Malcolm Dawson writes……it takes a lot to shock me these days but the revelation that there was a Football League ground that Pete Sixsmith had never been to almost made me choke on my Vimto. But normal service was soon resumed when I re-read his report of last night’s Checkatrade Trophy at Spotland and realised it was only a competitive match he hadn’t witnessed there. From that I assume he has either seen a friendly or been to a Rugby League match at the ground. To further my confusion, the former Johnstone’s Paint Trophy states that clubs like Sunderland must field at least six players under the age of 21, whilst the development squad now play in a league for Under 23s. I gave this one a miss relying on Pete’s report for my definitive account of what went on. And here it is……
It would be fair to say that the Checkatrade English Football League Trophy is a largely unloved competition. John Penman calls it the “diddy, diddy cup” and Steve Williams, a good friend and an avid ground hopper and Tranmere Rovers fan, sees it as a Trojan horse for the entry of Premier League Under 23 teams into the football league a la Spain and Germany.
I saw it as an opportunity to watch Sunderland in a competitive match at Spotland for the first time. We have never played Rochdale in any kind of competitive game, so I was there to see history in the making. It was also an opportunity to see Jason Denayer in action, report on Jan Kirchhoff’s progress and see if the younger players could hack it against men rather than the same age group players they usually come up against.
Rochdale is not a town that has had to look for troubles over the past few years. There was the dreadful grooming case involving men of Asian origin, the acceptance that former MP and prize fatty Cyril Smith was a predatory paedophile and the revelations that the current MP was a man with a voracious sexual appetite.
Yet it has much to commend it. The Town Hall is possibly the most magnificent in an area where magnificent town halls (Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Morley) are par for the course. It would not look out of place in a Tuscan hill town and it may well have inspired Gracie Fields to forego the delights of Lancashire for the Isle of Capri.
It is the home of the Co-operative Movement, the Rochdale Pioneers setting up their first shop in Toad Lane in 1844, and although it has changed in recent years, the members are still the shareholders only without the divi. There will be men and women reading this who will be able to recite their divi number without batting the proverbial eyelid.
They also have a spectacularly unsuccessful but much loved (in Rochdale) football team. They spent forty one years in the lowest division before gaining promotion to Division One in 2009. They lasted two years, went down but under returning manager Keith Hill, went back up in 2014 and have looked comfortable for the last two seasons.
They have not made the best start to the new season and opted to field a strong side against our Under 21s. This was an opportunity to see what the Three Robsons, Embleton, Greenwood, Ledger and co. could do against players like Ian Henderson, Peter Vincenti, Joe Rafferty (I liked him)and Jim McNulty. And as Harold Wilson used to say,to be perfectly frank, honest and reasonable they did pretty well.
The line-up was as expected with the odds on Kirchhoff, playing for an hour at most. As it was, he saw the game out and he will certainly be in contention for the game on Monday night. There were some imperious passes, firm tackles and the trademark interceptions that we saw last season. He even scored his penalty with all the casualness of Noel Coward putting on his dressing gown and lighting up a Passing Cloud.
Denayer looked a good acquisition. He has been at Celtic, where he won Scottish Young Player of the Year and at Galatasary, which should prepare him for anything. City must rate him or they would have sold him so we should make the most of his twelve months with us and hope that he can progress. He is calm on the ball but can find Row Z if required and, although legitimately roughed up by Vincenti and Henderson, showed that he can give it out as well as take it.
Stryjek started shakily but improved. Being the second choice goalkeeper is a bit like being the Vice President of the USA in that you are a heartbeat or in a footballing sense, a groin strain away from being plunged into a position of great responsibility. The youngster improved as the game went on, but I would be inclined to have Mark Schwarzer’s number on speed dial just in case.
The others all learned a lot from this. Elliot Embleton scored a splendid goal after being set up by Josh Maja (learn the offside regulations, Josh) and the always busy George Honeyman. Thomas Robson bombed forward well and defended strongly and Michael Ledger reached into himself to come through a difficult game a better player than when he went into it.
The Rochdale equaliser was sloppy – a needless free kick followed by some shoddy defending (familiar words) and both sides had chances. Rochdale brought on Sammi Odelusie who is on loan from Wigan. Although he hails from Dagenham he has played the last two seasons in Rugby League heartlands and his strong running was reminiscent of Billy Boston or Martin Offiah. However, his shooting prowess was the equivalent of Kevin Sinfield as he put three good chances well over the bar – the Rochdale Hornets coach could try to tap him up for the odd game.
The rules of this competition mean that draws are not allowed and if the teams are tied they take one point each and it goes to a penalty shoot-out with the winners of that gaining an extra point. George Honeyman missed his first and then Thomas Robson missed the third one. Despite a fine Stryjek save from McGahey, Odelusi managed to put one between the posts rather than over them to spark riotous scenes amongst the 900 or so Dale fans housed in the main stand. The 200+ Red and Whites, including a fellow Old Vinovian in Brian Lingwood, shrugged their shoulders and applauded the team off.
We go to Hartlepool in early October and then welcome Notts County, who have Louis Laing and Jon Stead in their ranks, to the Stadium in early November. Win those two and we could well be in the open draw and Wembley moves a step nearer.