November 4, 2010

A rainy night in Rochdale

Posted by Jon Champion on 04/11/2010

Now, please don’t get me wrong, there is no job I would rather do than the one I currently have. Even so, there are times when my enthusiasm can be tested, and an example occurred at 7.51 on Tuesday evening.

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The location was Spotland, the well-appointed and much-improved home of Rochdale. The occasion was the first League visit for 36 years of local rivals, Oldham Athletic.

Much as I admire the earthy qualities of Lancashire derbies, it was the chance to examine Rochdale at close quarters ahead of ESPN’s first FA Cup broadcast on Friday that led me to book a ticket. When the Dale players trot out to face FC United, I need to know what they look like, hence a three hour car journey seemed worthwhile for peace of mind.

That was to reckon without the fickle British climate. Leaving home in bright sunshine, the weather didn’t even seem a factor. By Birmingham it was dull, by Stoke it was wet, by Manchester the rain had become torrential enough for the M6 to grind to a halt (it doesn’t take much!).

A three hour trip stretched beyond the four hour mark, but the warm welcome from Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy made the frustrations worthwhile. He used to walk to the ground as a child from his home five miles away in Milnrow and he guides the club with the love and attention one would expect from a lifelong fan.

Out we went in time for kick-off, only to be greeted by monsoon conditions. The ball couldn’t travel reliably across the surface, the Oldham left-back was in danger of drowning, and less than six minutes in, the referee, Tony Bates, had little option but to abandon the game. 300 miles for 300 seconds of football!

Hopefully, I gleaned enough to be able to recognise the Rochdale team. Friday evening will be the test. But for all the angst, I have to confess it was not my worst ‘call-off’. That came when I was assigned to an FA Cup tie between Carlisle and Sheffield Wednesday - then in the Premier League. A spying mission to Brunton Park for a midweek game against Hull was thwarted when fog descended just before kick-off. That was a 600 mile round trip for no football at all, so maybe I should consider myself fortunate.

In any case, I can forgive just about anything when the FA Cup is involved. For me, it remains a special competition, celebrating the inequalities it throws up and creating memories and heroes.

Officials at Rochdale reckon Spotland’s 10,000 capacity could be tested when FC United and their many followers come to town; it promises to be a unique occasion.

FC were only founded in 2005 and still retain their original manager, Karl Marginson. Many of those who support them travelled the continent watching Manchester United before the Glazers’ arrival brought debt and disillusionment. One elderly gentleman who was at their game at Ossett Town last week explained to me that he has two highlights in his football-watching career: One is Solskjaer’s never-to-be-forgotten winner in Barcelona in 1999, the other is Carlos Roca’s goal against Barrow that took FC United into the FA Cup proper for the very first time.

FC United has given a significant number of football followers a sense of belonging that Premier League and Champions League teams can no longer offer. It is a cause as well as a club and Friday will provide a defining moment. That the FA Cup has provided the framework for it to happen is another reason to be grateful to the best club cup competition in the world. Let’s just hope the weather plays ball.


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