Darlington 2 (Kennedy 28, Miller 90+2)
Rochdale 1 (Dagnall 70)
Dale team: Lee, Ramsden, McArdle, D’Laryea (Holness), Kennedy, Higginbotham, Jones, Perkins, Rundle (Muirhead), Howe, Dagnall (le Fondre)
As you may well know, games like these don’t come along too often for a Dale fan. Big away followings like today’s usually only happen at Bury. Wolves in the cup, Plymouth on last day, Rushden in the playoffs are rare exceptions. But today I think tops them all. Not because of the result, but by the manner of our defeat.
We know what we are by now. We are a young, exciting, attack-minded team – on its day one of the best in League Two. Today did nothing to make us think otherwise despite being beaten. At half-time we looked buried. By full-time we looked buoyant.
Occasionally we are naive, foolish even. Mistakes are inevitable in a side with such young players. Let’s not forget, Jonah apart, today’s team was remarkably short on league experience. A couple of them showed it too. But a lack of experience does not necessarily point to a lack of heart, and definitely doesn’t point to a lack of skill. I think we will win next week, 3-1.
The first half we were all over the shop. Perkins and Jonah were being played off the park by the Darlo midfield. D’Laryea looked a nervous wreck unfortunately, and I feel sorry for the lad as he really deserved his place today. We just didn’t look at all comfortable in front of the big cameras and the big crowd and the big noise. Despite that, the first real chance of the half came Dale’s way when Chris Dagnall pressurised a Darlo defender into giving him the ball before he curled it into the crossbar when clean-through. The Dale lot held their heads in disbelief before looking to the big screen to see that, yes, Daggers did just hit the bar, and yes, we were still at nil-nil. I started to wonder what the Sky TV commentators would be saying; “Here’s Dagnall, he’s through, and oh! he’s struck the bar!”, or “Well hustled by Dagnall, real chance here… and the crossbar saves Darlo!” or most likely “A Rochdale guy has got the ball… he shoots… he’s missed it. Who was that Andy, Adam Lee Fondray?”.
But a Darlington goal was beginning to look more likely with every passing minute. Julian Joachim belted one over, a midfielder hit one straight at Lee, but ultimately it was Darlo’s Jason Kennedy who scored first. The Middlesbrough loanee exquisitely flicked the ball over Rory McArdle in the area, steadied himself, and curled it far into the top corner. I always feel cheated by brilliant goals that the opposition score, it’s as if they haven’t given you chance to stop the goal happening. Like playing against the older boys on the field, there was nothing we could have done about it. But unlike playing the older boys on the field, there was no way we could take our ball back and sulk all the way home.
We did nothing else of note in the second half, and we fretted and fiddled about as Darlington put pressure on us. We were being too panicky, too direct in our play and we made the game easy for Darlo. Our full-backs pumped the ball forward at every opportunity which the Darlington defence won almost every time, and they quickly organised counter-attacks against us. It didn’t look good. This wasn’t the Dale we were used to. Where was the zip, the running with the ball, the considered passing? Time and time again we hoofed it forward, and time and time again it came straight back at us.
Perhaps it was something to do with confidence. It takes a lot of nerve to start playing the Dale style away from home, but we never usually struggle. Our high line of defence, our sometimes speculative balls across the park, our pacey wing-play – no doubt we play a risky strategy, but one which usually pays off. When we don’t have the confidence to play this way, we struggle. No fear home or away isn’t just a catchy slogan, it’s an entire mindset. And in the first half, we were playing with fear, no doubt.
At half-time I again pondered what the Sky TV people would be saying; would they be predicting easy Darlington wins, or cagey second-halves, or unlikely Dale comebacks? I considered them all, and came to the conclusion that they’d be talking about MK Dons. And then I gave up thinking about Sky, and started predicting myself.
“I think we’ll score,” I said to me Mam, “but I dunno if they’ll score”.
“I’m not so sure,” me Mam said. “We look crap”. Hard to argue with that, really.
First halves are not our speciality it must be said this season. We are the league’s comeback kings, the second-half supermen, the injury-time invincibles. Okay, so maybe I’m going a bit over the top, but we definitely do have a knack of bringing out a performance in the second half. And today was no different. I think Keith Hill must either absolutely bollock the players at half-time, or just give them speed. Either way, they usually tend to come out on fire.
The second half was all about us. We got back into the stride of playing one-touch football, keeping possession where needed but not afraid to try something a little out of the ordinary. Instead of our unintelligent balls down the flanks from the defence, we looked to play it through our midfield, bringing Jonah and Perkins firmly into the game and we were miles the better side in the second half for it. And once again the Dale support started to believe. Crowd noise became louder and more excited, more aggressive. Dagnall found himself with a decent opportunity from a narrow angle, but fired wide. The crowd oohed and sighed, but became more determined to see that equaliser. Corners came and went, fouls committed and taken.
Like the Darlo goal, our equaliser became inevitable. After seventy minutes, Chris Dagnall shot from just outside the area and it deflected off a Darlington player. At this point, time stood still. The ball in slow motion, keeper Stockdale could only watch in terror as it curved sweetly into his bottom right corner and nestled warmly in the net. Then, ecstasy. We’d got what we’d deserved; there is justice in football; there is a God! And his name was Dagnall! A million different songs all started at once, finally converging into one long “Daaaaaayyyullllll” chant. Joy.
From then on, it was clear who the winners of this game were going to be. We were bombing forward, creating chances. Darlington weren’t even a part of the game. Muirhead came on for Rundle and almost immediately scored as he smashed a ball into a crowd of players in the penalty area. The ball fell agonisingly wide by about three inches, and the linesman gave a goal kick. Must have come off Howe, but he can’t be blamed for failing to control a ball fired at him from three yards away. Dagnall had one last effort blocked before being taken off for le Fondre. Le Fondre himself squirmed his way past the Darlo defence soon after, but it ended in nothing but an awkward tumble and a resigned shrug from Alfie.
Ninety minutes came with the announcement of five minutes of added time. In my head, this is where the action stops. We play out the extra minutes with no chances and no goals, and look favourites for Wembley in a fortnight’s time. Keith Hill post-match explains that one-all is brilliant away from home, but we still have work to do. Everything looks rosy.
But in reality, Jonah commits a stupid foul and they bang it up the other end and Ian Miller nods it in. Oh cruel football, oh cruel life. Why can’t it happen just like in my head?
Final whistle goes not long after. We are all gutted, but later on we ask ourselves whether we are in such a bad position. Away goal? Check. Good performance? Check. Three injuries to Darlo’s team? Check. So maybe it’s not all bad.
All I know is that we battered Darlington in the second half, and in a perverse way we may be favourites for the second leg. They know that they have snatched a win today, and we know that we are the better footballing side. I think the confidence of our players must be higher than after any other defeat in history. A glorious loss was today’s. Sure, we might be behind, but isn’t that how we’d like it to be anyway?