|Rochdale 2018/19 part two: Shifting sands|
Written by fitzochris on Thursday, 24th Jan 2019 08:40
AUGUST 2018 (continued)
Yet to concede a league goal during the new campaign, Barnsley would form the opposition for Rochdale’s second home game of 2018/19. A decent-sized club from South Yorkshire, and previous poacher of two Rochdale managers, the Tykes traditionally come backed by vociferous support. The fact that this tie was elected to take place on a Tuesday night did little to diminish that.
Like Burton, Barnsley had been relegated from the Championship the season prior, but, unlike Burton, who chose to keep faith with their manager, the Tykes had opted to bring in an unknown quantity to head up team affairs in the form of 44-year-old German Daniel Stendel.
The former Hannover 96 boss had surprised many by deciding to largely keep his squad untouched, trusting that his management, rather than the personnel, would make the difference. His faith had been rewarded with two wins and a draw, which had Barnsley sitting in third ahead of the Rochdale tie.
Wary of the prowess the Tykes had demonstrated so far, Hill opted to place a defensive duo in midfield, MJ Williams moving up alongside Perkins. Andy Cannon and Kgosi Ntlhe would provide the width and the back three consisted of Ryan Delaney, Harrison McGahey and Jim McNulty. Ian Henderson was again employed in deeper role, behind a front pairing of Matty Done and Calvin Andrew.
From the first whistle, however, it was evident that it was going to be an evening of struggle as Barnsley picked their way through the Dale lines with considerable ease, Kieffer Moore rattling the crossbar with a bullet header after just seven minutes providing the first pinnacle of this fluid play.
The issues were quickly apparent. A combination of sustained excellence from the visitors and the fact the home midfield defensive duo were just far too slow to cope with this were chief among them. Add to that Rochdale’s inability to win second balls both in attack and defence, poor set-piece delivery, and Henderson’s genuine ineffectuality in his deeper role, and it was inevitable that a second heavy home defeat in succession was on the cards.
The first goal arrived soon enough. Another dangerous cross by Dimitri Cavare from the right flank to the back post found the onrushing Brad Potts to head home from six yards out. It was a cross again that undid Dale for Barnsley’s second. This time Dani Pinillos doing the damage with a sumptuous ball from the left for Moore to rise highest and head home in at the back post just before the break.
Hill brought off McNulty for Joe Rafferty at the break and the substitute had an early chance to reduce the arrears. Rafferty found himself eight yards out and with time to pick his spot, but Reds ’keeper Adam Davies made a terrific smothering save. Two minutes later, it was 3-0 Barnsley.
Ntlhe was caught in position on the edge of the Barnsley box and a lightning-quick counter from Mama Thiam, which went unopposed, saw him slip Moore away down the left. The towering striker cut inside onto his right foot before firing home into the bottom corner, 12 yards out.
The mood soured further when Josh Lillis was replaced. This author clearly noticed the goalkeeper holding his lower back and signalling to the bench. Others clearly did not and, as a result, his substitution was met by a chorus of boos by a minority of home supporters, perhaps instead suspecting the switch to be a tactical one brought about by the necessity to play a Premier League loanee.
It was all academic, however. Moore sealed his hat-trick by skipping through a statuesque defence and curling a cool, low finish beyond Magnus Norman to round off a thoroughly miserable night for the home side.
Keith Hill chose his post-match interview to attack the Rochdale support. Whether or not this was a deflection tactic was up for debate.
“The fans have got to get away from the fans’ favourite, because, if they don’t, then they’re going to rub me up the wrong way,” he said. “They’ve got to decide whether they want me to be the manager or not, because I’ve got to make decisions for the right here, right now, and for the future of this football club.
“There was an injury to Josh, so if you’re going to beat us in with a stick, just phone the Chairman up and say we don’t want Keith Hill to be the manager and it’ll be okay – I’ve got no problem with that.
“And when Harrison McGahey is taking a free-kick that has been worked on in training, which he delivered yesterday, there’s a cheer when he’s not taking it after getting it wrong. That sort of thing really does wind me up because it’s our fifth consecutive season in League One and we’ve got to be supporting the players better than that. Try and support the players and try and support the football club.”
On the match itself, Hill was at least realistic.
“We’ve been beaten by an excellent side who took advantage of our mistakes,” he said. “Barnsley are a good side and they’re going to create chances and try to nullify us, and the score line could have been anything above four goals. I’ve been beaten by five goals and six goals against Barnsley in the past and I’ve been beaten by four goals tonight against the best side that have beaten us, but looking at those two mistakes in the first half, they are elementary mistakes.
“We have to get that right or the confidence will ebb away from the players and it will be doom and gloom instead of happy, happy, happy. I’ve got to remind the players of that, and the supporters, it sounds like.
“We’ve got to remember we’re only four games in, but it’s a hard one to take and it’s even harder for the players.”
With supporters still nursing the bite marks left by Hill, they were hit by another bombshell the following morning, the club announcing the resignation of CEO Russ Green, before his appeal had even been heard.
A brief statement read: “The Chairman and the Board of Directors have accepted the resignation of Russ Green with immediate effect.
