|A Hollywood script plays out in the Spotland sun|
Written by AtThePeake on Monday, 14th May 2018 18:04
It isn’t always easy being a Rochdale supporter. With the majority of the town’s footballing interest being soaked up by local behemoths Manchester City and Manchester United, the club’s attendances rarely break 3,000 home supporters.
Indeed, even local lower-league neighbours Bury and Oldham have enjoyed more success over the years, with the Shakers winning two FA Cups at the turn of the 20th Century and the Latics having rubbed shoulders with the giants of the Premier League as recently as 1994.
It’s difficult to avoid the usual ‘grim up north’ clichés when it comes to this little football club tucked in the depths of a region that boasts some of football’s most glamorous clubs and players. Characterised by it’s tenants’ 35 year spell spent dwelling in the Football League’s basement division, for too long Spotland Stadium (or the Crown Oil Arena as it is now known) found itself home to journeymen lower league players happy to simply prevent relegation. And even then they had to rely on re-election having finished bottom of the league on more than one occasion.
Since former player Keith Hill took the managerial reins in December 2006, it’s been an altogether smoother ride. Over two spells thus far he has earned two promotions as well as famous FA Cup wins over the likes of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest (plus a draw with Tottenham Hotspur earlier this year) and if his legendary status wasn’t already an axiom it was all but confirmed on May 5th.
Experiencing some improved form since that morale-boosting 2-2 draw with Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs in January, a Dale side that had looked all but confirmed for relegation earlier in the season had given themselves a real chance of avoiding the drop. However, through a series of individual mistakes from some of the team’s most important players, they headed into the final day of the season still in the bottom four.
Against Bradford City, goalkeeper Josh Lillis, arguably the team's most consistent performer over the course of the season, dropped the ball in the last minute to the feet of Charlie Wyke who would score a gut-wrenching equaliser. In a crunch home fixture with fellow strugglers and local rivals Oldham, Joe Rafferty missed from the penalty spot as the game fizzled out into a goalless draw. Skipper and top scorer Ian Henderson missed four of the final five games of the season following a sending off at Peterborough and midfielder Callum Camps gave away two penalties that saw Oxford come from behind to beat the Dale in the penultimate game of the season.
As such, coming into the final day, Hill’s men found themselves in the fourth and final relegation spot, needing to better Oldham’s result to secure safety. With the Latics heading to Sixfields to take on already-relegated Northampton Town and the Dale hosting a Charlton Athletic side that had been resurgent in the second half of the season under Lee Bowyer and still needed a point to secure their spot in the play-offs, it’s fair to say hopes weren’t high among the crowd at the Crown Oil Arena.
But the Sky TV cameras, sensing a story, descended upon the ground and what a story they were about to get. After a slow start, the home crowd started to worry that it was a case of ‘here we go again’ in the first half as Henderson hit the post with a guilt-edged chance and before long, news started to filter through that Oldham had taken the lead at Northampton through George Edmundson.
Any nervous tension in the away end however had started to subside by half-time with the Addicks play-off spot all but confirmed by Plymouth’s capitulation at the hands of Gillingham. Then, suddenly Dale had everything to play for. The Cobblers had turned their match versus Oldham on it’s head with goals from Matt Grimes and Ash Taylor on the brink of half-time giving them the lead and as things stood, the Latics now occupying 21st position in the table.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, the football at Spotland wasn’t of the highest standard. Bowyer, perhaps with one eye on the play-offs given the situation at Priestfield, brought off key players Jake Forster-Caskey and Joe Aribo as Dale went in search of a winner, but it was a substitution from the hosts that would grab the headlines.
As news of an Oldham equaliser meant that his side needed to get a winner to lift themselves out of the bottom four again, Hill gambled on a double switch, hauling off defender Jim McNulty and midfielder Ollie Rathbone in favour of attackers Steven Davies and Joe Thompson.
In Play gamblers may have been intrigued by Davies’ introduction to the pitch. The experienced target man has struggled for fitness all season but still scored some vital goals including late strikes in home wins over Doncaster and Shrewsbury and that famous last-gasp equaliser to send the fifth round FA Cup tie with Tottenham to a Wembley replay.
Thompson on the other hand, maybe not. A Rochdale-born winger, Thompson has been a source of inspiration for football fans the world over having twice beaten cancer to return to the field earlier in the season. The extent of his impact on the pitch has, understandably, been minimal, but few could’ve predicted the 29 year old adding another chapter to his incredible story within two minutes of being introduced.
With the ball bouncing around in the Charlton box, the ball fell to Thompson who took a controlled touch to shift the ball onto his left foot before lashing it through a packed penalty area and into the net. Cue delirium in the home stands. Having seemingly been down and out, the Dale were now very much alive.
Despite the nervous energy in the stands clearly impacting the performance of the home side in the remaining twenty minutes, the Dale defence were able to see it out with minimal complications. Full-time came and went but with the game at Sixfields lagging behind somewhat, the celebrations had to wait.
With added time, the Dale players and fans had to wait over ten minutes for the full-time result at Northampton. Eyes were glued to phones in the three home stands, people stared through their fingers. Thompson, on the brink of writing himself even further into Dale folklore, watched live footage of the other match in the tunnel in front of the Sky cameras.
And then it was done. The majority of the players and staff huddled together on the pitch were quickly met by a ravenous pitch invasion. Tears were shed in the Rochdale sunshine, the obligatory blue smoke bomb was set off, and memories that would live forever were created as the club’s loveable kitman Jack Northover sat celebrating atop the home dugout to a backdrop of sheer jubilation on the pitch.
For many, of course, the party had only just begun and such a dramatic day, with a real-life hero at the centre of it all, won’t be forgotten by anyone inside Spotland for a very long time.
As the awful news filtered through of one of the region’s many footballing legends being admitted into intensive care, perhaps one of Sir Alex’s many magnificent quotes sums it better than anyone else could. “Football, bloody hell!”
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