They say the last 8 of a competition is the start of the business end of a cup. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth with Rochdale SFC’s journey to the Quarter Final. The team had already travelled up to Glasgow, for their 3-0 win in the first round against Queens Park. Following this with a hard fought, impressive 4-1 victory over current National Champions West Bromwich Albion – the first defeat the club had suffered in 2 ½ years! The reward for these heroics, another trip to Scotland – this time the destination was Edinburgh, to face current Scottish Champions Hearts!
Every member of this squad was now entering unknown territory in this competition with this tie also the first fixture between the two clubs. Due to other commitments from the Hearts team on Sunday’s, the only time this fixture could be played was a Saturday, and with the cut-off point for quarter final games having already been extended, we had to bite the bullet and miss a Dale game.
With 18 lads travelling up on Saturday, we were instructed to meet at 8am – the game wasn’t kicking off until 4pm, so where this time came from – I’ll never know! Anyway, moaning aside, we arrived shortly after 12. This gave us enough time to have a bit of team bonding session over a lovely meal at a local restaurant (certain people weren’t happy) and a massive game of football tennis stretching across two five-a-side pitches.
3 hours later we were in the changing room getting ready for the match. The usual fight over who was taking the small kits took a bit longer than usual, as we don’t normally have a squad of 18. 30 minutes later we were out on the pitch.
The gaffer read out the team – Ben McCarroll in goal – THEE back three of Captain Jonny Hall, Joe Walsh and Jack Leeming – a central midfield 3 of Phil Darlington, Jimmy Hardman and Ryan Lockett. The left side of midfield was occupied with Thomas (Mose) Davies and Luke Walsh on the right. The front two were Kyle Davies and Toby Wright. This left a bench of Player/Manager Rhys Wolstenholme, Iain Murray, Travis Roberts, Paul Hudson, Liam Jennings, Remi Chatburn and Jamie Albison. With so many options on the bench, the subs understood they were not guaranteed to come on, yet nobody moaned about this, and every player on the side of the pitch played their own role throughout the game. Albison – who sometimes has to fill in as referee (not always welcomed) for home games ran the line, Chatburn spent the whole game returning stray balls, and Roberts, Murray and Hudson provided countless amounts of encouragement and guidance throughout the game.
A special mention must go to the day’s assistant manager Rob Dyson, who travelled up with the squad to ensure everything ran smoothly, and spent most of the game running around the pitch catering for the needs of the lads. He even made a quick visit back to the changing rooms after half time to refill the water bottles. This may not sound like a big deal, but the changing rooms were about ¼ mile away!
Hearts got us underway and the game set off at 100mph, giving neither team time to settle into the game. From the first minute the game was end to end. Within 5 minutes, Dale were forced to make a change when Captain Hall went over on his ankle heading the ball back to his keeper. A slight positional shuffle saw Darlington move into the defence, and Jennings coming into the midfield, to take his place in his usual holding role.
It wasn’t long for the first goal to come. Around 15 minutes in Hearts were attacking a corner. The Dale defence managed to clear the ball. Leeming picked out K. Davies half way inside our own half, who turned to play the ball out wide to the right, finding L.Walsh, who burst down the right hand side, finding the by-line. His cross was inch perfect to the back post, finding an advancing Wright who volleyed right footed into the bottom corner. Superb counter-attacking football from Dale. 0-1.
The game continued to be very tight throughout the half, with neither team really getting a foothold in the game. The chances were few and far between as both defences really dominated the attackers. There was 5 minute spell which saw Dale camped inside the Hearts half – but no clear cut chances were created.
Hearts got themselves back on level terms with around 5 minutes left of the first half when J. Walsh gave the ball away cheaply – they broke quickly down their left wing. Their cross found an unmarked centre forward who nodded home. The first half finished on level terms with no action in front of goal for the remainder of the first half. 1-1.
The half time team talk was dominated by another one of the gaffer’s inspirational team talks. The main focus of this week’s team talk was “Believe”. These team talks have become a trait of Wolstenholme’s, and players have been known to enter the pitch for the second half with tears in their eyes and goosebumps.
