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2019/20 Season Review
Wednesday, 15th Jul 2020 09:49 by Chaff

I fancied writing a piece for the website so thought I'd do a season review as we look back at the 2019/2020 season, the one that didn't get finished.

It’s been a while since we wrote anything on the website, which given the lack of football we’ve had to endure isn’t overly surprising. But, with that in mind, I thought I’d write a season review for the 2019/2020 season. Most of our features have been in podcast form since lockdown started so I thought I’d give you something to read as well.

This year has been mental. The Covid-19 pandemic will have been, for most of us, the biggest disruption we’ve ever been through. Countries all over the world locked down for months, our own country, locked down, albeit not as forcefully as others. Everyone told to stay at home for their own safety and the safety of everyone else and to help the NHS deal with the situation as best they could. And we’re all extremely thankful to the NHS. People, I included, having to work from home. People not working at all through being furloughed, a word nobody had heard of before this, while those who had no choice still had go to work. Kids were sent home from schools and missed out on months of vital education and missed out on seeing their friends while parents had to try and home school, probably with very limited success.

Reading that back to myself, I’ve written that like it’s over when, realistically, it’s not. Many things do seem to be returning to some form of normality, but while there are new cases, and tragically more deaths still being reported, it’s not over yet.

But before we were all stuck indoors doing zoom quizzes, zoom chats with family members you’ve probably spoken to more now than you did before, digging out board games, binge watching Tiger King and going on longer walks than was advised by Boris, we had gone three quarters through another season in League One. Little did we know, the brilliant win over high flying Rotherham United at Spotland in March would be our last action of the season.

Our first action of the season, away at Tranmere Rovers was even better. August, Christ, how is it already nearly 12 months ago that we travelled over to the other side of scouse land to take on newly promoted Tranmere Rovers? A cracking opening day fixture that was very well received when the fixtures came out. And in fairness, it couldn’t have gone much better. Dale lined up in a stunning new third kit, a bright pink, basically because Errea hadn’t been able to supply the grey away kit in time apparently. Pretty in pink and pretty in play as Dale, after a slow first 15 minutes, were outstanding. Ian Henderson scored the first, and second goals of the season, the second in the most ridiculous way with the most audacious chip you’ll ever see. You wouldn’t have believed it to be real had it been anyone but Hendo but we’ve seen him do this on a few occasions and we all know he has it in his locker. It was stunning, and arguably wasn’t the best goal of the game! The third goal was just total football, it was like Arsenal goal that was finished off by Jack Wilshere with all the one touch passing. It was mesmerising and unexpected and was brilliantly finished off by loanee Rhys Norrington-Davies. Dale would win 3-2 in the end despite being 3-0 up and Dale doing their best to cock it up defensively but still, for 85 minutes, we looked like 1970 Brazil.

I hadn’t been confident going into the season. We’d looked very average in pre-season and were rightly one of the favourites for relegation. I remember listening to NotTheTop20’s pre-season prediction podcast and they had us down as going down as well but not for the same reasons I did. They said that getting rid of Keith Hill was a mistake and that we’d have been better off keeping him. I disagreed! I was fearful because it was common knowledge that we’d had the playing budget slashed due to the aforementioned Hill’s overspending without the rewards to justify it. We were going to have to rely on younger players and an inexperience manager.

To be fair to Brian Barry-Murphy, he’d done a superb job in keeping Dale up following the sacking of Keith Hill because Hill had admitted he was preparing for League Two. BBM came in and steadied the ship, went back to basics and it worked, but how would he fare in his first transfer window as a manager?

