Sunday, 5 January 2014

Away Days: Rochdale

4th January 2014. Remember the date and remember the afternoon where League 2 Rochdale embarrassed mighty Leeds United at Spotland. You could bring out all the F.A. Cup giant-killing cliches. Maybe Rochdale will bring out a DVD or maybe the loyal Dale faithful will remember the game for the rest of their lives. Instead, its a day that will remain rooted in the memory bank of everyone connected with Leeds United; the day in which Leeds United sunk as low as ever. Forget two relegations, discard play-off final defeat and dismiss being dumped out of the F.A. Cup by Histon. This was the first day in a long time in which the fans snapped and the valuable rapport between fans and club was breached in a moment of disgusted fury. The reaction greeting the players at the final whistle was akin to the one at Oakwell last season but somehow more bitter, a culmination of a five match win-less run that has seen Leeds take just two points from four Championship games. Boss Brian McDermott described it as his worst moment in football.

Until Mike Jones blew his whistle at 3pm sharp, I'd had a pretty good day. The Regal Moon, a Wetherspoons establishment is the shining light in a fairly gloomy town  and was rammed full of Leeds fans by 12.30. I'd got there early and even sat on my own for half an hour waiting for the lads, only for them to arrive and be told that the pub was full and that they wouldn't be allowed in. We headed off to Yates' in search of some food. Two all-day brunches for £6.65. Beauty. "We're not serving food" they told us. Everyone around us was already enjoying their meals. I couldn't be arsed arguing. We wandered aimlessly through Rochdale, the only town in England that has five bookies but nowhere to eat. Eventually, we came across the back door of the Regal Moon and wandered straight in, despite it being "full". The day improved from there and a taxi from there to the ground was a reasonably priced £5.50 split between five of us.

With Leeds fans taking up one whole touchline stand it would have been easy to have a rubbish view but thankfully we were lucky and took up our seats right on the half-way line. Spotland is an attractive little ground for this level with a capacity of 10,249 and three seated stands. Their average attendance this season is just under 3,000 but with Leeds taking more than that themselves, closer to 9,000 piled into the ground to see which side would be pulled out of the F.A. Cup 4th round draw by a suited, smarmy, irritating ex-professional.

Surprisingly, McDermott didn't deliver his promise of "shaking things up" and only made two changes from the side that lost haplessly to Blackburn on New Years Day. Only two changes were made and no key players were rested as Scott Wootton and Lee Peltier returned in place of Alex Mowatt and Tom Lees. I'd love to describe the formation but I couldn't quite work it out. It did see Sam Byram feature in a must more attacking role, one that didn't pay dividend despite the youngster's first half efforts.

Despite the vast range of lower league football I've acquired mainly through Football Manager, much of Rochdale's squad was fairly unknown to me. Keith Hill made three changes to his side that lost 3-0 to Scunthorpe on Wednesday with Matty Done, Rhys Bennet and Joe Bunney starting ahead of Michael Rose, Joe Rafferty and Graham Cummins. Rochdale sit 5th in League 2 and with Keith Hill in charge were always going to pose a threat to the hopes of Leeds' cup run. Nobody quite predicted what would happen next.

From the moment the linesman's flag chalked off a Joe Bunney goal in the eighth minute Leeds were on the back-foot, struggling to compete with the home side's fast-paced, flowing football. A couple of crosses flashed across the Leeds six yard box before Leeds registered their first attempt on goal with Matthew Lund clearing off the line following a Matt Smith header. That was Leeds' solitary decent opportunity in a first half where they were run ragged. Paddy Kenny was on hand three times to thwart Dale, twice denying Scott Hogan. The first was a superb save low down to his right with Lee Peltier reacting well to clear the danger before he then smothered well at the feet of Rochdale's top scorer. The impressive Henderson then tested the Leeds keeper who was on hand to keep Leeds in the tie again. It was a case of Leeds hanging on in an attempt to be undeservedly level at half time but they couldn't even manage that as Rochdale took a deserved lead in the second minute of first half stoppage time. Peter Vincenti again found space down the right hand side and delivered an accurate cross which was glanced into the far top corner by the head of Hogan. As expected, Leeds were booed off at half time.

What wasn't expected was the same Leeds team emerging for the second half as many of the travelling faithful felt sure players like Rudy Austin had misplaced his last pass for the afternoon. A tired Leeds huffed and puffed with a little more vigour in the opening exchanges and Smith was again denied on the line by some desperate Rochdale defending. Rochdale could only threaten on the counter and were let down by some weak finishing, with Kenny gathering a few efforts hit tamely straight at him. He was then called upon to make another good save, denying Henderson with his legs with twenty five minutes to go. Leeds then came close twice in a five minute spell. First, Ross McCormack, touching the ball for the fourth time all game, curled a delightful effort inches wide of the far post before Lillis in the Rochdale goal was finally tested, turning Danny Pugh's shot around the near post.

Responding to jeers from the crowd, McDermott made a change, replacing Scott Wootton with Noel Hunt in a desperate attempt to save the game. However Rochdale had been carving Leeds' back five open, never mind a back four and the last ten minutes could have seen Rochdale run out 6-0 winners. Vincenti drilled a shot wide of the far post from an excellent position before forcing Kenny into another superb save, the best of the afternoon. Leeds were eventually breached again with six minutes to go. Vincenti was sent through in a spitting image of Jordan Rhodes' goal for Blackburn on New Year's Day but this time the Rochdale winger was forced out wider. His cross was again excellent and Henderson met it with a sublime side-foot volley that looped over Kenny's despairing grasp and into the far corner.

Full of confidence, Henderson then tried his luck from distance with a lovely chip that Kenny turned over his crossbar. By this stage, the travelling support had given up and instead resorted to tasteful songs, jeers and taunts directed at their own players. Some were a little too far, but "the fans turn up, the players don't" perfectly summed up the thoughts of anyone unfortunate enough to have travelled to any of the games across this Christmas period.

McDermott forced his players to "face the music" at full-time as the players stood forlorn in front of boos and abusive gestures. I say forlorn optimistically; the majority of the team didn't look bothered and that's the crux of the supporters fury. I can accept being beaten. I can almost accept being second best. But none of us can accept a lack of effort and desire. The majority accept that McDermott is the man for the job, but throw in a few more afternoons like that and opinions on him will slowly change.