TOWN were forced to make do with a point as rugged Rochdale showed they won't give up their League berth without a fight.
And however unpalatable the result, and performance of referee Mark Clattenburg, might have been to the 10,000 Town fans in a fine Tuesday evening turn-out, the Lancastrians deserved their draw.
Third-placed Town created more than enough clear-cut chances to have won an entertaining contest.
But third-bottom Rochdale could also have reaped the rewards of a brave display and earned what would have been a first League win against Town in 14 attempts.
County Durham whistler Clattenburg was roundly booed at the end of a match which produced near misses at either end during the closing stages.
Town fans were particularly unhappy at a couple of dodgy rulings against the McAlpine men and his decision to put young right wing-back Andy Holdsworth into the book alongside Efe Sodje (late tackle) and Tony Carss (dissent) for a seemingly innocuous challenge.
But they should have been relieved that he elected against showing a red card to Sodje after an off-the-ball clash with striker Grant Holt, who had also been booked.
Assistant Bob Pollock called the referee's attention to the incident - Sodje and former Halifax man Holt had a rare old tear-up throughout the game - but a talking to was considered sufficient.
Given the absence of Steve Yates and Ian Hughes and the fresh injury worry over Nathan Clarke, who limped out of last night's game after 34 minutes and left the McAlpine on crutches because of his ankle injury, a suspension for a centre-back of Sodje's ability would have been bad news for Peter Jackson.
Apart from a brief spell of madness during which the battle with Holt seemed to take his mind off the match in progress, the Nigerian was in fine form, using his pace off the mark to telling effect and marshalling youngsters David Mirfin and Paul Scott, who replaced Clarke.
There was also a bright display from Holdsworth, who tackled well and caused danger down the flank almost every time he advanced into opposition terriotory.
Left wing-back Anthony Lloyd got in on the act by heading Town's 48th-minute goal, which cancelled out Leo Bertos's 38th-minute opener, and making a crucial 67th-minute clearance off the line from frontman Lee McEvilly.
But after imposing themselves early on, Town's three-man midfield of Carss, Danny Schofield and Jon Worthington seemed to lose their way.
And up front, Andy Booth and Pavel Abbott were unable to match their hard work with a breakthrough.
Town had more of the first-half action, with Sodje glancing a header across the face of goal from Holdsworth's cross in only the second minute and Clarke testing goalkeeper Neil Edwards at the foot of his left-hand post with a low shot in the 13th.
Abbott and Holdsworth linked neatly to tee up Booth for a 15th-minute shot on the turn which Edwards smothered.
Then Booth headed just over from a Schofield cross before Worthington's low drive was saved.
Booth was narrowly wide with a 20th-minute drive from the edge of the area, and six minutes later, had the Rochdale defence scrambling to deal with a close-range header from Carss' cross.
Other than a Bartos cross-cum-shot which fizzed across the face of Paul Rachubka's goal on the half hour, little had been seen of the visitors as an attacking force before the former Barnsley man took advantage of a moment of defensive disarray to latch onto a pass from on-loan Manchester City midfielder Willo Flood and lash the ball home from 20 yards.
The strike silenced the home faithful, but they were back on song three minutes after the restart when Lloyd, one of the smallest men on the field, got his head to Holdsworth's well-placed cross to register only the second goal of his career.
It looked like the stage was set for Town to take the game by the scruff of the neck, and Rochdale were on the rack for quite a spell, but they refused to buckle.
Schofield came close three minutes after Lloyd struck, when his close-range shot was blocked, then Abbott had Edwards stretching to deal with a low shot in the 63rd minute before he drilled a rising effort into the side netting soon after.
There was edginess in the visiting defence when Town forced successive corners in the 68th minute, and a free-for-all in the 89th, when Rochdale somehow kept out efforts by substitute John McAliskey and Sodje.
But the visitors also had their moments, with Lloyd denying McEvilly before Rachubka stood tall to deny Holt on 77 minutes, then substitute centre-back Gareth Griffiths in stoppage time.
Meanwhile Sodje, Scott and Mirfin all made vital challenges to defuse dangerous-looking Rochdale attacks.
Town, with a win, a draw and a defeat in their trilogy of matches against the bottom three, now head for play-off chasers Northampton needing all three points.