I’m writing this two days on.
I apologise for the lateness, Sunday was a fluorescent blur after 18:00, engulfed
with celebrations and alcohol. Monday was a sentence to the festivities of a pulsating
evening that will never leave the memory.
I have followed Rochdale for over a decade. Formerly a Manchester United fan, a Rene Howe hat trick stemmed my admiration for my hometown team that has created a terminal love. There is no treatment to supporting Rochdale. The odds – alike to surrounding teams such as Bury and Oldham – are stacked against you. Two behemoth giants in City and United less than 15 miles down the road heavily deter any Greater Mancunian team’s progress. We operate on a minuscule budget and that is putting it lightly. But we support our teams whatever happens. I follow Rochdale for local pride and proper football. I do not lust for my team winning trophies or signing £100m footballers.
Keith Hill is our best ever manager, assembling squads that have taken us along two promotions (2010 and 2014), a trip to Wembley for the Play-Offs in 2008 and cupsets against the likes of Leeds and Nottingham Forest. He produces miracle upon miracle and with him at helm and long-term Chris Dunphy in the boardroom anything is possible. We even bought our ground – Spotland – back, an astronomical achievement in securing our future. I love Spotland, a proper working class football ground. Close to the pitch, intimidating in atmosphere when at capacity and the best pies to boot.
Wigan’s triumph in the spotlight in the 2013 (and now again this year) cup shock against Manchester City and Oldham’s victory over Liverpool earlier in that year’s competition sparked celebrations amongst Dale, Shaker and obviously Latics fans alike. It was a breakthrough moment that whatever your finances or history – large or small – at the end of the day it’s 11 v 11, nothing else. The FA Cup is made for the unexpected…
I stood there on Sunday on the Sandy Lane terrace with a mate who’s been going to Dale since he was a kid and two relatives who had ventured from Devon in hope of the greatest of shocks. Rochdale, bottom of League One with 5 wins in the league, against Tottenham Hotspur – FA Cup royalty – fresh from a vintage away performance against Juventus and 5th in the top flight. This was David versus Goliath, except Goliath had the world’s best striker on the bench in Harry Kane to boot. No chance, not a chance. The ground was flow, burgeoning to overflowing towards the left-hand side of Sandy Lane where we stood. After all the smears and animosity Rochdale as a town has faced in recent years, this was our time to showcase what Rochdale Association Football Club and its supporters are about. And boy did the club and fans do the town proud.
I watched the match bemused. For most of the first half we were tactically astute with a ravishing passing game coupled with intense pressing of the opposition. Tottenham had left big stars like Harry Kane and Dele on the bench but still had a side which should have done the job – Son Heung-Min alone had contributed 37 goals and assists in 88 Premier League games. Plaudits have to go to the Dale midfield; Camps, Cannon and Kitching – young bodies with streetwise heads. They made supposed superstars quiver. And it was Kitching’s meticulous interception from England international Harry Winks which gave me and everyone in the ground a moment to last a lifetime.
Slickly playing in Andy Cannon, Cannon lifted his head to see Ian Henderson in space. Now bearing in mind Henderson had spurned two incredible opportunities already in the game, most strikers would have taken an extra touch, dilly-dallied or pass away responsibility. Not Ian. This man to me is the best player to play for Rochdale, mesmerising technique for somebody at third tier level and the scorer of iconic goals – Youtube his efforts against Leeds, Chesterfield and Cheltenham, outstanding. He finished first time aplomb, a low crisp finish giving Vorm no chance. Pandemonium ensues. The goal celebrations on Sunday didn’t really have a pattern or a shout like ‘GET-IN!’ to support the finish. I just screamed like a deranged beaver in truth. I couldn’t believe it. A wave of Dale fans leaping for uncontrollable joy on the terrace – the best feeling – for now. If you watch the goal back, there’s laughter. It’s probably a supporter down a Match of the Day microphone set up near the stand, flabbergasted like us all. Rochdale scoring against Tottenham and leading at half-time was frankly ridiculous.