“Therefore, he will not be returning to the club once the restrictions placed on him by the FA are lifted.
“We’d like to place on record our thanks to Russ for his dedication to the role during his two-year tenure and wish him all the best for the future.”
After the heavy midweek defeat to Barnsley, the Rochdale supporters were still debating the likely adjustments Keith Hill would make to the side to face Walsall on the coming Saturday when the manager threw in another curveball by bringing in Connor Randall from Premier League side Liverpool, the 22-year-old joining on loan until January 2019.
Described as a right-back, Randall had made a first-team appearance for the Anfield side but spent the majority of the previous season on loan at Scottish Premiership side Hearts, playing a good number of games in midfield, suggesting he possessed the type of versatility favoured by Hill.
As it transpired, Randall made the bench for the Walsall game, but failed to get on the pitch. Hill made five changes to the starting line-up. With Josh Lillis injured, there was a debut for on-loan Fulham goalkeeper Magnus Norman; Joe Rafferty returned to right-back, and Callum Camps, Oliver Rathbone and Aaron Wilbraham were also handed starts.
And it seemed to give the side fresh impetus. At least initially. Still in the 5-3-2 formation, Dale moved the ball through the lines with slick precision − until it came to the final third. Ian Henderson still looked to sit too deep, while Wilbraham and Done looked isolated, finding supply limited as the wingbacks invariably opted to reverse rather than take their man on.
The Saddlers themselves had enjoyed a decent start to the season, but they were no Barnsley. Their approach was more akin to a Dickensian pickpocket and it was something Rochdale would have to adapt their play to deal with.
The inexorable then, of course, happened.
Under pressure from Morgan Ferrier, defender Harrison McGahey played the ball back to Norman. But with Andy Cook charging in, the ’keeper panicked and only managed to find Josh Ginnelly 20-yards from goal as he looked to play his way out of trouble. The winger kept his composure to fire in a low drive which took a deflection before nestling into the net.
After the break, Hill switched to a back four and pushed Henderson into attack with Inman brought on to add even more attacking threat from further back. The change to three forwards at least created some issues for the Saddlers, with Dale getting the ball wide and players into the box.
And in the 75th minute, Dale should have pulled level when Walsall could only half clear a corner. The ball fell for MJ Williams 10-yards out. But, despite being centrally placed, he blazed his strike over. It seemed typical of Rochdale’s season to date.
From that point, a quiet game sprang to life with the Saddlers doubling their lead through a brilliant Zeli Ismail goal. After initially tricking his way into the box, the winger looked as though he had run himself into trouble. But he produced more magic to dance past another defender before firing past the on-rushing Norman.
Within 60 seconds, however, Rochdale had pulled a goal back when Wilbraham headed against the post only for the ball to fall for Camps who tapped in from close range. It wasn’t enough, though, and a one-paced Dale were defeated for a third consecutive home game.
“We were 2-0 down and we shouldn’t be,” said Hill after the match.
“No matter how hard this group is working, we can’t make the mistakes that we’re making.
“Sometimes it goes against you, but you’ve got to fight hard and stick to your principles. You’ve got to have a winning mentality, even in defeat.
“The game was too slow and we played into the opponents’ hands. We got through the units well, with respect to getting the ball where we needed to, then it became slow and predictable, which is what the opponents want – they’re very good at sitting and, I suppose, picking your pocket, and that’s what happened.
“It comes down to how you want to play the game as an individual player and making sure you’re not responsible for the individual mistakes.
“It’s a shame really, because these players are running the distances and supporting each other, but it’s not materialising in the performance I expect or that can I see from this group of players. That’s down to confidence.”
It was perhaps no surprise that Keith hill rang the changes yet again for the midweek trip to Middlesbrough.
During their impressive pre-season, Dale had seen off the Teesiders at Spotland in an entertaining friendly match. However, even the most romantic of followers weren’t predicting a similar outcome for this second-round Carabao Cup match. Tony Pulis’ side had made a strong start to their Championship campaign.
Hill brought Inman, Ntlhe, Delaney, Cannon and Andrew back into the fold, while right-back Connor Randall was handed his first start. There was a chatter of excitement as Stephen Dooley finally emerged from the shadows to take his place on the bench.
And it wasn’t just Rochdale with the vagaries. Middlesbrough’s side contained ten changes from their weekend league win over West Brom. The first half was a somewhat subdued affair as a result, the game lacking any real rhythm, but Boro gradually gained the upper hand and in the 28th minute Rochdale goalkeeper Magnus Norman was forced into a save, turning Ashley Fletcher’s low drive around the post. Norman also claimed Paddy McNair’s driven effort shortly after, but the Fulham loanee was powerless to prevent Boro breaking the deadlock eight minutes before the break.
Jordan Hugill headed Marcus Tavernier’s right-wing cross against the base of the post, and the ball broke kindly for Marvin Johnson to drill the rebound into the far corner.
It was a body blow for Dale, who had looked well-organised to this point but were still displaying the attacking limitations that had so far blighted their league campaign.
