Is it just me, or does it feel a lot different this year? No hype, no optimism, no excitement; just quiet anxiety and a knot of tension in the stomach. Last year’s abandon of the typical Rochdale attitude (cynicism, pessimism) hasn’t quite taken hold this time around and I get the feeling that most Dale fans think we will lose to Gillingham. It doesn’t help that we’re coming into the playoff semi on the back of the worst run of form in years, or the fact that the defence have generally been less solid than last season; but I think the majority of this self-disbelief comes simply from the fact that this is our second time in a row. Last year was unexpected, this year wasn’t. Last year it was all new and this year it isn’t. And last year we were playing great and this year… well you get the picture.
What might help come Thursday night is the underdog mentality we have. For a large part of this season the side struggled to cope with the sense of expectancy that Hillcroft continually mentioned in their post-match interviews; but as the side have slumped so alarmingly in recent times, nobody is really expecting us to gain promotion; not least in the press, who have barely mentioned us in recent times. This reversal of fortunes might actually help us.
The strength of the side, while probably not upto last year’s standards performance-wise, is a lot deeper and a lot rounder this time, and I don’t mean that in terms of Flitcroft’s waist-line. There’s not a single position on the field not covered by at least two adequate players, which is a luxury we painfully missed last season at Wembley. There will be no Simon Ramsden in midfield this year. And coming into the game tomorrow, the Dale have a full bill of health, barring Craig Dawson’s dead leg; the most slow-healing dead leg in history. A dead leg? That’s not a real injury, it’s like being out for weeks with a cruckle or a scab. And by the way, does the word ‘cruckle’ exist outside of Rochdale? Answers on a postcard please.
Keith Hill seems to be confident, confident in at least one respect anyway. “Gillingham are a good side but we are a good side”, said Hill on the ‘Fishul Site, as he does almost every week, before repeating later on, “We are a good footballing side”. So you think we’re ‘good’ then, I gather? Of our recent form however, Hilly is less upbeat. “Form wasn’t good in the last 12 games”. Ahhh.
On the other side of the country in Kent, Gillingham manager Mark Stimson has been cagey in his recent press interviews, highlighting the need “not to make mistakes”, but conversely to “go out and enjoy the occasion”, which is a lot easier said than done. How can you enjoy an occasion if you’re thinking about mistakes, and how to avoid making them? Stimson, it seems, has calmed after last week’s match, of which he said, “The guy that Rochdale brought on in the second half (Dave Flitcroft) looked like he was trying to put someone out of Thursday’s game”, which, to be fair, is exactly what it looked like. Of his opponents, the Gills manager said, “they are a good footballing side”, which at least puts him and Hilly in agreement with something.
As a final thought, and a final push for unity, Keith Hill has urged fans to sing Elvis Presley’s ‘The Wonder of You’, before the game at Spotland tomorrow. The opening stanza reads,
“When no-one else can understand me
When everything I do is wrong
You give me hope and consolation
You give me strength to carry on”
…which is either very astute in terms of Hillcroft’s relationship with the Dale faithful, or just plain co-incidental. A tenner says nobody knows the words.
Written by Matt Boothman on 6th May 2009