Forest Green 2 – 0 Rochdale
It always threatened to be one of those days. The unfancied non-league opposition, struggling down the bottom of the Conference; the high-flying visitors, seven matches unbeaten and scoring goals for fun; the cameras hoping to catch an upset for the telly. It was freezing, bloody freezing. Forest Green refused to act like the underdogs they were supposed to be.
And it could mean so much more than the simple lost chance of an FA Cup run. Word from the stands suggested we needed a big tie in the next round more than you would think. Rumblings of January sales in the air, everyone suddenly wondered just how much Will Buckley would be valued at. Oh dear, what an opportunity wasted this could turn out to be.
All warmed up and raring to lose, Dale started with the usual 4-4-2 formation; Russell in net, a back four of fit-again Ramsden, McArdle, Holness and Kennedy; Buckley and Higginbotham on the wings, Keltie and Toner in the centre and le Fondre and the Thorpedo up front.
From the off, the home side were intent not to sit-back. At kick-off, instead of the usual hoof down the sidelines, the Forest Green attackers ran directly towards Dale’s goal with it and the defence watched in an open-mouthed stupor, eventually Andy Mangan brought the ball a little too wide and it was cleared. The ever decreasing gap between league and non-league was brought into sharp focus, Forest Green looked good. You couldn’t imagine a non-league team say fifteen years ago looking as professional as the men from Nailsworth.
Forest Green played a scarily high defensive line which completely flummoxed a Dale side more used to having to break down stubborn League Two defences. The midfield was packed out with black and white shirts, Toner and Keltie only being allowed one touch on the ball before a Rover was all over him. The out-ball must then be down the wings, but both Higginbotham and Buckley (playing in his unfavoured left-wing position) were ineffective. Therefore, Dale were a pudding, all stodgy and round and full of starch.
Rochdale did have two efforts on goal; Adam le Fondre curled one over and wide after a good run, Ciaran Toner at last found a yard of space but his volley was awkward and he never looked likely to score.
With both wingers out of the game, and both central midfielders marked to oblivion, Forest Green were dominating. The first goal came after twenty-seven minutes, Ramsden and Buckley allowed Paul Stonehouse far too much room to manouevre a cross in, and after being brilliantly dummied by one-time Dale target Josh Low the ball found its way to Jonathan Smith whose shot was just a tad too powerful for Sammy Russell to stop.
Forest Green were pacy up front, Andy Mangan being the focal point of Rovers’ attacks. With both Wiseman and Stanton not playing, Dale’s defence was slow and short of playing time, Ramsden and Holness both looking uncomfortable on and off the ball. And so it was that by forty-five minutes, Forest Green weren’t just deserving of a one-nil lead, they were deserving of more.
Half-time, and it was still bloody freezing. One stand was sponsored by Western Thermal, another by an Insulation company. Ha ha.
4-3-3 was the order of the day in the second half. Instead of Hill’s usual ploy of leaving the side unchanged for ten minutes before making changes, he brought on Jon Shaw for the disappointing Kallum Higginbotham. And instead of coming out in the second half and scoring, Dale struggled to adapt to this untried and untested formation. Jon Shaw in particular was a fish out of water, which is unfathomable given that only last season he scored twenty goals against similar opposition. Shaw was timid and tentative, and for some reason couldn’t stand up. In short, not a centre-forward.
Fifty-odd minutes though, and Dale’s best opportunity. Somehow it took Rochdale over half the match to put a decent cross in and discover that FGR weren’t brilliant at defending them; Tom Kennedy’s corners were headed twice over the Forest Green bar before Lee Thorpe got on the end of one and had it cleared behind. The fifth corner was poorly taken (five good deliveries is too much to ask of anyone) and FGR broke with relieved enthusiasm down the right wing. Then the killer came, Josh Low skipped past the static Tom Kennedy and with Sam Russell approaching, calmly lifted it into the net opposite the disbelieving away fans. Jesus Christ, Dale.
Forest Green, content with their two-goal lead (as they should have been), began to sit back a little, and Adam le Fondre lobbed the ball in the net only for it to be wrongly disallowed for a push. Oooh, dirty scumbag cheating bastard ref. Still, we were getting into it more, even if it was a little too late.
Will Buckley was out of it, and Mark Jones came on to provide one of the only positives to arise from yesterday’s match. Jonah Mk II battled for the ball, kept possession in tight spots and was generally excellent with his distribution afterwards. It was so unfortunate then that when he had the goal at his mercy late in the second-half he spooned it well wide. It always threatened to be one of those days.
FGR even threatened to make it three, but Sammy Russell pulled off an excellent save to at least keep the score respectable if nothing else.
And so the final whistle blew and the Rochdale fans limped out of the stadium with ice-cold feet and red-hot tempers. Forest Green, by contrast, were jubilant. I’m glad they were. They were disciplined, clever and exploited Dale’s defensive lapses whilst keeping their own goal pretty well shut. They were a standard above what we’d expected, and I don’t think the Rochdale team ever got to grips with that. I hope they go far.
On slight crumb of consolation though; Radio Five Live called Forest Green “giant-killers”…
Rochdale AFC; Giants of Football!