After the break, exhibiting a mixture of both confidence and forward-planning, Pulis took off Daniel Ayala and Mo Besic for French youngster Bilal Brahimi and teenager Djed Spence, giving Middlesbrough a more youthful complexion.
It mattered little to the game’s flow. Johnson stood up a cross from the left, and Hugill powered past the Rochdale defence to plant home a header from eight yards to make it 2-0. The forward then bowed out and his replacement, Harry Chapman, came close to scoring within minutes of coming on, curling a low effort against the base of the post after the Rochdale defence failed to clear their lines.
Then, with just 20 minutes remaining, Hill introduced Dooley just behind the forward line. It is no cliché to describe his appearance as impactful. Rochdale became a team on the front foot, getting it wide, putting in crosses and actually creating panic among the opposition defence.
Dooley’s deliveries were wreaking havoc and Dale finally pulled a goal back with seven minutes left, Ryan Delaney prodding home from close range after Andy Lonergan saved from Calvin Andrew.
Inspired, Andy Cannon and Callum Camps drove forward with purpose. Lonergan was forced to make two excellent late saves, and Mahmutovic produced a superb goalline clearance to keep out another goalbound effort from Delaney.
While the equaliser didn’t materialise, and Rochdale exited the League Cup, those final 20 minutes gave hope that there was an attacking impetus within the existing squad and that it could be utilised effectively.
“We don’t get disappointed, we solve problems,” said Hill in his post-match interview.
“We’ve had a few problems in the early weeks of the season so what I tend to do is go back to see where we’ve been successful, and we’ve played a system that we used all pre-season and it worked really well.
“I was really pleased with the structure of the side and the way we tried to defend and attack, and it was getting back to basics.
“Sometimes it’s a question of going backwards to find where you’ve been successful to carry on into the future. I believe we’ve got a good squad of players who are lacking in a little bit of confidence, but tonight was a good opportunity to go with a younger squad and say let’s give it a go.”
Hill then admitted he was maybe not as tactically inflexible as first thought.
“It’s constantly a test for me and there’s no relaxation,” he said. “I know how we beat Walsall last season and I know mentally how we beat them, but we didn’t perform in the same manner at the weekend. So, I now have to say ‘right, this is what we want to do instead of playing this holistic beautiful game that I want to play and I want to see as a supporter’. I’m a manager, I’m not a supporter and I have to win games, so I have to go back to saying ‘this is what we did and this is how we’re going to beat them and we’re going to beat them this way’ because I know it works.
“I’m encouraged, but who knows what’s going to happen. My cross that I carry round with me is Rochdale Football Club [sic] and I enjoy that, sometimes it weights heavy, but I still find a way to smile working with this group of players for Rochdale. I don’t know what’s going to happen on Saturday [at Coventry] but we’ll go there to win. We always plan to win.”
After the match, Hill reflected once more upon his attacking options. He’d clearly seen some merit in being able to use Matty Done higher up the pitch, but that option was leaving the left wing-back role understaffed, with Kgosi Ntlhe the only viable alternative.
So, before the week, and August, was out, Hill announced he had brought Sam Hart back to the club on loan from Blackburn Rovers until the end of the season.
Hart spent four months on loan at Spotland the previous season, but played little part out on the pitch during that time. However, Hill had clearly seen enough to trust him to compete for that left flank role this time round.
The Rochdale manager then announced his business in the loan market was complete prior to the deadline at 5pm on August 31. Yet as the clock ticked towards its final destination, the club had one more announcement to make – and, boy, was it a surprising one.
Zach Clough was brought in on loan from Nottingham Forest until January. ‘Little old Rochdale’ are simply not in the habit of bring £3 million forwards to the club. And Hill revealed he had Sam Hart’s agent to thank for the move.
“I got a phone call on Friday afternoon [August 31], saying that Clough was available and asking would I like him, and it was a no brainer!
“It’s an incredible move for us to secure such a marquee signing, and for him to want to come here shows that we’re a decent football club that does things right way, so thank you to the Chairman.
“Zach has got the same agent at Sam Hart and the pair of them are going to be key additions to the football club, so it’s great that the agent trusts us with him.”
Clough, 23, was told by Forest manager Aitor Karanka that he would not have a part to play, at the end of the previous season. He spent the latter half of that campaign on loan at Bolton Wanderers, the club Forest signed him from for a fee believed to be more than £3 million.
There was a genuine excitement among the supporters that he would excel at League One level.
However, exciting signings aside, the defeat to Middlesbrough would be Rochdale’s final match action of August – a month that saw them out of the League Cup and lying 19th in League One with a solitary victory.
Surely September would bring happier times?
Being sent to Coventry is that famous old English idiom that implies chastisement by isolation. Apparently it stems from a 17th century Civil War punishment. It seemed fitting then, that the West Midlands city was the destination to which Keith Hill would take his team after a month of on-field disappointment and fan antagonism. Could he emerge with three points and a reinvigorated squad?
Yes and no is the short answer.
