Rochale, 1978 (coincidences abound)

I’ve just had my annual gas check-up (I passed, thank you for asking).

The guy from the Council has been here to do that before. He’s from Droylsden, and knows of my former interest in the club, though he’s not really into football himself: he supports Manchester City.

We got talking about Droylsden, and FC United, and I was telling him about the coincidence between my two experiences of going to Rochdale, and much to my delight, HE was at Rochdale in 1978 as well! And he remembers more about the game than I do, in particular that the referee had to stop the game twice because of fighting in the ground, once such occasion spilling into the pitch. Not a single bell ringing at that piece of information, not one.

But he has reason to remember that game and for similar but more serious reasons than I, because in a lifetime of going to football, that Rochdale game was the only one at which he got beat up. After the game. He doesn’t remember any hills, so it sounds like a different incident from the one I fled from (and it shows how bloody right I was to flee for my life).

But that just goes to show the power of coincidence, only two days after I’d written at length about the game, i meet a near stranger was also was there.

Rochdale, 2010

Everybody says that once you pick a football club, it’s yours for life, and you can never stray. Any other kind of inconstancy, infidelity and betrayal can always be defended to someone or other, but the leaving of ‘your team’ is the one fatal flaw that condemns your soul to the hell of shallowness and insincerity, to be spat upon forever.
If that is so, you may now spurn me and walk away without a backwards look, because I’ve not only shared my loyalties between Droylsden and Manchester United over many years, but I have allowed another club to enter my heart, to the eventual displacement of my former favourites, the Bloods.
I speak of FC United of Manchester, the (in)famous Manchester United breakaway club, formed in 2005 in the wake of the Glazer family purchase of United, lock, stock and horrendous mortgages. FC wasn’t solely formed as a response to the Glazer purchase: there’d been growing fan concern over the steadily increasing corporatisation of United and the football experience, including discussions about forming a fan-based club that would be run and owned by the fans and which would adhere to the principles and values that they held dear in a community-based club: the advent of the Glazers was the catalyst that spurred those feelings into concrete action.
I was whole-heartedly in support of the FC ideals, having given up my Old Trafford season ticket in 1999 in large part because of the increasing sterility of the Old Trafford experience, especially when contrasted with the warmth and involvement of non-League. And I’ve cheered FC on ever since, not that I’ve been able to get to more than a handful of games down the years. But when I have, the experience has been fantastic.
For some reason, whether it is a general rule, or something specific to the time or circumstances of FC’s creation, the Club was not permitted to enter the FA Cup for the first three seasons of its existence. The very first FA Cup tie was away to Trafford, and was played at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground for capacity reasons: FC United got off with a 5-2 bang.
Thanks to its greater than usual support, the club’s early years boomed, and they went from level 10 of the Pyramid to level 7 in three seasons, though their attempts to move up have stalled (three successive play-off final defeats). But in the 2010/11 season, FC won through to the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, in only their third season in the competition.
FC groundshare with Bury at Gigg Lane and, with the League club having a home game on the Saturday, FC’s tie against Conference side and ex-League Club Barrow was held over to Sunday afternoon. Naturally, I went.
It wasn’t until I got off the bus on Manchester Road, in sight of the floodlights, that I realised what I was doing: I was going to a Fourth Qualifying Round game. Me, with my previous record of attended 3, lost 3, who had sworn never to go to another Fourth Qualifying Round tie unless we were 5-0 with four minutes left and I’d sneak in at the end.
On the other hand, that was Droylsden, this was FC. And if the status of the game was an ill-omen, when I sat down with my programme, I discovered a personal omen to sweep my superstitious fears away.
The First Round Proper draw had taken place on TV the previous evening and the draw was printed in the programme. Of all the potential ties that could have been drawn, with 79 other balls to come out of the velvet bag, an FC win would see them playing away – at Rochdale.
With that prospect in mind, it had to be on, and with a 75th minute goal, FC beat the biggest club they’d yet met competitively, and it was on.
Going to Rochdale in 2010 was a vastly different experience from thirty-two years earlier. For one thing, the game was to be televised live, picked out by ESPN because of the interest generated by FC United of Manchester, and moved forward to Friday evening with a 7.45pm kick-off. No leisurely Saturday mornings in Manchester and an easy bus ride for me: I had to leave my Stockport flat at 5.00pm, for a bus into Piccadilly Gardens, a Metrolink tram to Bury and another long bus-ride to Rochdale. I was concerned about where that might drop me in relation to the ground, but the driver reassured me (I was his only passenger for three-quarters of the journey, we got talking) that he went past the ground and would drop me off.
A second major difference was that, with FC’s support being as strong as it was, the ground was segregated, the FC fans assigned the long stand opposite the Main Stand, the tickets limited and on sale through FC only. As a purely casual fan, I had no chance of qualifying for a ticket, but it was clear to me that the ground would not be full, and I would go in with the Rochdale fans on the night: I’d just have to keep my mouth shut.
It was only what I’d done in 1978, but that had been an unsegregated ground. I could stand where I chose, and shout my head off for Droylsden but the intervening years, and FC’s associations, made that an unwise approach. Crowds were more volatile about opponents in their midst, and I had no wish to be thrown out when I was travelling so far just to be there.