From the start I thought his recruitment was very good. He brought in Robert Sanchez, a highly rated keeper on loan from Brighton. An absolute man mountain between the sticks as he stood about 6 foot 5. A very different style of goalkeeper to Josh Lillis who BBM openly admitted, wasn’t going to be part of his plans and was free to move on. We also saw Rhys Norrington-Davies come in on loan from Sheffield United. Not much was known about him other than he’d done well on loan at Barrow in the National League, but this was going to be a big step up. Rekeil Pyke had come back on loan from Huddersfield. Bit of a surprise this one as he’d done very little in his previous spell but there seemed to be a player there somewhere and surely, he’d be itching to prove himself. The demise of bury fc saw Eoghan O’Connell swap Steve Dale for Rochdale in what was a real eye-opening signing, and one that was very well received by Dale fans. Experienced midfielder Jimmy Ryan joined on a free transfer from Blackpool while goalkeeper Jay Lynch joined from AFC Fylde as a back up to Spanish Bob. Young centre half Tyler Magloire came in on loan from Blackburn Rovers. Very highly rated and had been known for being as quick as Usain Bolt or something daft like that. All in all, an impressive window I thought but we still had issues where we were still reliant on players I regarded as not being good enough to have to rely on.

Things carried on looking positive for the opening month of the season. We drew at home to Doncaster Rovers who had been impressive the previous season. We also picked up an impressive 5-2 win at home to Bolton Wanderers U12’s in the League Cup, at least that’s how the media, BBC Radio Bolton were painting the picture. I don’t think Rochdale’s average age was much more than Bolton’s that night. Poor Bolton Wanderers being made to play football instead of being at home watching Peppa Pig. Pathetic.

Dale travelled down to Shrewsbury and came back with a credible draw. A Shrewsbury side that had done very well the previous season and made some good signings pre-season, such as that of Ethan Ebanks-Landell who had been a huge part of us staying up 4 months earlier.

Dale tasted defeat for the first time at home to Sunderland. Dale had worked tirelessly, and a very young Luke Matheson had come into the side due to the right back issues Dale were having given that Ryan McLaughlin couldn’t stay fit for five minutes and had missed the start of the season. Young Luke had been tasked with going up against Aiden McGeady and was brilliant against him but just came up short.

It became apparently early on that BBM had a style of play that Dale were going to play and it’s fair to say it split opinion. When it worked it was brilliant to watch but when it didn’t, it became an issue for supporters. It wasn’t the Rochdale way they said, not that there’s a specific way we play, and some saw it as boring while few backed it. I liked that BBM had set his style and was going to do all he could to make it work and thought supporters should show a bit more patience.

This new style worked a treat away at Southend. Rochdale were sensational against a very poor Southend team but another absolutely stunning team goal was finished off by Ian Henderson and was later featured on Soccer AM and various social media accounts and all of a sudden Dale were being likened to Manchester City and BBM to Pep Guardiola. That was a bit silly really. Our next game saw us get smashed 6-0 by Peterborough in a game where if it could go wrong, it did and Dale didn’t win then until October and the style of play was being severely called into question and Dale started sliding down the table, not that the table matters at that point in the season.

There was the positive distraction of the League Cup though as a win over Carlisle in round two had set up the dream cup game, away at Manchester United. As everyone knows, Manchester United are my “second” team. I know that annoys some but never mind. I had waited 30 years for this fixture and my 6-year-old son had gotten it already!

A wonderful day out to Old Trafford at a time where Manchester United had been struggling and some saw a potentially difficult night for United. I didn’t buy into that and fully expected us to get battered. That expectation only increased after seeing the United side that featured the likes of Paul Pogba, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred, Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard and the young starlet Mason Greenwood who has gone on to have a wonderful first season at United.

Dale more than held their own but United looked like scoring on several occasions but had to wait till the second half to do so when Greenwood struck to make it 1-0. The away end had been absolutely bouncing all game and given that United weren’t having it all their own way, had spurred the Dale fans on and they were as loud as I’ve ever heard them. Rochdale fans chanting the circus song to Paul Pogba was a huge highlight.

