A little triva teaser to start off with.
Who was Rovers manager the last time we played Rochdale in a League match?
Answer a little later in the column.
Our first visit to Spotland for a third-tier fixture for 44 years certainly emphasises the fact that we’re playing lower-division football.
All four of our opponents thus far have locked horns with us at Championship level not that long ago but a trip over Owd Betts really is a throwback to the seventies.
My first visit to what is now known as – and I shall say zis only once – the Crown Oil Arena was in March 1972 and while I remember little snippets about the game, as well as the unfortunate result, there is one fact about the day that I’ve never ever forgotten.
My best mate Graham and I were in the first flush of being allowed to travel to away games without our dads and we duly wandered into the Ribblesdale Coaches office on Blackburn Boulevard during the week after school and stumped up our 18p or whatever it was to book travel.
When we arrived over the hills and saw the Spotland floodlights on Saturday we turned left away from the stadium and parked down a tree-lined lane.
Wandering up the hill towards the ground we counted the coaches already neatly lined up by the kerb.
Ours was the 52nd coach. I couldn’t believe we had enough fans to fill so many charas on an away trip…. and I still reckon there were a few arrived later than us.
To give some further impression of the huge volume of the away support, Rochdale had played at home to Wrexham, not a million miles distant, the previous Saturday before a gate of 2,640. The attendance seven days later when Rovers visited was 6,494.
Lifelong pals Graham and I (I was delighted and honoured to be at the christening of his first grandchild last weekend) have savoured and endured almost a half-century of footballing trials and tribulations together since and we will both be there again on Saturday with another big following as Rovers look set to take around 3,000.
But one hopes the day pans out differently.
We lost 2-1 that day despite a goal from “Tony Field, superstar,” as the then-current chant went (“how many goals have you scored so far?”) and I vividly recall being able to wander around all four sides of the ground.
Just turned 13, we would follow the bigger lads and fellas around and watch as they purposefully staked out their territory by sheer weight of numbers coupled with a suitable air of imminent malevolence, then shuffle onto the fringe of the phalanx.
Later in the same year we were back but not before a goal by Malcolm Darling, an old Rovers favourite, had knocked us out of the League Cup to give Rochdale a first ever win at Ewood.
Darling had shown early promise for Rovers despite the astonishing decision on his arrival in Blackburn to offer the young Scottish apprentice digs….. upstairs in a pub. He lodged at the Fox and Hounds across from the ground!
He was unable to repeat his feat in the league match which brought 1972 to a close however, Field again scorer of Rovers’ goal, the matchwinner.
That win saw us leap-frog Dale to 13th in the table, a salutary reminder that we were for a time mired in the Third Division, a circumstance some of our followers feel would precipitate the end of the club if not very Armageddon itself this time around.
After a good second half of that 1972-73 season we finished third…the last-ever time only two went up!
The following season we arrived on the back of a spectacular 5-0 win over Watford and a cup replay against Willington, won 6-1 and lay in a promising fifth position.
On a sad December Friday 24 hours before the game at Rochdale, Ken Furphy, who had re-invigorated fallen Rovers but been unable to quite seal promotion, left to join Sheffield United.
The man in charge when we beat Rochdale 2-1 at Spotland the following day and the answer to the poser at the top of the column?
None other than Richard Dinnis, all-round good guy and erstwhile Radio Lancs summariser, in caretaker charge until the coming of Gordon Lee in January.
Field was again on the mark twice in a 2-1 win but the game is remembered for a howler of a refereeing decision when Rochdale striker Leo Skeete palpably put the ball in our net only for it to burst through a hole in the side netting onto the dog track. The ref gave a goal kick!
Dale were relegated at the end of the season never to be promoted again until their current manager, our old boy Keith Hill, took the reins for the first time. Lee, after a decidedly mixed first few months of 1974, took us up the following season.
Meetings in the interim years were sporadic and possibly the best-remembered was the 6-1 League Cup win at Ewood (after a rather more forgettable 1-1 draw at Rochdale) in a game best remembered for Dunny’s hat-trick of penalties, two goals for Damien Duff and, perhaps most remarkably, one for Kaba Diawara, one of the least affectionately remembered of Graeme Souness’s signings.
At least it partly made up for Rochdale incredibly beating us in a two-legged semi-final in the same competition’s second-ever season in 1962.
After leaving the Accrington Observer in 2003 – our head offices were in Rochdale and I spent a bit of time there making many friends, particularly on the sports desk –
I spent a few seasons covering Rochdale for Sunday newspapers.
The folks at the club were always welcoming and helpful and I am ecstatic that after his recent te-instatement a full house of Rovers fans tomorrow will have the pleasure I had for many years of hearing long-time stadium announcer Dave Sweetmore crank out punk and indie favourites at such ear-splitting volume residents of terraced houses nearby would ring in complaining.