The half-time whistle was met by a roar from three sides of Spotland and rightly so. Probably the best Dale performance I had seen. Stop the game now. We were prepared for a Tottenham onslaught and were sure of stars been brought on from the bench but for now, let us dream. Let us f***ing dream.
The second half started as expected. Pressure never-ending, Mauricio Pochettino’s men suffocating the Pearl Street end. Our defence and goalkeeper Josh Lillis were fantastic, but you can only hold for so long against Premier League calibre. Lucas Moura – making his first start for Spurs – lofted a delightful yet heartbreaking finish with his left foot over Lillis to equalise. I say heartbreaking, but at this point a replay guarantee’s a trip to Wembley, such a conundrum a win-win for everyone.
Except Tottenham obviously. They had the return leg against Juventus at Wembley less than 3 weeks away and engulfed in a pulsating race for the Champions League places in the league. They had to go for it. Dele and Harry Kane both entered proceedings – Kane on to make his first appearance at Spotland since his professional debut. It was fate for him to score.
The clock was approaching 90 minutes. Wave after wave of Tottenham attacks, like the herpes that would never go away (I don’t have herpes). A run was made by the energetic Danny Rose and a loose ball had made its way to Dele. Harrison McGahey had been excellent, assured at the back with Jim McNulty creating a stalwart effort. But McGahey was beaten by Dele’s burst of pace. Contact to the right knee, penalty. F***!
I have seen last minute trauma being a Dale fan. But I’d have rather been kicked in the balls than Kane score the oncoming penalty. But this is Harry Kane, the top-scoring striker in Europe last year for 12 yards. Karius produced a miracle to save one penalty for Liverpool against him, but this Kane effort was unstoppable. Buried low and hard to Lillis’ right, in my head Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ starts to play, ever so woundingly. I must applaud Rose’s and the Tottenham fans for singing Ryan Mason’s name, apt and necessary after traumatising news that he’ll never play again after sustaining a fractured skull against Chelsea last year; one of their own. A heart-warming moment in a moment of turmoil for Dale fans. I can’t fault Tottenham fans, they and Dalians alike created an outstanding atmosphere. However, the decibel reading was about to go off the scale.
At 17:50 approximately, I think my soul left my body. Not in death but delirium. This for me was the stand-out moment in my journey supporting Rochdale – all the pain of relegation at Chesterfield and torture at Hartlepool forgotten in an instant. Matty Done like counterpart Joe Rafferty had phenomenal games at full back, Steve Davies laid off the ball to Done before bursting into the box. Now where we were stood our view was compromised, but Done’s devilish cross skimmed Toby Alderweireld’s majestic haircut, I knew the ball had reached Davies. A journeyman Scouser was set for the big moment. I had to rely on the crowd reaction to tell if we had struck gold. We did. It still sends shivers.
The scenes on television lived up to the hype. Ecstasy like I hadn’t ever seen live in person. The promotion campaigns of 2010 and 2014 were incredible, but nothing lives up to this – this was the best feeling. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, but it’ll probably beat that too. The entire Dale team piling on in the corner, supporters didn’t know what to do. My reaction consisted of hugs and amazement, as mentioned blur-like, out of body experience. We were going to Wembley. Oh my f***ing God. But perhaps Keith Hill’s celebration optimised it all. Looking ravishing in Peaky Blinder attire and sporting the best beard in the game, a roar projected to the home crowd like no other. Keith Hill brought the club up from relegation to Non-League certainties to a last minute equalizer against Champions League ability and England internationals. This was pure Carlsberg in terms of fairytale – the magic of the Cup which showcases why it can never die.
Focus will obviously shift on to the league campaign and trying to rectify our precarious position. We might be ‘cut-adrift’ on paper, but our trump card is the four games in hand. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas were left dazed about how we were bottom of English football’s third-tier. It is our bread and butter and who knows if the ending will be happy. But this performance and drama united a struggling town. It brought community together shown by the wide-ranging demographic in the crowd. Rochdale was put firmly on the global map, reaching #1 trend worldwide in the aftermath of the game. Rochdale got its moment in the sun; I can only thank Keith and every single player who contributed on that incredible day. Now, where’s Keith’s statue?