Rochdale 2-1 Shrewsbury

Make no mistake; this is massive. Just as you begin to decry your team’s financial prowess as the opposition’s big-money striker scores an unstoppable goal, just as you moan about the unfairness of it all, just as you start to see another season slip away; the whole match, season, flips undisputedly in your favour. It almost takes you by surprise it’s that unexpected. Lee McEvilly you are legend.

The Dale started the game with Sammy Russell in goal, Tom Kennedy at left back, McArdle and Stanton back together again in central defence and with Simon Ramsden at right back. Joey Thompson began on the right wing (not Buckley?!), Toner and Keltie kept their places in the centre and Adam Rundle started on the left; Jon Shaw and Alfie began up front. Spencer, Holness, Dagnall, Jonah Mk. II and McEvilly took up their positions next to Jack the Kitman on the bench. Keith Hill finally showed us what he’d been hiding under his ever-growing selection of hats recently; a thinning but sturdy head of dark brown hair. That’s the “Baldy Mourinho” chant over then.

Casting an eye over the opposition as the match started, the most notable thing about Shrewsbury is that they were big, physically strong, almost Bolton-like in their size. And like Bolton they relied on a rather hefty striker to launch the ball to; Grant Holt playing the Kevin Davies role for the Shrews today. That’s not a criticism I might add; Holty was magnificent for 75 minutes of the match and played the game with both aggression and skill, which is an unfamiliar combination in Division Four. Beside Grant Holt stood Grant Holt II (Richard Walker), who had neither the cunning or the quality of his doppelganger and seemed constantly to be where the ball wasn’t. Ben Davies looked decent playing just behind the front two, as his goal tally so far this year suggests; Chris Humphrey was too fast for his own limited skill level, as if Usain Bolt had taken up football as a hobby. Overall they were physically immense, tactically average – a deduction you could have made about Simpson’s Rochdale side of 2000.

But in the first half, Shrewsbury dominated possession. Everything that Dale won from Salop had to be fought for, to be battled over. To beat the Shrews the Dale would have to play through them, not around them. Rundle crossed one in, cleared, Thompson centred the ball, cleared, Kennedy “whipped” one in, didn’t even beat the first man. At the other end, Holt flustered and bustled but won nothing against Stanton and McArdle. Shrewsbury had all the ball but no shots on target; Rochdale just had none of the ball. Thompson did manage to find himself with the ball on the edge of the area, but his low shot ricocheted off a black shirted defender and away, away. Will Buckley must have been ill, or injured, or dead or something – Joe Thompson has the constant air of someone who’s won a first-team start in a raffle. That’s not to say he doesn’t do some good things, it’s just that he looks more surprised than the fans when he does.

It was with some relief (well to me anyway) that we went in at nil-nil. The duo of Stanton and McArdle, with considerable help from Messrs Ramsden and Kennedy, had played superbly. Shrewsbury’s attacks got no further than the edge of the penalty area. Still, our own strikers Alfie and Shaw never looked like scoring, especially the latter, who wandered around harmlessly in the Shrewsbury without ever looking a threat. Ball by ball, statistically, he probably didn’t play badly, it’s just that he doesn’t have pace and doesn’t really have any strength. And without those two things you have to wonder what actually does he offer. Nice hair? Strong jaw line?

The second half began and Dale came out aggressive and refreshed, for no apparent reason. Shrewsbury matched them, and for fifteen minutes the game tottered excitingly between the two sides. For a neutral it was good stuff, too. Alfie had a shot blocked, Grant Holt snattered one wide before Jon Unsure was replaced by Lee McEvilly. Immediately big Lee was in the action, putting his wide frame into places it doesn’t belong (quite legally of course). Toner and McEvilly both had efforts blocked by Shrewsbury’s Coughlan until a piece of sheer quality put the away side ahead. With his back to goal, and with a Dale defender standing just behind, Holt flicked the oncoming ball over both his and the defender’s heads. Time, and Rory McArdle, seemed to go in slow motion as Holt turned 360 degrees before lashing his left boot at it. Russell could only put his hand up in futile resistance. A goal worthy of applause and worthy of hatred.

Still, after this other-worldly piece of quality, the Dale battled on and the Shrewsbury defence became more and more unsteady as each McEvilly-flavoured minute passed by. It was only six minutes after Holt’s goal when McEvilly scored, direct from a free-kick awarded 3cm outside of the Sandy Lane penalty area. From then on the game was Rochdale’s to win and became more so when Dagnall came on for le Fondre after 68 minutes.

The Salopian defence became unsure of even the simplest tasks; elementary backpasses to the keeper became frought with tension, balls that should have been easily shepherded out for goal kicks were being converted to corners with Daggers and Evil’s terrific hounding. Whenever Shrewsbury did break they ran with it down the wing before kicking it over the touchline for a Dale goal kick, presumably forgetting about the bit where you’re supposed to cross it. This wastefulness just increased the pressure on the Shrews, and Keltie and Toner began to run the show.

The Dale winner, then, was never unsurprising or undeserved. Clark Keltie’s corner was headed at the near post by Chris Dagnall; Ben Davies’s scrambled goal-line clearance got only as far as Lee McEvilly and the ball bounced effortlessly into the goal. Lee McEvilly you are legend.

And the game ended ten minutes later with no hint of a Shrewsbury comeback; the Salopians stunned into submission with Dale’s determined display. The Simpson men were conquered by grit, by effort and by a big lump of a hero called Lee McEvilly. You can keep your Grant Holt, Shrewsbury; we’ve got Evil.

Written by Matt Boothman on 26th Dec 08.

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