The Rochdale boys were given a lift as we joined the pitch for the second half as we were getting news through of Canavan’s last minute equaliser – This resulted in Chatburn spending the first 5 minutes of the second half singing “Every woman, every man, join the Canavan of love”. This must have put the Rochdale team off slightly as the first half started with us losing position instantly giving the ball away and McCarroll having to dive at the feet of the Hearts striker to regain the ball.
The first 10 minutes of the second half continued where the first finished, with not much happening in front of goal. The game was predominantly played in the middle third, with Hardman, Lockett and Jennings having to work very hard. The game was on a knife edge with both teams scared to make a mistake.
The next goal went in favour of Hearts. Rochdale felt harshly done by leading up to the goal, with a strong claim for a foul on Jennings who had put in a great tackle as the Hearts left winger cut inside into the box. As Jennings turned out with the ball, the Hearts striker seemed to trip him, but no foul was given. McCarroll pulled off a great save, but the rebound was collected by a Hearts player and tapped into an open goal. 2-1.
It didn’t take long for Rochdale to get back on level terms. Almost instantly from kick off they were on the attack. T. Davies cut in from the left and found Hardman 25 yards out. His shot took a deflection that took the ball away from the diving goalkeeper and into the bottom corner. 2-2.
Suddenly the game returned to the end to end beginning it had. It seemed those mad two minutes brought the game to life, and the game completely changed from neither team wanting to lose the game, to both teams wanting to win it. McCarroll was forced to make another great save to deny Hearts retaking the lead.
The third goal for Hearts came from a mistake from J. Walsh. Usually he is a very reliable centre back who never gives the opposing strikers a sniff – however he was definitely to blame for this goal. The ball was sent over the top, and J. Walsh looked in complete control of the situation. He was first to the ball, and it looked like a simple pass back to the keeper for him to clear. However, “his calf went” and he dropped to the floor, leaving the striker unchallenged as he advanced. He put the ball through McCarroll’s legs. To be fair, it was a tidy finish. 3-2.
The Rochdale lads knew there was plenty of time to go, and panic didn’t set in. T. Davies was replaced with Hudson. This moved Lockett out to the left wing, and Wright into the midfield 3.
There was more and more urgency to Dale’s attacks as time moved on, yet there was a real belief that we would break down the resilient Hearts defence. And with 5 minutes to go, that is exactly what we did.
A long ball was played out to Hudson, who flicked the ball out to Lockett. Lockett confidently went past his man and squared the ball to K. Davies. He shifted the ball onto his weaker left foot, and smashed the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle. 3-3 and all to play for in the final 5 minutes, as there would be no extra time, just penalties. 3-3.
Now I HATE penalties, but I will always put my name forward for taking one, so my mind had started wandering onto who would take one, where I would put mine, and everything penalties! The Hearts lads restarted quickly, and attacked frantically. We spent the next 5 minutes standing firm. The Hearts team pushed, but were met with a defence that was not going to give anything, and they were running out of ideas.
The Rochdale team picked up the ball inside their own half, Wright broke from the midfield and had a stinging shot just over 25 yards out. The keeper could only force it out to the right with his save and Hudson chased it down. Whipping a Beckham-like cross into the mixer, he found Wright, who put a bullet header into the bottom corner! What happened during those celebrations is all a bit of a blur – just think of the celebrations when Calvin Andrew scored against Bradford! This led to Wright needing to be replaced with Roberts for the closing few moments of the game. 3-4!
With 2 minutes left, the Rochdale defence stood tall. Jennings won 3 or 4 headers in the middle of the park from long balls as the Hearts threw everything forward. After what seemed like an eternity, the referee blew for full time.
Rochdale had won 4-3 and with that progress to a semi-final clash with Watford. This game will be played at a neutral ground, and a date is yet to be confirmed. We will be going into the game full of confidence about our own ability, and hopefully we will move into a final showdown with the winner of the other semi-final between Livingston and Preston.
You can follow Rochdale SFC’s progress in both the league – which they are currently top of – and the cup by following them on twitter. You will find them @RochdaleS_FC
Up the Dale!