Historically, Coventry are a big club. Premier League founding members, they were considered a huge scalp when Rochdale knocked them out of the FA Cup at the fourth-round stage in 2003. However, since that celebrated day, times have been a lot harder for the Sky Blues than they have been for Dale. Homelessness, fan revolts and relegation to the fourth tier of English football had befallen the club at one stage or another over a turbulent 15-year period.
Under the incisive management of Mark Robins, however, they had won the League Two play-offs the campaign previous, before enduring a similar August to Rochdale in their first season back in League One.
“They’re a big football club, spending big money and recruiting players who were very successful last season,” Hill mused via Rochdale’s official website, ahead of the fixture.
“Mark Robins is a very good manager with what he achieves and how he does things. I know he’s introduced a lot of young players into the squad as well.”
Hill once again shuffled his deck, but there was still no place on the pitch for new boys Connor Randall, Sam Hart or Zach Clough.
There was no change to the routine, either. Dale enjoyed a few early forays before Coventry settled right into the game and proceeded to tear their visitors’ left flank to shreds courtesy of Jack Grimmer. Fortunately for Rochdale, the home side lacked a killer instinct as chance after chance went begging, many of them gilt-edged.
Having seen enough, Hill changed the shape of his side and sent Stephen Dooley out to the left to minimise the amount of ball Coventry were enjoying there. With a back four in place, MJ Williams and Callum Camps made up the holding roles, with Calvin Andrew pitched left, Andy Cannon in the middle, Dooley on the right and Ian Henderson leading the charge ahead of them all.
This seemed to work a treat, with Coventry’s chances drying up and Rochdale looking a lot more threatening. The latter took the lead right after the break. Joe Rafferty’s cross was stabbed home at the far post by Andrew and, even though it was cleared back out of the net, the officials were alert enough to see the ball had clearly crossed the line. Henderson, too, proved his value playing further up the pitch, netting two fine finishes only to be thwarted by an official’s flag.
The improved performance was marred by a head injury to on-loan goalkeeper Magnus Norman, but Dale held on for a valuable win.
“I’m pleased with the way we’ve defended the centre of the pitch,” Hill reflected in his post-match interview. “Some of the defending in the wide areas of the pitch, especially in the first half, wasn’t great, but we defended crosses really well today.
“I thought the defending in the first half allowed us to make changes, with respect to the shape we were playing, in the second half. Mark Robins will be seething that they’re not in front in the first half, because I thought we started the game brightly but then we conceded too much possession.
“No two halves are the same, and we scored a good goal. I think Coventry switched off at the set-play, but we started the second half really well and we got our just rewards. I thought we could have scored a couple more in the second half with the opportunities that presented themselves on the counter-attack – there were a few marginal off-sides that went against us. We had the ball in the back of the net twice and they were adjudged to be offside and I’m sure one of them wasn’t.
“Generally, I’m happy with the shape and I’m happy with the attitude and the way the players defended. Now we’ve got to make sure we marry it up with the type of football we played against Peterborough, for example. If we’re as good defensively as we were today, and we combine it with the type of play that we saw against Peterborough, then we’ll be okay.”
While the relegation from League One of fellow Greater Manchester neighbours Bury was celebrated by a number of the Rochdale support the previous season, there was a tinge of regret that the Shakers’ demotion deprived Dale of their favourite derby match.
The summer’s Checkatrade Trophy group-stage draw put that right, however. Dale were placed with Bury, Fleetwood Town and Leicester’s U-21 side in the competition.
Historically this tournament – the English Football League Trophy, to give it its unsponsored title – was established to give clubs from the lower two divisions of English football’s professional set up a chance to reach Wembley. However, over the past couple of seasons, the competition had been hijacked by elite clubs from the top divisions looking to give their U-21 squads a taste of “man’s football”, as they termed it.
It raised a wry smile, then, when Keith Hill demonstrated that very ethos himself by naming a string of youth-team players in his squad to face Bury. Far from being a mere middle-finger to the footballing authorities, however, it had a very definite and positive outcome on the match.
While all eyes were on Zach Clough, making his Rochdale debut, he was upstaged by 15-year-old Luke Matheson. The right wing-back was introduced in the 13th minute after an injury to Connor Randall, looking lightweight, youthful and sporting a hairstyle Jimmy Bullard would have once been proud of – but he went on to turn in a man-of-the-match performance.
Matheson took the plaudits for the way he carried the ball forward so quickly and because he looked to play a progressive pass. He demonstrated a very clever football brain, and, while the defensive side of his game was exposed in the second half, there’s a definite future in midfield for him if that fails to develop.
His introduction made him the youngest player to feature for Rochdale’s first team, at the age of 15 years and 336 days. The record had been held formerly by Dan Adshead, who first appeared in the previous season’s competition against the same opponents at 16 years and 17 days. Adshead had, in fact, just signed his first professional contract with the club earlier that day.
Hill labelled the youngster’s man-of-the-match display as “outstanding”.
“Luke Matheson – wow!” he said after the game. “That first-half was a little insight into what we see on the training pitch. Jim McNulty came over when it was obvious Connor Randall had a serious injury [fractured cheekbone], asked me if I was putting Luke Matheson on. We know what he can do. It’s not a leap of faith, because we know what he can do.
