07/08/10; Rochdale v Hartlepool United, at Spotland, Rochdale :: Coal & Gas Corporation League One
And so began life in a new league. The sponsors have changed, the opposition have too, but yet something’s still so vaguely familiar. I don’t know what I expected. Dancing troupes, fireworks, displays of choreographed manoeuvres from military squadrons… I don’t know. Instead we had a slightly slimmer Desmond the Dragon and the words “NPower League One” on our sleeves. Welcome to the new division… just like the old division…
The new look, Primark-esque, Rochdale (players built by Taiwanese orphans) started with Josh Lillis in goal, a back four of Scott Wiseman, Craig Dawson, Marcus Holness and Joe Widdowson, a midfield battery consisting of Brian & Barry Murphy, Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy, while Chris O’ Grady stood up top with Joey Thompson and Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro floating on the wings. Edwards, Goodall, Flynn, Done, Elding, Redshaw and Andre 3000 made up the bench.
And they kicked off. Nervous. The first ten minutes were as skittish and downright lax as could be imagined; Marcus Holness looked like he’d never actually seen football before, “Aaagh! What’s this round thing?!”. Widdowson span and span and span into the touchline, Thompson knee’d it miles and miles… but it passed. Hartlepool simmered, the enemy at the gates, but when push came to shove they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the telling touch. Crosses flew in (difference no. 1: crosses are much better), but fell only to Rochdale knees or stretched Hartlepool necks. For a while it looked rather ominous. Monkhouse turned and crossed again, again it nearly worked and Holness could only shank the ball away. Testing times. And then we got hold of it.
Jonah tackled and Jonah ran and Jonah passed it sideways to Akpa. The Shoes from Toulouse skipped a beat and surrendered the ball back to Jonah, he shot and it was saved by Scott Flinders. Electric. Soon Flinders’ fingers were at it again; Jonah and Joey T traded passes down the right and Jonah again shot at Hartlepool’s keeper. That was it, our best chance of the game. Still Dale pressed, (difference no. 2: the pitch is fantastic), and one-touched it around the pitch, Murphy pinged and swung it this way and that, Kennedy caressed it, Jonah jumped into Hartlepool’s midfield like he owned it. O’ Grady touched and held and laid it off, three, four, five, six, perfectly each time. For a time it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
Peep! The half-time whistle put paid to that. There were no dancing girls, not even those cheerleaders we had last year, and there were no pies, apparently. Excited chatter echoed around Spotland; “good half, that”, “yeh, we look good”, “Hartlepool don’t look a good team, do they?”. The whistle for the start of the second half came. And then there was no excited chatter.
Difference no. 3 is that the opposition doesn’t get fagged out after 60 minutes. Well Hartlepool didn’t. Big blonde Bjornsson went off and Adam Boyd staggered on. O’ Grady never touched it in the second half. Jones started to fade, Kennedy got bogged down, and Murphy pinged it no longer. Instead Hartlepool’s Gamble, Sweeney, Murray et al seemed to now find the time to make the plays. They shoot from a long way out do Hartlepool. They also hate Darlington. Sweeney smacked one from a distance and Lillis leaped to save. Collins collected a cross but couldn’t keep it down. All Pools now. Rochdale’s possession was both fleeting and wasted, a dangerous combination which put even more pressure on the inexperienced back four (average age 21 ½).
Hartlepool, though having much more attacking will and knowledge with their possession, did not look ‘a cut above’. They didn’t even look a small nip above. Tidy, yes, sturdy, yes, but no cherry on top. They are two or three players short of being good. They’ll probably stay up. Elding came on in the 66th minute, but now there really was no Dale forward line. Wiseman hoofed, Dawson hoofed, Holness hoofed; all out of touch. By contrast, Pools lifted and knocked the ball about with sure feet.
As the end drew near, Wiseman dared to believe and skipped unnervingly all the way into Hartlepool’s area but simpered his shot straight at Flinders. Collins again had one blocked at the other end. Time was drawing near. Joe Widdowson earned the hatred of the travelling fans with a dastardly tackle at the far touch-line. St. John’s Ambulancemen were called for and then disappointed as Neil Austin stood up of his own accord. People laughed. Haslam came on for them, Helio Andre for us and soon after, that was that. 0-0.
Difference no. 4 is that we were never this happy with a 0-0 before. Difference no. 5 is that the opposition were never so sad.
Written by Matt Boothman on 08/08/10.