21/3/09; Wycombe Wanderers v Rochdale, Adams Park, High Wycombe :: Lg 2
Well. Where on earth to start?
A balmy saturday, sun beating down (but with nice cool temperatures) and a welcoming stadium in the middle of a wooded glade. Almost perfect conditions for a game of football, you might argue. Until you were told we were playing Wycombe. In an unusual season for League 2, Wycombe have almost proved that it is possible to have a successful season without actually trying to score any goals. Consider a notoriously miserly defence (conceding only 11 goals at home this season and losing just one home game until today) and a fairly shot-shy attack, and many a Dale fan could be forgiven for assuming today’s game would be a bore draw, with both teams cautiously trying to end the game in the top three and survive yet another weekend of League 2 football.
Score-wise, they were almost right. But a bore draw this most certainly wasn’t.
From the announcement of the starting XI, it was pretty clear that Dale would be going for the jugular – 3 front-men in Alfie, Daggers and Thorpe led to the natural conclusion that Hillcroft would opt for a 4-3-3 formation, but it was not to be as Chris Dagnall was moved to the unfamiliar wide-right position, forming a flat 4-4-2 with Nicky Adams, Clark Keltie and Mark Jones completing the midfield, and a back 4 of Tom Kennedy, Rory McArdle, Scott Wiseman, and Simon Ramsden, the latter filling in for Nathan Stanton alongside McArdle in a move possibly made to mitigate the risk of having 2 centre-halves on 9 yellow cards both being booked in the same game.
Dale started out the match on top and within 10 minutes had assaulted the Wycombe goal several times, an early driving effort from Lee Thorpe and a diving header at full stretch by Alfie giving the travelling fans a taste of the attacking football that was to dominate the afternoon. Dale were however occasionally left exposed at the back, with the excellent Rory McArdle clearing up several John Akinde attacks (and making him look distinctly average in the process). Most of the threat from the home team instead came from the dangerous-looking carrot-top Matt Harrold, one particular effort on the half-hour mark eliciting a world-class double save from Frank Fielding when an Akinde shot was parried into the path of Harrold.
Returning to the club at which he almost managed to deny Rochdale victory in the same fixture last year (beaten only by a 90th minute Tom Kennedy penalty), Fielding had a similarly prominent afternoon this time around too, when a suicidal moment towards the end of the first half took him from zero to hero in a 5 second interval. When an aimless punt forward was met by Fielding on the touchline 25 yards to the right of his goal, he opted to try a long pass down the line to Chris Dagnall rather than clear the ball out for a throw. Anticipating his move, Matt Harrold blocked the kick and managed to turn the block into a goal-bound dribble, giving himself a 5 yard headstart in the process. Fortunately for Dale, Harrold opted to continue the dribble towards the goal, rather than shoot into the open net or square the ball to Akinde. This allowed Fielding to make up the lost ground and execute a sliding tackle from behind that would grace an international defender’s repertoire, and the accompanying roar from the Dale fans was almost as loud as if a goal had been scored.
As the half wore on it began to look as if Wycombe would continue to ride their luck, a rasping drive from Scott Wiseman tipped over the bar by the acrobatic Marek Stech, and an Adam Le Fondre header from 5 yards flying agonizingly wide of the post. In the final minute of the half, Lee Thorpe was booked following a brief fracas with Craig Woodman, joining teammates Nicky Adams (judged by the referee to have dived after a clash with the Wycombe right-back Hunt) and Clark Keltie in the notebook.
Half time – Wycombe Wanderers 0 – 0 Rochdale
The second half began a much more sedate and balanced affair, with play flowing fairly evenly between both teams for the first 20 or so minutes – great passing football from the Dale meant that possession stayed mostly in the Wycombe half, with occasional counter-attacks mopped up by the solid combination of McArdle and Ramsden, and a low shot by John Akinde saved easily by Fielding. Chris Zebroski was brought on by Wycombe boss Peter Taylor to give the hosts some added strength.
As the game reached the final 25 minutes, it was remarked upon by several around me that the game would be settled by a single goal. When Adam Rundle was introduced to play in the 65th minute to replace a fairly tired-looking Nicky Adams, it looked as if the Durham lad (who became a father for the first time last week) might be the one to provide it. An early run at goal left Hunt for dead down the Wycombe right, but Rundle’s shot was well saved by Stech. Steady Dale attacks followed, and the introduction of new loan-signing Gary Madine almost paid dividends with a performance from the youngster reminiscent of last-season’s similarly-timed signing Rene Howe – making himself a tricky problem for defenders and absorbing several fouls in the process. Efforts from the resulting free kicks by Mark Jones and Kennedy unfortunately did not result on solid chances.
And so the game petered out into the final few minutes. It looked for all the world like Wycombe wanted their home point and Dale would have to put up a serious fight for it – step forward once again, Mr Adam Rundle. When a poor clearance by Stech dropped onto the Dale left wing in front of the away dugout, Rundle snapped into life and retrieved the ball, beating the beleaguered Hunt down the wing for pace. His low cross flew into the six yard box, and – finding it difficult to control – Gary Madine managed to stick out a leg and poke the ball to Adam Le Fondre, who once again found himself in the right place at the right time and smashed the ball into the right-hand corner of the net for his 20th goal (depending on which source you consult!) of the season. A half-second of disbelieving silence seemed to engulf the away fans, and then an explosion of noise shook the stand to its very foundations. Fathers threw sons in the air, husbands hugged wives, friends mobbed eachother, and every single fully-grown man developed a sudden level of intimacy with the strangers around them that would get you quite a lot of attention in prison. In all the mayhem, the fourth official managed to sneak out unnoticed and show a number on a board. No one saw, no one cared. Dale were spared the usual agonising moments associated with a 90th minute win, spending the remaining seconds trying to bag a second goal, and the final whistle prompted scenes which the fans of Rochdale turn up week after week in the hope of seeing. With the unfortunate events of the week obviously ringing harshly in the ears of many associated with the club before the game, it was the perfect tonic for Dale’s promotion push to see fans, players and management alike celebrating an important victory in the spring sunshine.
Promotion-winning seasons might be made of days like this. Lets hope ours is.
Up the Dale.
Written by Ross Pennington on 21/3/09