The bus stop was outside the end of the ground where Damien and I had stood and sweated throughout that second half so long ago. I hurried down the street outside the FC supporter’s stand, looking for a programme, but missed the last one by a moment: exactly the same as the European Champions League Final in Barcelona.
The best bet was that former terrace where David Taylor had scored for the Bloods. It was long gone, converted into a covered stand, with blue plastic bucket seats and entrances either side of the goal. I joined the queue for the nearer of these, conscious that kick-off was approaching, but I had hardly arrived when a turnstile failure stopped all movement, so I ran across to the other entrance, paid my cash and found myself a seat: to the left of the goalpost, in a row or two of isolation. Gone was the terraces, gone the open air, gone the steep descent to below pitch level. It was unrecognisable from 1978.
Let me say immediately that I cannot recommend going in among the enemy like that at a football match: it’s a curiously flat experience to be unable to react emotionally, honestly, and it;s my one real regret about an evening that turned out to be momentous.
The first thing I noticed was that, to a man, the Rochdale team were all taller and more solidly built than FC’s team, a distinction I don’t remember making when i’d been here before with Droylsden. It was only natural: these were professionals who spent their working life training for strength, speed and stamina, and FC’s players were part-timers, squeezing in training between full-time work (if they were lucky), who had fallen short of the level required for professional footballers by not having that height and muscle to begin with.
They started off at a rush, and within ten minutes were screaming at the referee over a penalty not given: the honest man in me would have had to concur. But FC’s team was playing out of their skins, were holding their own and, in the 36th minute doing very much more than that. The red shirts swept forward through midfield, a gap opened up down the middle of the Rochdale defence, Matthew Wright slid the ball through and Nicky Platt ran on to it, beat the keeper to the ball and lifted it over him into the net.
The whole FC side kicked off, and I couldn’t kick off with them as the Rochdale fans around me were reacting with disgust. It was not fun.
And there it stood at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Within three minutes of the re-start, the situation exploded. FC attacked down the left, Ged Deegan executed a perfect Stanley Matthews feint, dropped his shoulder and sent the defender in the opposite direction. He squared the ball to Mike Norton, twelve yards out with his bank to goal. Norton controlled it and slipped it back into the path of Jake Cotterill, running to the edge of the area, who hit a first time screamer of a left foot shot into the roof of the net. 2-0! And what a Goal! (it was voted Goal of the Round through the FA Website, which it was always going to be, given FC’s support base).
Suddenly, it was like having a foot already in the Second Round: the Second Round? Bloody hell, this was only our third year of trying!
It was just like 1978 all over, with Rochdale pouring forward in waves and FC defending stoutly and repelling everything thrown at them. But their greater height and strength was always likely to tell, and despite all our efforts, it did at set-pieces. First from a free kick, twenty minutes from time, then a corner ten minutes from time, headers were converted to bring the score level at 2-2. It was the same rearguard as long ago, although this time the prize was a replay and a second shot.
Eventually, we got into injury time, four minutes of it, and three used up when FC found room to get away along their left, into the Rochdale half. Matthew Wright, again, carried the ball a long way, then slid it behind the defence into the penalty area for Mike Norton to chase. A defender was moving to block him off, to shield the ball back to a keeper sliding out to collect it. They were beyond the far post, and suddenly, unbelievably, Norton had broken away. He’d rounded the keeper, he had the ball at his feet, he was running into an empty net, he was going to score in the 94th minute and we were going to win, and the noise was building up unbearably as it seemed to take ages to cross that little bit of ground and roll it home and ‘KINELL!!!
There was pandemonium all round the ground, and on the pitch too, where the Rochdale players were furious with the referee (quite rightly too: when I saw the tv coverage the next day, Norton had kicked the ball out of their keeper’s hands). I was stood there doing a pretty fair impersonation of a gargoyle, but then a look of extreme shock served equally well as an FC fan’s delighted approach as it did for a shocked home fan. History had repeated itself, doubly so. The last game I’d attended where the last programme was sold under my nose was the Champions League Final in 1999, and that went to an injury time winner too.
There was barely time to restart, and no time to stop and celebrate, not with something like three hours of travelling ahead of me. I walked round to the bus stop, where I had to wait about twenty minutes for the bus to appear. It was a still night, a November mist gathering in the sodium light. Cars crawled, people headed in all directions, celebrating and arguing. It kicked off a couple of times, one fight crossing the road and barging through the bus queue and almost into the garden behind. But finally the bus arrived: bus to Bury, one of the last Metro trams to Piccadilly, and waiting for the night service 203: only fifteen minutes and not the three quarter hour it could have been. Just before 1.00am, I walked into my flat.
By my reckoning, I’m due to go back to Rochdale in 2042, when I’ll be just about 87. I wonder who I’ll be following then?

(postscript: In the Second Round, FC United got the plum tie, away to League One leaders Brighton & Hove Albion. I watched it on a Local BBC site feed with the most atrociously biased commentary I have ever heard in my life. And FC scored just before the break to take a not undeserved lead: 1-0 up at half-time and only 495 minutes from Wembley. Eventually, with less than ten minutes left, the League leaders equalised, and the bubble burst in the replay at Gigg Lane with Brighton winning 4-0. Just can’t get to that Third Round, either way, can I?)

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).