Rochdale 0-1 Gillingham

02/05/09; Rochdale v Gillingham, at Spotland, Rochdale :: League Two

What is this? A string of fringe players suddenly propelled onto the front-line, a handful of new-born YTS lads sat on the bench (alongside their portly assistant manager) and a whimsical, carefree sort of backwards atmosphere surrounding the ground and the 3,400 voyeurs inside it.

What is this?

This is Rochdale v Gillingham, Part One.

We should get to know these lot quite well. Because of this result – and others we had no control over – we will face the Gills twice more inside the next eight days, on Thursday on our familiar turf and then on Sunday at Judas Priestfield. Having said that, absolutely nothing was learnt today about Gillingham, Dale or football in general. Football IQ in Rochdale is at an all-time low after that match. And wasn’t it enjoyable?

The Rochdale ‘A’ side which featured in this bizarre entertainment starred Frank Fielding as ‘The Goalkeeper’. Boyzone, made up of Wiseman, Holness, McArdle and the Curse of Tom Newey, reformed just in time to defend behind a midfield of Joey T, Adam Ant and the Jonas Brothers. PJ and Duncan played up front. The understudies were Ramsden, McEvilly, Callum Byrne, Chris Brown and Dave Flitcroft.

If you’re not of a Dale persuasion, you may not know who Dave Flitcroft is, or what the significance of him playing is. Let me enlighten you. He is the man featured in the centre of this very website’s new header in between Morike Sako and John Doolan, a man who made his last competitive appearance over two years ago for non-league Hyde United, a man who, even in his prime, warranted the ‘you fat bastard’ chant, and a man who is now our assistant manager beside the perma-trendy Keith Hill. And there he was on the bench with boots and footie socks on. It was that kind of day.

The football though was terrific. Gillingham – although I’m not sure of the relative strength between this Gillingham and the Gillingham we’ll see on Thursday – looked dangerous on the break and canny in defence. Albert Jarrett got the ball down the left, trickled past Scott Wiseman and swept the ball into the area for Nicky Southall to sidefoot home. Flag up. Offside. Big arms and lots of sarcasm.

Rochdale were immediately into gear too – fed from the Jones Brothers in midfield, Jon Shaw played ‘PJ’ to Will Buckley’s ‘Duncan’ excellently. I kid you not; this was no ordinary Jon Shaw, this was Jon Shaw Extra, a player with an actual head and actual legs that kick balls and that. He did more in ten minutes than in the previous eight months.

Still early on, his striker partner for the day, Buckley, skipped in his Buckley-esque way past nobody before curling the ball enticingly over the keeper; but that damn John Nutter was on hand to piff the ball over the top for the corner. From it Shaw headed, and again the Gills had to clear from the goal-line, Southall this time. A goal was coming.

…For Gillingham, that is…

A clearance from Gillingham’s defence found striker Curtis Weston, all muscle and sweat, in his own half and Weston ran at the Rochdale goal; a bit like that bit in Forrest Gump with the American Football. Marcus Holness certainly couldn’t catch him, Scott Wiseman wasn’t near him, so it was left for the Curse of Tom Newey to cover from left-back. Weston found his way into the area, Newey cropped him, Weston fell over, Newey looked around for a bit, Weston got up again, Newey was still looking, and Weston dinked the ball into the goal. How on earth do you tackle someone and not actually tackle them? 1-0 Gillingham.

And after that, the elder of the two Jones Brothers had two near-misses, the first a header headed narrowly over and the second a shot which was deflected skyward by Suddenly Gary Richards. At the other end, Gillingham had another fine chance when Frankie Fingers bounded out of his goal without reaching the ball, but the Gills attacker spooned the shot wide when the goal was open. Big arms and lots of sarcasm, again.

Peep! Half-time. Pete-on-the-Pitch. Scorelines. Dancing girls. Texts. Desmond the Dragon. Leg stretches. Overpriced fizzy pop. And then another Peep! Here we go again.

The second half began inconspicuously. Lots of tidy passes and neatery, not much tackling. Pre-season stuff. But then a strange thing happened. A 35 year old man took his pants of and everyone cheered.

Dave Flitcroft’s unexpected introduction to the game ensured the last forty minutes of the match were as enjoyable as you are likely to see, from a piss-taking viewpoint you understand. I’m not sure the average Gills fan would have understood why 3,000 Dale fans cheered every single time this slightly overweight midfielder completed a pass or why they shouted ‘Shoot!’ whenever he got the ball, but we did because it was funny. Flickers makes a tackle, Flickers makes a pass, Flickers shouts at somebody, Flickers knocks somebody over – all greeted with the same kind of ironic, ridiculous mix of laughter and applause.

But what was most striking was not how bad Flitcroft was, but how average he was; meant in the best possible sense of course. He looked like a normal, actual player; a real professional footballer. But just a bit wider is all.

After making two more passes and Dale acting as if he’d scored, another big cheer and more laughter flew from the stands when Flickers hacked down Albert Jarrett from behind to receive a yellow card. Any other player would be a ‘stupid bugger’ but Flickers could do no wrong. Flitcroft will eat you and your family, but he will do it with a smile on his face.

As you can probably tell from my writing, the second half from my viewpoint involved a lot of Flitcroft watching. Some others may have had a shot, or Gillingham might nearly have scored, but I didn’t really notice. This slightly bizarre spectacle had me enraptured.

He nearly scored as well did Rochdale’s porno star; a clearance fell to Flickers and he chested the ball down and volleyed inches wide of the post. Rub your eyes, this is actually happening.

But no more goals, hilarious or otherwise, were to come. The referee peeped for one last time and Gillingham had won. Flitcroft won the Man of the Match award to everyone’s delight. Bury were staying down. Wonderwall played loudly from the tannoy. Why does this defeat feel like a victory?

Written by Matt Boothman on 2nd May 2009


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