What happened next is something that Hollywood couldn’t have scripted. A 16-year-old that looked 12, still in school, first year scholar, by the name of Luke Matheson became an instant hero and a name no Dale fan would forget. An Ollie Rathbone cross was volleyed into the roof of the net by the youngster to make it 1-1 and spark scenes in the away end I’ve rarely seen before. His first goal in mens football, was at Old Trafford, against Manchester United, to equalise. Absolute scenes. The game had gone to penalties. Little old Rochdale had taken Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s (who my son was named after!) Manchester United side to penalties. Four brilliant penalties for Rochdale wasn’t quite enough as Dan James scored the winning penalty for United after Jimmy Keohane had missed for Dale but a night all Dale fans, young and old will remember until the day they die. I know I will.

Back to the League and Dale had struggled. Since that win over Southend, we’d been hammered by Posh, drawn with Lincoln and been beaten by Fleetwood, Wycombe and very disappointingly, AFC Wimbledon, a direct relegation rival.

Dale had started to go through a very damaging injury crisis as well and were having to include 15-year-old academy lads in match day squads and constantly play players out of position. We even had to play the likes of Calvin Andrew at centre back due to Jim McNulty being injured. We’d lost Tyler Magloire as well as several other members of the squad. Ryan McLaughlin hadn’t recovered from his injury before the start of the season and BBM had to act and he brought in experienced Irish international Paul McShane to bolster the squad. McShane had been available on a free transfer for a while after leaving Reading and had to be treated very carefully. He wasn’t going to be able to play every week but when he did, he made a huge difference to our side. He arrived on a deal until January but later signed a two-year deal such was his impact on the squad.

Whether it was a direct result of McShane coming in or not I don’t know but Dale ended their poor run of form with three wins on the bounce against fellow relegation candidates Accrington, Bolton and Milton Keynes. Two of these wins came against former Rochdale managers as an Ian Henderson brace saw off John Coleman’s Accrington while goals from Camps, Rathbone and Tavares (though Tavares never actually scored this, it was an own goal by Zouma) saw off Keith Hill and Flickers Bolton Wanderers in a 3-1 win. Hillcroft had recently taken over at the BBC GMR Stadium and were given the impossible task of trying to keep them up despite having started the season on minus 12.

The importance of those three wins at that time couldn’t be underestimated as Dale then lost their next 5 league games on the bounce. It also seemed to coincide with Paul McShane picking up an injury. Defeats against Oxford, Bristol Rovers, Ipswich, Coventry and Portsmouth saw Dale tumble down the league again and look like they were in a spot of bother. Nobody would realistically expect us to beat any of those teams as they were all up near the top of the table except for Bristol Rovers but a run like that can effectively finish teams off and they find it very difficult to get out of it.

While the league run was going on and the Dale support were becoming tired of the playing out from the back style we were still trying to employ, we had the FA Cup. Dale were tied against Wrexham in the first round with a trip to the Racecourse Ground. Dale can count themselves very lucky to come away from the match with a draw and a replay to take back to Spotland. We were absolutely awful to watch and for the first time, I’d become annoyed at the style of play myself. The replay at Spotland wasn’t much better though we did manage to scrape through with a 1-0 win thanks to a Paul McShane header in the first half. The worries were evident among the support that this wasn’t good, and we’d severely struggled against a non-league side over two ties.

Boston United came out of the hat as Dale’s opponents in round two and they came to Spotland with high hopes of causing an upset. The travelling fans were arguably the noisiest we’d seen all season and they really spurred non-league Boston on, and they should have won the game but managed to secure another 0-0 for Dale and take the game back to Lincolnshire in a replay that would be live on the telebox. Dale managed to overcome their non-league opponents thanks to a late penalty from Aaron Morley to spare more blushes and suddenly Dale were on another cup run!

Just prior to the Boston replay, Dale had managed to end their miserable league form with a sensational win over at the New York City stadium to beat top of the table Rotherham United. A superb strike from Aaron Morley was enough to pick up a huge 3 points and Morley had been making a bit of a name for himself as a regular in the Dale side.

