It doesn’t get much better than this. Football which was heartbreaking, heartstopping, and eventually, heartwarming. The sight of thousands of black-and-white lunatics leaping up and down; the pained cries of a man behind me going into frequencies only dogs can here; the jubilant masses pouring onto the field after the final penalty; the rousing chorus of Oasis’s Wonderwall echoing around the stadium; the exhausted players singing as one with the Dale support – all these things I will never forget. Today I feel like part of something so massive and so good, I’m absolutely overjoyed.
What’s better is that we deserved it too. Over the two legs we played the better football, and we could have won outright today if it weren’t for a dodgy penalty decision. But it’s all largely by the by, we won, and whether it’s by penalties or not our destination is still the same. Wembley. That hallowed name, home of football, the place you want to tell your grandchildren about. “I was there when the Dale went up” you might say in thirty years time. We can all dream – the difference being now that our dreams are scarily close to becoming realities.
I knew it would be a totally memorable day from the off. The Rushden playoff game a few years back is largely forgotten in my brain. I don’t know what it was, whether it’s the fervour of my own support that has grown, bad memory, the fact that we lost – I can’t place that match in my mind. Today’s will stay there I’m sure of it, as vivid as sunshine and as joyful. Just walking into the stadium it felt different. The loudness of our excitement, our passion, all confirmed it.
We came out like the greyhounds at Belle Vue, fighting and scrapping and definitely carrying on the good work from last week’s second half performance. Within two minutes Rundle sent in a wicked cross and Dagnall headed over when he should have hit the target. A few minutes later, Darlo’s keeper Stockdale raced from his area only to have his clearance fall directly into Dagnall’s path thirty yards out, but the striker curled his effort way over when faced with an open goal. It was exciting, that’s for sure.
Then, a bad thing happened. A harsh free-kick from the left hand-side resulted in an even harsher penalty against Rene Howe. Nobody appealed apart from Jason Kennedy, nobody even in the Darlo end, but for some reason the referee pointed to the spot amidst understandable abuse from our players. Clark Keltie stepped up and struck it past Tommy Lee to make it 3-1 on aggregate to Darlington.
At this point there were mixed feelings. Some said “That’s killed the game that has”, “Oh dear it’s over now”, “They’ll just put ten men behind the ball”. But others, probably the more pragmatic Dale fans, just simply shouted encouragement from the stands. A two-goal deficit is never too much for this team, as we’ve proved many times before. Wembley was still on, we just made it a little more harder for ourselves.
On the stroke of half-time we got our equaliser, Rundle’s free kick was curled into the area and Chris Dagnall poked it in from about a yard after Darlington failed to clear. Hardly a classy goal, but it made us all wild nevertheless. Still, we were technically losing at half-time, so the goal was greeted with a sort-of “Well done Dale, now let’s have another one” kind of celebration. One goal down at half-time is a goal we’ve come to relish, however, so I was still fairly confident of at least pushing the game into extra time. And my prediction of 3-1 was still on.
Half-time came and went, and Rene Howe was replaced by Adam le Fondre, presumably because of injury. Soon after, Darlington scared us all by smacking the bar from twenty yards in front of the WMG end. Heart in mouth time.
Le Fondre was less impressive than Howe was, and Darlington were beginning to exert some pressure. They didn’t dominate, but they looked more likely to score, given how many players we were committing forward. But on 75 minutes, le Fondre tumbled in the box for what looked a penalty from my angle, and this must have infuriated David Perkins as he unleashed a cracker from 25 yards which looped over Stockdale and into the Sandy net straight after. Needless to say there was jumping and shouting and everyone was dead happy.
There was still time for nervousness though. Every Darlington attack was repelled as much by frantic Dale screams as stout defence. Neither side was willing to let this game go to penalties, and there was still enough time for both sides to threaten the goals. It was a cracking match, aggressive and attractive in equal measures – this was no stalemate.
The whistle to signify 90 minutes was blown and it was easy to see which side looked happier with the situation. Darlington were uneasy, nervous even, their manager stony-faced with anxiety. The Dale management, in contrast, were smiling, laughing, enjoying the day. This was ours to win and theirs to lose.
The first half of injury time was scrappy, with few clear cut chances. Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu occasionally threatened something, but he was let down by his awful control of the ball. Dale were looking to get the ball to Rundle and substitute Muirhead, but both sides struggled to string passes together. Stanton and McArdle were both walls today, frequently putting in last-ditch tackles and reading the game to the extent that nearly all Darlo’s through balls found a Dale boot.
The second half of injury time had more incident, the most important of which was a sending off for Perkins. Perks went into a tackle rather hastily, but not dangerously, and two or three Darlington players were squaring up to him, pushing him. Perkins didn’t really react much, just shoved them a little, so it was to the surprise of everyone when the referee showed him a straight red. The midfielder walked off, resigned, tears in the eyes, sorry. He will miss the final if the card isn’t rescinded.
After the sending-off, the match was a mess with both sides defending desperately. Adam le Fondre hit the bar with a volley from a corner, Darlington wasted a free kick from a good position twenty yards out. So to penalties it was.
Now at this point my mam had to leave because she “couldn’t handle it”. I’m pretty sure all of us felt the same way. The tension is at times unbearable during shoot-outs. I think we all have different ways of coping with it – some of us shout and boo the opponents, some of us stay quiet and pray to God we’ll win, and some of us, like my mam, just don’t watch.
Penalty 1: Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu, scored. Annoying, but it was only the first penalty.
Penalty 2: Chris Dagnall, scored. Great relief, the onus to score is on them now.
Penalty 3: Rob Purdie, scored. Damn. Come on Dale.
Penalty 4: Tom Kennedy, scored. Hit it right in the top corner. 2-2, still anyone’s.
Penalty 5: Neil Wainwright, scored. Damn. They are bloody good at penalties Darlington, why won’t they miss one?
Penalty 6: Adam le Fondre, scored. Cool as you like.
Penalty 7: Ricky Ravenhill, scored. This is getting too tense for comfort. I am bobbing up and down like a cork in the ocean. We are gonna miss one I can feel it.
Penalty 8: Gary Jones, scored. Ever-dependable.
Penalty 9: Jason Kennedy, MISSED!!!!! Tommy Lee you are a legend, the crowd go ballistic, everyone is hugging and screaming. We still have work to do. Who’s taking our last penalty? Muirhead?!! Tension.
Penalty 10: Ben Muirhead, SCORED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
…And now words can do little justice to what we felt. It’s not hard to see why this means so much to us, having been in this division for so so long. It’s not hard to see why eleven Rochdale players singing “Rochdale till I die” brought a tear to many a grown man’s eyes. It’s not hard to see why nearly all Rochdale fans young and old swarmed the pitch to greet their heroes. Saturday 17th May is a date that will be etched on every Dale fan’s mind for years to come. One reason, Wembley. And oh how we will celebrate!
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