“The supporters were receptive to Luke, and the players were as well. He’s been training with the first team while he’s not been at school during the summer and I’m really pleased for him that he got his chance.”
The game itself was fairly routine for Rochdale, who hadn’t faced as poor a Bury side as this as long as this author can remember.
Hill’s adherence to a back three loosened for this fixture, too, Randall, Harrison McGahey, McNulty and Matty Done very much resembling a back four.
Youngster Aaron Morley sat in the holding role and managed the game superbly, with Ollie Rathbone looking sharp ahead of him. Adshead, alongside Rathbone, was a little off form by his usual standards and was visibly frustrated with some of his own passing.
Ahead of them, debutante Clough was playing behind a front two of Matty Gillam and Jordan Williams. Clough appeared to have the freedom to go where he wanted, and the many options now apparent in midfield demonstrated 4-3-3 was a viable possibility for Rochdale looking ahead.
The main reason Dale were so much better than Bury, however, was their pressing in the final third – an obvious by-product of “playing the kids”. This led to Dale taking the lead in the 17th minute, some good build up play from Rathbone and Gillam saw Clough send a first time shot into the corner of the goal from 18 yards out.
Gillam then went from provider to scorer with an spontaneous shot that wrong-footed the Bury goalkeeper, after some more elaborate combination play from Adshead, Matheson and Gillam.
Bury made changes at half-time and were a lot more sturdy as a result. Caolan Lavery was awarded a dubious penalty after appearing to be tripped inside the box (debateable). Lavery then faltered on his run up before sending Norman the wrong way. Referee Carl Boyeson seemingly disallowed the goal before signalling that the goal stood. A post-match flick through the laws of the game proved this decision to be correct, however.
After the match, Hill reflected on the fact the game afforded him the opportunity to play some of his younger squad members.
“League One, for Rochdale, is getting harder and harder, so it’s difficult to get the likes of Aaron Morley, Dan Adshead, Luke Matheson and Matty Gillam game time because we want to stay in League One, at least.
“It was important that I played those players tonight, rewarded them for the work they’ve been doing on the training pitch and it was reflected in their performance.
“I thought it was an outstanding performance in the first-half. It was football enjoyment. We got tired, it was evident, but for me, the first half was beautiful. It could be a look into the future, but it was amazing in every aspect, with and without the ball.
“A lot of them haven’t completed 90 minutes since pre-season, and Gilly and a couple of others, including Jordan Williams, ran themselves into the ground. That’s what I want. I’d rather them burn out than fade away. I thought Aaron Morley was outstanding and Dan Adshead was superb. The future could be bright for this football club, as well as individually for those players. I’m really pleased that they’ve got their reward result wise.
“My main priority is at least stabilising our position in League One, but we try to do a good job with bringing the youth through and fast-tracking them. Luke has been training with the first team while he’s not been at school, so I’m really pleased for him to have got his chance.”
As the weekend approached, and with it a league trip to Scunthorpe United’s Glanford Park, the two victories achieved during the month to date seemed to bring optimism for Dale fans, despite the fact Rochdale hadn’t won there since 1999.
Scunthorpe had spent big during the summer and, like countless other League One clubs, the Iron’s owners and supporters alike were looking for promotion.
However, despite beating Coventry on the opening weekend, Scunthorpe had followed up with heavy defeats by Sunderland and Fleetwood − a brace which cost manager Nick Daws his job. Former Bradford manager Stuart McCall had been hired in his place and had eased the Iron into two successive draws – a 1-1 stalemate with Accrington and a goalless affair against Wolves under-21s.
Hill, once again, made changes to his line-up when match day arrived, although some were enforced this time out with Ryan Delaney on duty with the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21 side and MJ Williams out with a twisted knee. Regardless of the available personnel, Hill plumped for a back four, as he did the Tuesday previous, with Joe Rafferty and Sam Hart providing its bread and Jim McNulty and Harrison McGahey its butter. Ahead of them were Callum Camps, Andy Cannon and Ollie Rathbone, with Zach Clough then operating just behind Ian Henderson and Calvin Andrew.
On paper it looked a decent proposition but, what followed was a game that was as frustrating as it was entertaining. Within a minute and a half of kick-off, when one would expect concentration levels to be at their highest due to a lack of fatigue, Rochdale went behind. A silly foul on Ryan Colclough on Scunthorpe’s right allowed Josh Morris to whip a ball into the box, which found McNulty sleeping but Lee Novak very much awake as he nodded home all too easily from close range.
Dale, now immediately on the back foot, attempted to stick to their game plan with intricate build-up play through the lines. To be fair, this did lead to chances, Andrew in particular lashed a fairly easy chance wide, but, each time Dale lost possession, the Iron wasted no time getting up the other end and putting them under pressure.
Ike Ugbo and Colclough were causing all sorts of problems from the wings in particular, and, when the latter drifted centrally from his right, following a short corner, he was allowed to dribble into the area, taking it past numerous statuesque Rochdale players, before smashing it into the bottom corner. An absolutely criminal goal to concede.
