“We worked on two corners, and I should have scored from one in the first half, but it ended over the bar.

“With the goal, fair play to Jose Baxter, he called it – because we were going to do something else – and put the ball straight on a sixpence. As soon as I headed it, I knew it was going in the net.”

After a slow start, United took the lead through Che Adams. A pinpoint pass from Baxter split Rochdale’s static defence, and Adams was able to open up his body before firing behind goalkeeper Josh Lillis.

But the visitors were handed a lifeline when Peter Vincenti hammered home a 37th-minute penalty, after Matt Done clipped Nathaniel Mendez-Long.

Baxter’s assist for United’s first goal was impressive, but Billy Sharp’s eye-catching pass for their second was probably sweeter. His diagonal cross spotted Adams at the far post, the winger cutting inside the full-back before smashing the ball home.

Done and Adams both had great chances to give United a two-goal cushion, and the Blades were punished when goalkeeper Mark Howard was unable to keep out Lewis Alessandra’s close-range effort with 18 minutes remaining.

But, United roared back within two minutes, and Collins was the hero to clinch all three points and nudge United back into the play-off places in sixth.

United’s football at times was not pretty, and they had to rely on a set-piece winner, but Collins believes to get promotion from League One, winning ugly is no bad thing.

“Sometimes it’s the wee fine margins, with a set-piece we have worked on, that can a turn game for you,” he said. “It’s won us three points.

“We all have to realise that. I remember two teams who got out of the league, Charlton and Wolves. Neither of them were free-flowing, scoring goals (kind of teams), but they used to grind out 1-0s, and 2-1s – score goals from set-pieces and free-kicks. It was only at the turn of the year when they started turning teams over more convincingly. So, (Saturday’s) three points will be just as important as any others we get when we get 2-0 or 3-0 wins.”

Jay McEveley had to stay off at half-time with injury – as did Stefan Scougall – with the defender leaving the ground in a protective boot before heading to hospital for an X-ray on his foot.

“I didn’t want to take Stefan off, but he was too unwell to carry on”, said Adkins, after the Scottish midfielder suffered a head injury. “Jay has gone for an X-ray, he’s got a boot on and on crutches. We’ll have to see, but it doesn’t look too clever.”

Sheffield United: Howard, Freeman, Basham, Collins, McEveley (K Wallace 45), Adams, Coutts (Reed 73), Scougall (McGahey), Done, Baxter, Sharp. Unused substitutes: Woolford, Sammon, Campbell-Ryce, Long.

Rochdale: Lillis, Cannon (Allen 37), McNulty, Lancashire, Kennedy (Tanser 69), Rafferty, Lund, McDermott (Noble-Lazarus 52), Alessandra, Mendez-Laing, Vincenti. Unused substitutes: Eastham, Barry-Murphy, Musanga, Bunney.

Referee: O Langford (W Midlands).