07/05/09; Rochdale v Gillingham, at Spotland (again) :: League Two Playoff Semi, 1st leg
Gillingham fans, 700 of them. They all huddled together in the Willbutts, in the knot of space between BSkyB’s pundits and the remarkably green pitch. Isn’t it usually sandy brown by now? These travellers from the Kent Riviera sang ‘Stand up for the Gillingham’, to which my mam responded, “What are they called, the Dairymen?”. ‘Stand up for the Dairymen’ sounds much better, as well as giving rise milk-based puns. Gillingham? They’re the cream of the crop, they are.
Nobody sang “The Wonder of You”.
Rochdale arrived from the tunnel in blue and black, Gillingham in yellow. The crowd reached fever pitch, or as close to fever pitch as Spotland will allow, which isn’t much like fever pitch at all really. Frankie Fielding was in net behind a back-four of Ramsden, McArdle, Stanton and Kennedy, the same back-four who started last year’s home playoff semi against Darlington. In midfield, the Toner/Jonah combination patrolled the park, making divots everywhere, whilst Buckley and Rundle roamed the flanks. Thorpedo and Alfie began up front. The bench was made up of Holness, Dagnall, Jonah Mk. II, Thompson and Shaw. No Flitcroft this week. Shame, really.
The match started with a heated discussion between Stimson and Flitcroft about who looks the bigger thug (Stimson), before Rory McArdle quietened the Dale fans with a nervy backpass someway short of Fielding. Admittedly, it didn’t take much to shut the home crowd up, a disappointing 3,600 home fans made it to Spotland last night, a terse reminder of the general apathy that permeates the town and the reality that if success is to come, it will be without the support of a large majority of this shit-hole we call Rochdale. The man behind me had a horn, though – good on him.
A few minutes later, Adam Rundle briefly flickered into life and breezed past a Gills defender before bending his shot over via a Gillingham arse. A wasted corner followed. So too Will Buckley awoke, but he frazzled his shot wide of the right-hand post and out for a goal kick. Quiet confidence.
But what became quickly apparent, as the match settled into its seat on the sofa, was the strength of both sides; Gillingham played with a super-combatative midfielder named Lewis, who eventually controlled a large area of the pitch, and the excellent Simon King at centre-back mopped up most of Lee Thorpe’s nod-ons. Conversely, both Tom Kennedy and Simon Ramsden were excellent in controlling the nippy Gills forwards, who constantly looked to counter whenever a Dale attack fell apart. It was – unusually for Division Four – a highly competitive match, with quality throughout both teams. Who’d have thought it?
Gillngham and Rochdale, at either ends of a see-saw, shared possession and feigned to create chances; without actually kicking the ball at the goal. Will Buckley did, once, but only when he was offside, and in front of the Sandy the Gills couldn’t find a man to poke home when Simeon Jackson whiffed the ball across the goal. A tale of industry without brilliance, but then again, of stalemate without the stale. Mr. Friend whistled loosely – half-time, a time for crisps and cr0ssbars, Bovril and boredom. Shrewsbury nil, Bury nil. Ooh, look, the sun’s gone down.
The second period, suprisingly, was even better than the first. I wouldn’t have even minded watching this if I were a Man Yoo fan. Buckley soon blitzed past a guy but ultimately bamboozled himself with his own feet; as if they weren’t somehow on the end of his legs. Most men are said to have their brains in their penis; well Buckley has his in his toes. Twice more he dribbled through himself before he finally gave up and passed to somebody else. It was his last action; Dynamite Joe Thompson came on to lukewarm applause and immediately set about being the polar opposite of Buckley; limited, but strangely effective.
More Dale stuff. Gary Jones thirty-yarded one screamingly, but he wasn’t Ronaldo, so it didn’t go in – Royce comfortably received Jones’ shot with pleasure. At the other end, Andy Barcham made a mad dash for goal in much the same way Curtis Weston did last week (it’s a recurring feature this), but his effort was stopped by Tom Kennedy, who isn’t Tom Newey, thank God. Dynamite Joe then played a one-two with Lee Thorpe before exploding his shot narrowly wide. See-sawing all the time, this.
Then it was mostly Gillingham for a while. Full-back John Nutter scraped the ball into the Dale box, almost into Big Mark McCammon’s tracks, but it was cleared scrappily out for a corner, and when that came in McCammon duly fouled our keeper Fielding to relieve the pressure now building emphatically in the stands. A fingernail job. Minutes after, alongside more Gills insistence, Lewis hammered one at the goal from long-range as he was falling over (requires skill that), and Frankie Fingers had to dive for it, palm it out and deal with the corner. I can feel electricity all over me.
But then, again, the see-saw tipped once more, as I guess all see-saws do eventually. Chris Dagnall was put through by Dynamite Joe’s pass, but his shot was saved deceivingly by Simon Royce in the Sandy Lane goal. 50% jumped up and cheered – it looked like it’d gone in, 50% stayed sat down and appealed for a corner. 100% were bemused by Kevin Friend’s decision – a goal kick. “He was offside”, said a man near me, smugly.
And so the match, which for so long threatened to produce nothing, produced nothing. The four minutes of injury time passed by without incident and without reason (there had been no injuries), and the Gillingham lot looked forward to early morning arrivals in Kent whilst we looked forward to post-match reaction in pubs, living rooms and message boards. 0-0. Well – at least we’re in a better situation than last year. We are, aren’t we?
Written by Matt Boothman on 8th May 2009