Former Dale player Matty Lund and Funso Ojo were controlling the game in the centre now, too, something that was evidently frustrating Zach Clough, who firstly found himself booked and then, subsequently, substituted before he could pick up a second yellow.
It is unknown if cups of tea, pizzas or football boots were thrown by Keith Hill at half-time, but Dale came out fighting after the break and got on the scoresheet not long after. Sam Hart’s powerful effort was well-parried by on-loan Rangers goalkeeper Jak Alnwick, but Rathbone nipped in to put away the rebound from a tight angle.
Once again, though, Dale’s set-piece ineptitude came back to haunt them. Colclough won a free-kick on the left, which Morris lifted into the box for Charlie Goode, who had lost McGahey, to divert the ball into the bottom corner.
Hill now decided it was time for a change of tack. He brought off Cannon for Aaron Wilbraham, booed by the away support for doing so, and opted for a more direct approach.
And it worked!
With both Wilbraham and Andrew winning their headers, and thus providing an influx of second balls to feast on, Rathbone stepped up to boss the midfield as Scunthorpe sat back under the onslaught. He pulled another goal back for Dale, a well-taken effort from outside the area that deflected past Alnwick, and the chances for Dale simply racked up. The equaliser was eventually scored by youngster Matty Gillam, who was on for Zach Clough, and well deserved it was, too. Wilbraham himself should have won it for Dale after Andrew dummied late on, but he hit the ball first time and sacrificed all accuracy, sending it over the bar.
So, from down and out at 3-1 to almost snatching victory at 3-3, there was plenty for manager Keith Hill to feast on after the match.
And feast he did, sinking his teeth into the supporters once again.
“There wasn’t much wrong with the way we played in the first half, but we gifted Scunthorpe a two goal start,” he said.
“The only difference between the two sides in the first half was that we didn’t put our opportunities away. We had good opportunities – we got in behind and we got in between – but we fluffed our lines in front of goal, and the score line at half-time flatters the opponent.
“We got ourselves back into the game and then we give them another gift. Great delivery from set-plays from the opposition, but there was a total lack of responsibility from individuals, and, unfortunately, our supporters don’t see that.
“The free-kicks we’ve given away today is a lack of individual discipline and not doing the basics. That’s staying in the game, avoiding contact, making sure that you’re tackling and intercepting and making sure that you’re doing your job.
“I’m disappointed with today and disappointed with all of the players, irrespective of what you consider to be a good performance from an individual. If I microscope it, I know deep down that they’ve not done what they’re supposed to do. Regardless of the fightback, regardless of the three points, regardless of the multiple opportunities on target, we failed to convert those opportunities, and the biggest sin of all is individually not protecting our own goal. We were a small side today without MJ Williams and Ryan Delaney, so it was important that we defended with intent today but we didn’t.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Ollie Rathbone, who’d also made the most of his start at Grimsby in the League Cup, was pleased to have bagged another two goals.
After the match, the 21-year-old former Manchester United trainee told Rochdale’s media team: “Adding goals to my game is something that has always been on my mind, and I feel like I’ve got to a physical level now where I can make up the distance and still get back in after getting into the box.
“When I first came to the club, I wasn’t as strong as I am now, so I couldn’t make up those distances and then get back in – I’d be exhausted. Because I couldn’t make up the yards, I wouldn’t be in the box.
“Working on that has been part of my development, because I’ve always been a late developer. When I was 18, I was about 15. I played down a lot through my youth career, and the staff here, and at Manchester United, have been patient with me. They knew that I had more in the locker and I feel as though I’m growing more and more each season, and every week even… I feel like that is paying off this season. I also do loads of work on my finishing so I’m really happy that it’s coming out in games now.”
The weekend came and Kentish outfit Gillingham provided the opposition against which Rochdale would seek to earn their first home league victory of the campaign. They too, under the management of Steve Lovell, had started the season sluggishly and the way Dale had blown hot and cold, most recently within the same match, meant this one could go either way.
Keith Hill’s selection set the assembled throng to chattering. Several key personnel were absent from the squad entirely, Zach Clough chief among them, and, while Hill would later reveal “six or seven” players picked up injuries during the week, he added that others “simply hadn’t done enough” in training. He failed to disclose which players fitted into what camp.
One thing did seem clear from the announced line-up, Hill had set up his team to take on the Gills in the fashion he had during the second half at Scunthorpe − primarily, Aaron Wilbraham and Calvin Andrew in wide attacking positions winning direct balls for Matty Gillam and Ian Henderson to feed off.
While this game will rightly be remembered for the dazzling Henderson hat-trick that followed, the final goal of which was an acrobatic scissor kick, it also served as an astute tactical lesson. Dale ran-out 3-0 winners, somewhat comfortably really, but Hill’s post-match comments suggested he devised his game plan through gritted teeth, having had to move away from his beloved passing game.
“It’s up to me to gather as many points as I possibly can,” he said, looking surprisingly dejected for a man who had secured his first home points of the season. “Is it the way I want to play football? No. Is it the best way to beat an opponent? Previous history would suggest so. You’ve got to win football matches, and we did the business today. The players took ownership of the opponent and if we had done that against Scunthorpe then we would have won.”
