Rochdale, 1978


Spotland Stadium, but not as it was in 1978

My first phase of supporting Droylsden effectively ended when I went to live in Nottingham for two years, to be an Articled Clerk. After eight and a half years as a regular, leaving Granddad’s at 2.45pm and being in place behind the goal at 2.55pm, a three hour coach journey that I could only afford about once every six weeks made long distance support untenable.
I felt it badly in August, on the first day of the season: Forest, the reigning League Champions, entertained Tottenham Hotspur, a game that also revealed Spurs’ shock Argentinian signings, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. Coincidentally, it was the one Saturday in the month that I could afford to visit Nottingham’s comics shop, which was just between the Cricket Ground and the City Ground. I made sure of getting in there and out a good couple of hours before kick-off, but the crowds were already milling around Trent Bridge, and there was that atmosphere that is unique to the first day of the season, that air of anticipation and optimism that’s only possible when, up to the final minute before kick-off, everything is possible.
I missed not having a game to go to, missed it terribly.
Without a Droylsden fixture list, I had no idea when they were at home and had no chance of matching my Manchester weekends with home games, for all I still had Saturday dinner at Grandad’s.
Somehow, I became aware that the Bloods were doing well in the FA Cup again, that for the third time in four seasons, they’d reached the Fourth Qualifying Round. When they beat Goole Town 2-0, their reward was a First Round Proper tie, away to Rochdale.
That was perfectly achievable, and the weekend in question even fell perfectly into my six-weekly schedule. For the whole week in advance, I could talk of nothing else, which drew a lot of pointed banter from my three colleagues and friends who shared the little room at the back of the building that I had nick-named ‘The Pit’.
Saturday was clear and bright, and I was up early and off to Manchester for my traditional wander around old haunts. At midday, I caught the bus from the Arndale Centre Bus Station towards Rochdale, armed with a newspaper. I was still some years from progressing to the sophistication of the broadsheets, but I had already demonstrated my political leanings with the Daily Mirror. I took  note of the panel cartoon in the Sports pages, with its hopeful-but-resigned caption: “1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley”.
I’d never been to Rochdale before: indeed, my closest prior connection had been buying a copy of Mike Harding’s ‘Rochdale Cowboy’. There were no worries about finding the ground: when I got off the bus, Spotland’s floodlights were easily visible, up on the hill, and I found my way there easily as was re-united with my mate Damien, a younger, red-headed Bloods’ fan who’d been my behind-the-goal mate for a couple of years.
We started on the main stand side, waiting to see which way the Bloods were kicking. In the first half, it was right to left, so we quickly made our way round to the terrace at the right hand end of the ground, to find the equivalent place to our usual position by the left hand goalpost.
I’m trying to remember but I can’t be certain whether that end of the ground was open or roofed. Either way, it was an old-fashioned mounded terrace whose biggest surprise was that its lowest level was some four to five feet below the level of the pitch itself. Anyone standing by the rail would find their eyeline in amongst the players’ boots and ankles. Damien and I went up, and back, far enough to put ourselves on a par with the pitch, though we did feel more removed from the game than we usually liked.
There is a point to this description, I’ve not been this specific just to bore you.
I can only remember one thing from the first half. About twenty minutes in, Droylsden won a corner on their right, left of where Damien and I were standing. The referee took up position almost directly in front of us, on the goal line. The ball was hit fairly low and flat, towards the near post. No-one made clean contact, and it bounced across the goalmouth, a sea of cloying mud, pinballing along the six-yard line as blue shirts tried to hack it clear and red shirts tried to hack it home, until it got to David Taylor, youngest guy on the pitch, opposite the far post. He stuck out a boot and sent it goalwards. Damien and I were on our way up, arms and voices, starting a roar that died in our throats when a last ditch boot cleared the ball off the line.
And then we were up again, as the ref blew his whistle and pointed to the centre circle: he’d given it!
I’m a football fan, and as such I have always adhered to one inviolable law: in any difference of opinion between me and a referee, I am right. Only once in forty-odd years have I breached this principle: this was it.
After all, he was in a better position than I, level with the goal-line, whereas my perspective was several yards back, and at an angle of at least 30 degrees. Just because I saw it cleared off the line, just because my instinctive reaction was dismay and deflation because it didn’t cross the line, didn’t mean it wasn’t actually a goal.
The Rochdale fans didn’t like it. One spent the next five minutes arguing, trying to get me to say that the ball HADN’T crossed the line, as if an admission would then force the referee to overrule himself and declare null and void the five minutes since the restart. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I cheerfully admitted that I didn’t think it had crossed the line but I sanctimoniously insisted on the referee’s better position than me: the very heavens trembled at such blasphemy.
We were still ahead at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Damien and I made our way round to the other end of the ground. It’s what we all do in non-League Football but Spotland, being a league ground, wasn’t built for such manoeuvres. There was no way past the long stand on the far side, and to get through, we had to climb over the fence and gingerly pick our way down the touchline in front of the Main Stand, holding our trouser bottoms up above the heaving slutch.