Small wonder as you could usually wind your window down around Norden and catch the tunes.
Dave was unquestionably the best-known and most celebrated of his ilk in the business and had moved to fresh pastures where he DJ’s professionally in clubs with a large and devoted following.
But the old job recently became available again and I’m sure he’ll treat us with plenty of Buzzcocks, Jam, Smiths, Joy Division and Clash on Saturday, not to mention more contemporary bands carrying the torch, pre-match and at at half-time.
As I sat next to DJ Dave in my regular press box spot, I watched Steve Parkin and then Hill develop a very decent side. The number of centre-forwards who made a name at Spotland and graduated was bewildering – Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Adam Le Fondre, Chris Dagnall and Glenn Murray all served with distinction in the short time I sat there.
I found it incredible, and said so at the time, that not one of these players was ever considered by Rovers, a few miles up the road and a club which most of them would have walked the distance to sign for at the time.
Quite often we would be joined in the press area by manager Hill himself, stood in a little doorway behind us shouting his instructions to the players from a nicely elevated view above the dug-outs.
Now there are few among us in the sports reporting corps who haven’t made recourse to the odd oath or two, but I used to genuinely blush as Hilly unleashed the more indelicate selections from his vocabulary just a few feet from home and away directors and their wives.
I’d often chuckle and turn round to see my pal ex-Football League ref Tony Leake, a mad keen Roverite, there in his capacity as an assessor, smile back.
While he is an engaging character and often mischievously humorous lad, Hilly has a serious side, an eye for talent and the ability to put a coaching staff together capable of polishing rough material.
He always had innovative ways of looking at and interpreting the game and I’m surprised after one relative failure at Barnsley, no-one else has taken a gamble on his talent. Rochdale’s gain of course.
We’ve certainly had worse.
Hill’s team haven’t got going yet this season but he will have them up for this one, make no mistake.
One hopes Mowbray proves as valuable to our club as Hill has been over a long period of time to his, removing the stigma of being a permanent fourth tier club and building something completely in contrast to the run-down music-hall joke they were sometimes cast as.
Mowbray’s deadline day signings however were hardly the sort to get the supporters buzzing – although if Rakeem Harper is half as good as the PR suggests he might do – and smacked of last-minute necessity to boost the numbers rather than any bold statement of promotion-seeking intent.
I saw Harper briefly at Stanley the other week and he looked neat and tidy without setting the place on fire. He’s very young at 17 though and it would be unwise to expect too much.
Paul Downing has had some degree of experience at this level with four solid seasons at Walsall but the news about Daragh Lenihan – how damaging was that 20 minutes limping on at Southend? – makes it a little more galling that we missed out on our number one target, Heneghan at Motherwell.
Doubly annoying that Lenihan’s one-time suitors Sheffield United pipped us too.
Young full-back Hart is an odd one. If any of the young guns looks ripe for a promotion, it’s Jack Doyle who can operate at full back or wing back.
If Mowbray is adamant that our fledglings aren’t ready, I’m sure even a few hundred grand – Venkys’ regular late-window modus operandi – would have enabled him to pick up a couple of players of proven pedigree to ensure a genuine promotion push rather than quarter-to-eleven deadline day take-a-chancers.
Curiously, Mowbray, who has talked down the need for Rovers to retain Category A Academy status, seems reluctant to utilise what increasingly looks to be an outstanding crop of youngsters in the Under-21’s who are deservedly harvesting rich plaudits as they continue a coruscating unbeaten streak this season.
They were again hugely impressive in beating (penalties after a 2-2 draw) a vastly more seasoned Wigan side in the Lancashire FA Senior Cup at Leyland on Monday.
It really is a pleasure to watch such a well-drilled Rovers team in which every player thoroughly knows his job within a well-honed, effective and at times thrilling pattern of play.
I’m sure those who have the interests of say, Willem Tomlinson, Doyle and Joe Rankin-Costello at heart must raise a quizzical eye upwards when we recruit young players in similar positions with not that much more senior experience.
The Lenihan injury news is a grave concern and one hopes Mulgrew’s knock with Scotland was no more than that…we can ill afford to lose the presence and game-changing ability he provides.
Funny enough, watching the League One goal highlights last weekend I saw a young player discarded by Rovers not long ago pop home a free-kick even better than Mulgrew’s two goal efforts this season when Josh Morris netted to win unbeaten Scunthorpe, our opponents on Tuesday, the tightest of games at Gigg Lane before the break.
If we can gather a minimum of four points from tomorrow’s game and Tuesday’s at Scunthorpe, we will be not far off the mix. Any less and catching up will take some doing.
Four games unbeaten, three of them away, would be a decent run but at least one of these needs to be won to get the momentum properly rolling along. Six points would make a powerful statement.