An injury to Magnus Norman meant Josh Lillis returned between the sticks for this fixture. In all honesty, he had very little to do.
“There was a doubt over whether or not I was going to play him,” said Hill. “I was going with Brendan Moore yesterday and made the call today to put Josh in after what I’d seen yesterday. He’s trained for the last week and I think he’s a bit rusty, but if Magnus had been fit then he would have played. There was no rush to get Josh back, but I’m glad he then he got a comfortable game because of the way the team defended, not just the back four.”
As to that back four, they were Joe Rafferty, Harrison McGahey, Ryan Delaney and Sam Hart, the latter having a particularly strong game. Ahead of them, Callum Camps and Ollie Rathbone held court in what was, at times, a two-man midfield.
Gillingham themselves offered little. A menace of previous years with differing clubs, powerhouse forward Tom Eaves had an off day, missing two easy chances he would normally tuck away. It’s fair to say this was in large part due to McGahey’s excellent marshalling, but he also lacked the necessary support from his team mates, however, and only former Bury midfielder Callum Reilly looked like creating in the first half.
But it was all about Rochdale. The home side opened the scoring early when Henderson collected a loose ball in the area following a galloping charge from Andrew, and he slipped a neat finish beneath Tomas Holy. The Dale skipper then made the most of a Gillam pass when he slid in to turn the ball home for a quick-fire second.
After the break, Gillingham changed shape, in a negative fashion, seeming happy enough to stop Rochdale scoring any more rather than finding a way back, although Eaves almost made up for his earlier misses with a stunning 25-yard shot against the crossbar.
But it was Henderson's day and his third came just after the hour when he brilliantly volleyed home Aaron Wilbraham's looping cross.
“The two big lads playing out wide played really well and we knew we could get in that way,” Hill said afterwards. “We really needed to stop them going through Tom Eaves, and I thought we were excellent at doing that. I thought there were great performances out there today − some leaders developing and young players. We had quite a young back four.”
The midweek brought about a chance for Hill to give game time to those who missed out against Gillingham. Whether this line-up consisted of those who he perceived hadn’t been doing enough in training remained unsaid, but if his intention was to challenge these players to show him what they could do, boy, did they.
The fixture in question was against Oldham Athletic in the first round of the Lancashire County Football Association Cup (or the Lancashire Senior Cup, as it’s better known). While the competition has a history dating back to 1879, it is, these days, regarded as nothing more than a chance for competing North West teams – from the Premier League to League Two − to field reserve sides. Rochdale themselves are thrice winners, their most recent victory coming against dear neighbours Bury in 2005, and it is a stat that always adds a caveat to the claim that Dale are a “trophyless” club.
Any road, the 2018/19 competition got off to a glorious start, Rochdale running out 7-0 winners against the Latics at a closed Boundary Park, with Jordan Williams grabbing a hat-trick, Bradden Inman two goals, and young Dan Adshead and Harrison Hopper one, the latter a stunning 40-yard lob.
One of the advantages of a traditionally small club such as Rochdale being in League One is the opportunity it gives players and supporters to visit the stadia of fallen Premier League giants. Over the recent years, Dale had visited the grounds of Southampton, both Sheffield clubs, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers on the crusade for points in this division, to name but a few.
However, a first trip to Sunderland for the club probably topped them all. A giant of a club housed in the north-east of England and steeped in history, the Black Cats’ Stadium of Light is a sight to behold – a tremendous place to watch football.
Having endured a turbulent time both on and off the pitch over the past few seasons, it was still hard to accept Sunderland were in League One. Incidents such as Paolo Di Canio’s explosion of exuberance on beating Newcastle in a famous televised Premier League derby fixture seemed only moments ago.
But it wasn’t, and the maverick Italian manager and the days of Premier League extravagance were over and out. In his place now, was the affable Scot Jack Ross, who had been given the chance to restore Sunderland to former glories with the progressive brand of coaching he had used to take St Mirren from the doldrums of the Scottish Championship straight up to the Scottish Premiership.
Sunderland hadn’t set the heather alight in their first eight games, but they were still challenging the top places as five coach loads of Rochdale supporters rolled into the city, and, by half-time, the high spirits of all who had been on board were dashed.
Hill had, quite rightly, and perhaps surprisingly for him, stuck to the exact same squad that delivered against Gillingham the previous weekend. Sadly, what worked so well then, failed to click on Wearside. As against Peterborough, without playing too badly overall, Dale were on the end of a 4-1 thumping.
Sunderland's attacking players Chris Maguire, Lynden Gooch and Josh Maja were in top form and a ruthless eight-minute spell before the interval put Sunderland 3-0 and ended the game as a competition.
Playing 5-3-2 over Dale’s version of a 4-2-1-3, Sunderland had the edge. Gooch provided a handy outlet every time the home side attacked. Despite this, the visitors held firm for 30 minutes or so and really should have gone ahead when Aaron Wilbraham blazed high and wide instead of powering past Black Cats goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.
It would prove costly. Sunderland eventually found their range from the wide potions and Maguire picked out the unmarked Maja who guided a pinpoint header into the bottom corner.