This end was definitely covered. It was tight and compact and on a level with the pitch and we stood by the left hand post. It was a nervous half, not only on the field, where Rochdale launched all out waves of attack, but behind the goal, where a thin line of Police had segregated the fans into two camps. The further ones were Droylsden fans, or rather they were United fans who, with the first team away, had chosen this game to congregate, roar and intimidate. We spent as much time glancing fearfully to our right, where the line of yellow would have had no chance if anything had kicked off, as we did watching the game.
The minutes drained away. Rochdale pressed and pressed. The atmosphere grew nastier behind the goal and Damien and I agreed that there would be no lingering in celebration after the final whistle. Which came with us still in the lead: see you in the Second Round!
It was a magnificent moment. Not just reaching the Second Round Proper for the first time ever, but actually beating a League team! There’s not a single non-League club in the country that doesn’t want to have the words ‘Giant Killer’ applied to them at some time, and it makes no different how small a Giant Rochdale may be, we had qualified for that title.
I made a swift detour under the rail to plant my feet on the hallowed turf, then it was out by a gate and flying along the road behind the long stand. I was so buzzed by the win I felt like I could have run all the way back to Manchester!
From Droylsden, I was used to being back for the Results on TV. That was out of the question here, but at the bottom of the road was a newsagents and my out-of-practice throat was ragged from the shouting. I went in to get myself a canned drink and found that they had Radio 2 on a transistor: I waited to hear it read out, the magic words: Rochdale 0 Droylsden 1.
Outside the shop, the adrenal rush had subsided somewhat, and anyway I was at the bottom of a long hill, which I started to climb. Unfortunately, the diversion into the shop had been long enough for the aggression hungry bastards from behind the goal to have got in front, and suddenly a wedge of them turned and raced down the hill towards us, screaming and howling.
By sheer luck, I was at the mouth of a side street. I shot off leftwards, zigging and zagging into the back streets at top speed, until I was cowering in a back entry, hoping nobody had followed the fat sod with the glasses who was a really easy target. After 10 – 15 minutes of anxious hiding, I emerged gingerly, returning to the main road, where all was placid again.
I set off up the hill again, stopping at the top to talk to a couple of Rochdale fans, hanging gloomily about a shop doorway. They were resigned to the defeat: being knocked out of the Cup in the First Round was nothing new, and non-League opposition didn’t make any different. They were going to finish in the bottom four for a tenth season in a row, expulsion and the need to apply for re-Election again, and this time they expected to be given the boot.
I’m happy to report that their pessimism was unjustified: Rochdale’s League membership has been undisturbed these thirty-six years past, and their fortunes have improved since.
By the time I got to Manchester, I was still up enough to want to continue the evening, so I went to the cinema. Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, which I’d seen in Nottingham almost six months earlier, was doing the rounds again and, on a whim, I went to see it a second time. First time round, I’d enjoyed it but been unmoved: since then, I’d fallen in heavy but unrequited love: this time, I understood the film on a much deeper level, and loved it.
There was also an interesting coda on Monday morning. Heading in to work, I met my friend and fellow Articled Clerk Sharon outside her lodgings. Sharon wasn’t interested in football at all, but I was touched to find that she’d looked up Droylsden’s score, and greeted me with the question, ‘Are you back off cloud 9 yet?’ I allowed that I was maybe down to cloud 7 by now, and chatted about the game as we walked in.
I was last into the Pit, my three colleagues already at their desks. Nothing was said but Good Morning
I twigged it immediately. They’d agreed not to mention the game, to test me and see how long it took me to crack and start on about it myself. But they had got things very wrong if that was what they thought.
Over the weekend, the more the result had sunk in, the more deeply contented I’d grown. What they didn’t realise, what they couldn’t understand from not knowing what it was like to support a team at non-League level, was that the win had been so big a deal, it was its own reward.
I had no need of validation from theirs or anyone else’s reactions. I had seen it for myself: we had done it and I had been there and nothing could make that greater for me. And I’d have sat there the whole day and gone home self-amused if it hadn’t been for Heather – a former denizen of the Pit – sticking her head round the door and asking me if I was going to take them all out for a drink at lunch, to celebrate.
Which, being a generous sort of guy and holding no grudges at their game, I did.
(Postscript: Rather disappointingly, we drew Altrincham at home in the Second Round, a bigger club to be sure, but another non-League outfit. I broke my routine and came home three weeks later for the match. No sooner had I got the programme than I was groaning at the ill-omen: the referee was Trelford Mills, of Barnsley, the same man who’d reffed our only other First Round tie, at home to Grimsby, two years earlier, and who’d disallowed a perfectly good last minute winner. My forebodings were foreborn out: we lost 2-0, though there were no controversies, just Alty being too good for us. They went on to play Spurs, at White Hart Lane, in the Third Round, and got a creditable draw. It was not the last time the Bloods would come close to a prestigious tie).

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