Hopefully that would then give Dale a kickstart and we’d pick up some points over the busy festive period. Nope! Three consecutive defeats either side of Christmas had us all worried again. We’d been beaten by Burton Albion before Christmas but thankfully I don’t remember much of that having been drinking from 9am. Boxing Day saw the thug, Joey Barton bring his impressive Fleetwood side to Dale and it looked like we were going to get a point thanks to an Aaron Wilbraham brace, but Dale conceded in the last minute to lose the game 3-2. Similar happened away at Gillingham a few days later where Dale had an awful last 5 minutes, conceding a late winner and having MJ Williams sent off. Season of good cheer my arse!

New Year, new Dale? Well it started off well as Dale went to Accrington Stanley and picked up a huge three points! John Coleman must absolutely hate playing us. An Ian Henderson chip before the break was followed in the second half by a rare Stephen Dooley goal before Dale conceded in stoppage time but managed to hang on to a precious win. Jimmy Ryan had really kicked into gear following a slow start to his Dale career, but he and Rathbone were fantastic that day.

The cup draws continued to be very kind to Dale as the FA Cup third round saw us drawn at home to Premier League big boys Newcastle United. Steve Bruce’s men were struggling hugely with injuries and the fact they had a £40million striker who scores less goals than Calvin Andrew who couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. Some thought this could be a potential upset and the game, again, was on the tele with the world watching. My pessimistic nature meant I fully expected to get beaten and the first half justified my thoughts. Dale were very poor. A very young Kwadwo Baah had been promoted from the youth team as we’d sent back Rekeil Pyke who had proven to be about as much use as a pair of sunglasses on a bloke with one ear. Young Baah had done really well against Accrington but struggled severely against Newcastle and so did Tyler Magloire at right back. Both were sacrificed as Dale were 1-0 down thanks to Miguel Almiron’s first half strike. Luke Matheson replaced Magloire before half time while Baah was replaced by 40-year-old Aaron Wilbraham. Ryan McLaughlin had also returned from injury, for now at least, and came on as a second half substitute and all three substitutes linked up perfectly to score a wonderful equaliser. McLaughlin broke on the counter, Luke Matheson ran from right back on the overlap, didn’t stop and eventually received the ball and crossed perfectly for the evergreen Aaron Wilbraham who blasted home from close range to send the Dale support into chaos again! Dale were outstanding in the second half and had it not ben for an awful Rathbone miss late on, we’d have beaten Newcastle United on the day, but Dale happily settled for a draw to set up a replay at St James’ Park, a new ground for me which was a huge personal bonus. The replay saw Rochdale soundly beaten 4-1 in a poor performance, but a late MJ Williams consolation was a nice end to another glorious cup run.

Keith Hill’s Bolton Wanderers were next up at Spotland and I would think he’s also sick of coming here as an opposition manager as a brilliant goal from Luke Matheson and a second half strike from Jimmy Ryan was enough to see off Bolton and pour more misery on them as they were heading towards League Two.

Defeats to Wycombe and MK Dons followed along with a draw at home to Gillingham but as the end of January was approaching, so was the transfer deadline.

Ryan Delaney had looked woeful in pre-season and hadn’t progressed as expected in a Dale shirt and he’d be farmed out on loan to AFC Wimbledon. January saw Delaney leave on a permanent deal as he went to join Bolton Wanderers and the man who brought him to Rochdale, Keith Hill. No tears were shed when this news came through.

It used to be that I dreaded transfer deadline day for fear of losing one of our key players for decent money but now I think I’ll be more worried if we didn’t sell someone. It’s become very apparent, and was illustrated at the fan’s forum back in February that we would struggle if transfer income didn’t come in. As deadline day approached, rumours of big money offers for Luke Matheson were building and then sure enough, it was confirmed that the boy wonder had signed for Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers for a fee believed to be around £1,000,000 plus numerous add-ons and as part of the deal, he was loaned back to us for the remainder of the season. A great deal for the club which was a big bonus following the two cup runs that had also generated money for the club. He became Rochdale’s biggest player sale, taking that record from Scott Hogan.