Maja then turned creator, holding up the ball well and finding Gooch, who was felled in the box by a rash challenge from Ollie Rathbone. The former converted his own penalty to make it 2-0.
And it was game over moments later; as Maja’s sublime first touch preceded another emphatic finish. It was easy to see why he had been named EFL Young Player of the Month.
Rochdale rallied after half-time, but McLaughlin produced a sensational double save, denying Calvin Andrew before clawing Ian Henderson’s header off the line.
Once again, though, it was Sunderland who were the more clinical, and Gooch netted his second goal on 67 minutes, cutting in from the left and powering a low finish beyond Josh Lillis for Sunderland’s fourth of the afternoon.
Rochdale pulled one back through substitute Matty Done soon after, but there was to be no comeback here.
“We weren’t here to make up the numbers – we were here to try and win this game,” said Hill after the match. “We could have turned the crowd against them, but we supported Sunderland in being so charitable − we were so charitable that it was almost like Christmas. That’s something we have to deal with. It might be some hard miles from the players in that we might have to experience this again, but hopefully they’ll learn and educate themselves.
“The lads have worked so hard and then undid all the hard work. But it’s a true reflection of the game and the lack of mental consistency that you need as an individual or a group of players to consistently turn out positive results, and that’s the big difference between the two sides.
“The mental ability of someone like Lee Cattermole – it’s not seen, but it’s obvious from my point of view. He can control a game mentally, and that’s his experience.
“We shot ourselves in the foot, so I’m disappointed, but I hope it’s a learning curve for the players. It’s trying to salvage something in the second half and I’m putting substitutions on to try and change it.
“To be honest, Sunderland played at probably 80% and won 4-1, and that’s annoying from my perspective because I expect us to be better than that. I expect us to be better than a little bit of self-implosion, because, for 37 minutes, we were reasonably happy. We had one or two opportunities and I wasn’t overly concerned but then the concern is the self-implosion individually, and sometimes collectively, and today it was individually. You’ve got to deal with the ball and you’ve got to deal with the strikers better. You can’t really forgive, but I have to forgive, central defenders for not marking a striker on a simple cross that comes into the box.”
The fixtures refused to get any kinder. Second-placed Portsmouth visited Spotland the following weekend and, prior to the match, they had looked a very impressive unit under the stewardship of Kenny Jackett, having not lost a league game so far.
It was perhaps no surprise that Keith Hill once again resorted to tinkering with his line-up for this one, although whether this was enforced through squad injuries was unclear. The most startling of the three changes was Jimmy McNulty being chosen over Harrison McGahey in central defence, the natural assumption being that the latter was injured, while David Perkins and Jordan Williams started ahead of Calvin Andrew and Matty Gillam, who dropped to the bench.
Alas the tinkering counted for naught. A familiar story of Dale playing well but losing would be once again be penned by the assembled media. Familiar defensive lapses were chief among the reasons for defeat, but consideration had to be given to a lacklustre deep midfield of Perkins and Callum Camps which allowed Pompey to counter attack far too often, while the home side’s embellished forward line failed to test the visiting goalkeeper anywhere near regularly enough.
But it started oh so well, it really did. Aaron Wilbraham’s first goal for Rochdale was a superb dipping volley on the turn from 25 yards out after just four minutes. He would later dedicate the strike to his daughter, who he claimed had accused of him of not scoring enough.
Boosted by this early advantage, Dale were industrious without being threatening and, as the half eroded, given the way the season had gone to that point, this writer felt a sense of nervous anticipation that had nothing to do with the thought of the molten half-time pies.
First Pompey winger Jamal Lowe crashed a shot off the crossbar with Josh Lillis beaten, before the class of Bret Pitman began to show. With no fewer than four Dale players descending on him in the area, he still managed to gyrate to send a low ball across the area which Lowe prodded home with ease.
The next goal zapped all morale. Ronan Curtis zipped down the left flank, played in Brown who in turn whipped in for Pitman to beat Ryan Delaney to the punch with a smart one-touch finish.
Dale toiled on meritoriously, but, when a Curtis corner was only partially cleared to central defender Matt Clarke, who nutmegged Wilbraham before lashing the ball past Lillis from close range, it was a case of same old, same old.
“The difference between the two sides is that they made better decisions on the pitch than us,” said Keith Hill in his post-match interview.
“I thought we played some nice stuff at times, but I’m disappointed with the result.
“You’ve got to respect the opponent and sometimes you can’t stop them. If they’re better than you, sometimes it’s very difficult. But there wasn’t a lack of energy, work-rate, endeavour or honesty, I just feel as though they were probably better than us in every department, and there’s no shame in that.
“I’m disappointed but I’ll stick to the task in hand, and that’s to try and breathe a little bit of life and confidence into the players and take it into Tuesday [against Bristol Rovers]. The players don’t need to be reminded of how to win games, they just need the confidence to put it into practice, and I’m sure that’ll come.
“We’re 10 games in and have 11 points. We have to [up our] points per game ratio – we know that now, we knew that at the beginning of the season and we knew it last season.”
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