‘Will we be on Match of the Day tonight?’ Matchday at lower league club down the road from Man United and City – Samuel Luckhurst

“Will we be on Match of the Day tonight?” a Rochdale fan asked his mate. On a weekend where the English football pyramid was decimated by Covid-19 outbreaks in squads north and south of the M6, a club without a training ground enjoyed their most uplifting day of the season.

Saturday came and, with no United match to cover, Rochdale provided the football fix of an excellent chippy and terraces. The biggest buzz this correspondent had covering United’s FA Cup ties at Cambridge and Yeovil three years apart was strolling along the empty terraces before the gates were opened.

The Spotland turnstiles are devoid of an avuncular time-served volunteer to check your £18 ticket in these QR code times, but the experience in the lower leagues is otherwise authentic and pure. Newport, fourth heading into the fixture, were overwhelmed by a dynamic and slick Rochdale performance in the 3-0 rout.

Jake Beesley, scorer of two goals and creator of the other, is a close friend of Harry Maguire’s and would have given the Manchester United captain a run for his money on this form. Max Taylor, who left United in the summer, is a regular starter for Dale.

When the turnstiles were locked at Spotland last season, Rochdale endured a six-month run without a home win. Their final fixture prior to football’s shutdown was a clinical 3-1 triumph over second-placed Rotherham in League One and there were eerie parallels with their dismissal of Newport in their final fixture before Christmas.

However soulless it was, football provided a form of escapism and structure for fans last season and the multiple postponements this weekend are detrimental to people beyond physical health. Staff at stadiums and local businesses in the community are dependent on clubs and Christmas can be a subdued time for many individuals and families who seek solace in the game.

When Saturday comes
When Saturday comes

On the Sandy Lane terraces, generations ranged from a father with his enthusiastic infant daughter to an elderly masked woman. Banners representing Rochdale’s Maltese and Irish support permanently adorn the main stand.

In the dozens of times I have watched Rochdale live in the last five years, it was the best they had played. Some football fans are ingrained ingrates and even in a game Rochdale led for 85 minutes there was more discouragement than encouragement from some.

One berated a Rochdale coach during the warm-up for the insistence on a back three and demanded a switch to 4-3-3. Rochdale stuck with their three centre halves and Newport barely had a sniff.

Others, spurred by the performance, rocked to ‘Stockdale’s barmy army’. When the second goal went in they goaded the Welsh visitors with a rendition of God Save The Queen. A lone voice bellowed, “How s–t must you be, we’re winning at home!”

Matchgoers can develop a genuine attachment with players at the earthy level of League Two. One grandfather asked the substitutes if they would mind halting their warm-up to pose for a picture with his grandson. Abraham Odoh, Matty Done, Josh Andrews, Aaron Morley, and George Broadbent obliged. Tireless wing-back Aidy White gifted his shirt to a child as he made his way around the pitch. “He looks like Gareth Southgate,” quipped the chap sporting a flat cap.

Newport kick off the second-half
Newport kick off the second-half

United fans from the Greater Manchester area had just under 48 hours’ notice of the postponement of the Brighton fixture and City play at Newcastle on Sunday. Idealistically, one hoped Reds and Blues would flock to Spotland.

A few kids in their school team’s kit skipped past the essential Wilbutts Lane chippy and discussed United’s Champions League draw with Atletico Madrid. A City fan insulated by a blue-and-white bar scarf walked on the opposite side with his son. The attendance on Saturday was 2,232. There was more than double that when Oldham won 1-0 in September.

Outside the Pearl Street Stand, a school bus was parked with Santa on board while other kids waited to have their photo taken with Desmond the Dragon, the club’s rebranded mascot. Others played on the nearby five-a-side pitch.

The annual non-league day is scheduled for March 26 to coincide with the international break and support of the lower tiers is also critical as clubs continue to reel from the financial side-effects of the pandemic.

Protecting the Greater Manchester clubs has never been more paramount at a particularly perilous time. Bury and Macclesfield were expelled and wound up. Bolton were on the brink in 2019. Prospective owners of Rochdale were accused of making a homophobic comment about the club’s board and were also accused of calling the town’s citizens ‘small-minded’. The ‘hostile’ takeover collapsed over the summer.

United used Gigg Lane for reserve matches up until 2003, played at Macclesfield in a 2006 friendly and Paul Pogba faced Rochdale in the Manchester Senior Cup in 2011. Rochdale have hosted United and Liverpool’s youngsters in the EFL Trophy in the last 15 months but goodwill friendlies with big-hitters present would be more significant.

While League One is laden with clubs that are a fixture on instalments of Premier League Years, League Two does not have the aura of the National League, enriched by well-supported clubs such as Stockport, Wrexham, Notts County, Chesterfield, and Halifax. Aside from their cup ties at Tottenham, United and Newcastle in the last four years, Rochdale have hosted Sunderland, Bolton, Ipswich, Wigan, and Portsmouth within the same timeframe.

It has been a while since any of them were on Match of the Day.

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