That wasn’t the only deadline day news, it was widely rumoured that CJ Hamilton was on his way to Rochdale from Mansfield for a potential club record fee, but it didn’t play out that way and the deal didn’t go through but a deal that we did manage to get over the line saw Matty Lund return to Dale from Scunthorpe United. Striker Tyler Smith had arrived on loan from Sheffield United earlier in the window and it was the Smith who scored the only goal of the game in a vital 1-0 win over Shrewsbury Town as we got February under way.

February proved to be a very difficult month which saw us only pick up a single point following that Shrewsbury win. A draw away at Doncaster thanks to a great solo effort from Oliver Rathbone was followed by consecutive defeats to Sunderland, Coventry and Portsmouth and Dale found themselves a little too close for comfort to the drop zone.

Storm Dennis had claimed the Tranmere match at Spotland in February at a time where Tranmere had picked up form and looked to be heading out of the relegation places had it continued with the game to be rearranged for the middle of March but as we now know, the game was never to be played.

Rotherham came to Spotland and even though Dale had beaten them on their own deck, I didn’t see us beating them, but we did. We were superb from start to finish and beat them 3-1. Two Ian Henderson goals left him just 3 short of the all-time goalscoring record before a wonderful goal from Matty Lund finished the game off. Callum Camps produced a wonderful ball through to Lund who lobbed the keeper from 25 yards. That would end up being the last goal we got to saw last season so what a goal to bow out on.

The Tranmere game was next up but Covid-19 intervened and after much deliberation as to what to do with the league, Tranmere ended up being relegated despite going into lockdown in good form.

Dale survived, which not many had us down to do before the season started so Brian Barry-Murphy must take a fair amount of credit for that given his budget was slashed and the injuries we’ve had.

Quick mention for a few of the standout performers, whether good or bad. Eoghan O’Connell’s debut season was ace. He’s already being mentioned in the same category as Craig Dawson and Jack O’Connell such was the standard of his performances. It speaks volumes that he always won the Supporters Player of the Season ahead of Ian Henderson who was again, top goalscorer. Without O’Connell we’d have conceded a bucket full of goals, but he just seemed to get to everything, even when he had no right. It got to the point where we were giving him man of the match in the reports every week. Where I’ve said about conceding goals, the same could be said for Spanish Bob in goal. Sanchez, as much as you knew there was a mistake in him, was outstanding. He would cost us a couple of goals through over-confidence and keeping hold of the ball too long, but he also made saves I’ve never seen a Dale goalkeeper make and without him as well, we’d have conceded a lot more. Aaron Morley was a plus point in midfield as well and the youngster had a really positive impact on the side. His range of passing and set pieces were excellent and he also chipped in with goals, as did Callum Camps. Camps had been used in a number 4 role under Hill which stifled his creativity so when BBM utilised him in a number 10 role, and even a false 9 at times this season, we saw what he could do, and he became our top assister and second top goalscorer. Ollie Rathbone impressed when he wasn’t injured and on loan left back Rhys Norrington-Davies turned out to be a very good loan signing.

The released list saw long serving goalkeeper Josh Lillis and academy product and vice-captain Callum Camps leave the club. They were joined by experienced strikers Aaron Wilbraham and Calvin Andrew, Ryan McLaughlin, Matty Gillam and MJ Williams but the biggest news was that despite offers being made throughout the season to keep him, Ian Henderson was leaving the club despite only being 3 goals away from becoming the clubs all-time leading goalscorer and he left under a dark cloud as well which was a very sad situation. His contribution to the club cannot be understated and for me, he still goes down as the best player the club has ever had.

The start date for next season, kits, signings, season tickets and even whether we will be allowed to go to games all remains to be seen but we’ve been told to hope for news soon and as much as we all moan about Dale, life just isn’t the same without it.

Photo: Action Images

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