United, City, Wigan, Bolton, Bury and Oldham. I had ticked off every league ground in Manchester and Greater Manchester over a year ago – apart from one. The 10 mile trip north of Manchester to a small market town had been arranged and just as regularly postponed over the past 12 months, but finally on a Tuesday night in October I got to complete my travels of all the Mancunian league grounds: Spotland, the home of Rochdale FC, was finally to be ticked off my list. The fixture chosen for my maiden trip to Spotland would be the home club’s League Two fixture against Oxford United (this would also be the first league fixture in a long time in which I had never seen either club ever play before).
With the game being on a Tuesday night, I had decided to head up straight up to Rochdale following my working day. Getting there was fairly simplistic having worked my way across Manchester to Manchester Victoria station, before jumping on a commuter crammed train destined for Leeds which would arrive into Rochdale around 17:30. Unlike most train stations that feed into a town, Rochdale’s station is situated away from the town centre itself. On exiting the station, I tried to survey the flow of traffic to approximate the direction of the town centre, like some kind of urban Ray Mears; as always I soon switched to my phone’s Google Maps App. After a 10 minute stroll through a maze of terraced houses and kebab shops, I found myself in the town centre. I had visited Rochdale town centre once before, before going to a job interview nearby (for a job I didn’t really want); there is very little to report on the centre really, although it did feature prominently on Mary Portas’ report into the decline of some of the UK’s town centres, as even big chain brands such as McDonalds quit Rochdale town centre to escape it’s dilapidation. Away from the high street there are more eye-catching sites such as the Big-Ben-mimicking town hall and the town’s pleasant Broadfield Park which is located in the heart of the town.
After the walk into town I called in the Flying Horses pub (great name) to refresh myself (have a pint) and to watch some of the Champions League tie between Spartak Moscow v Benfica (what I watched was very good actually). The Flying Horses was a charming little pub stuck away at the foot of the hill leading up to Broadfield Park. The place even had a little fire crackling away in the corner – how very quaint. My plan was to use the pub as a pit stop before continuing the long walk to the ground, but instead I decided to take a local’s advice and catch a taxi to Spotland. Just short of 10 minutes later, following a mazy drive towards the floodlights looming over the trees in the distance, I was dropped off outside the main stand of Rochdale’s Spotland. Spotland (named after the area in which the ground is located) sits on top of a small hill enclosed by residential housing; however, the housing provided very little shelter from the wind and I have to say that it was a very cold night in this northern area of Greater Manchester, although admittedly it was nothing compared to my visit to nearby neighbours Oldham and their Boundary Park 18 months before; that is still perhaps the coldest place I’ve ever been and a ground referred to by their club legend, Joe Royle, as ‘Ice Station Zebra’, a nod to Alistair MacLean’s Cold War thriller. Anyway, back to Rochdale. Without a second look you know you are standing outside one of the Football League’s more ‘traditional’ grounds. To become better acquainted with the place, I began a lap of Spotland to see if I could spot anything of interest; after half a lap around the ground, there was very little to catch my eye until I spotted the Ratcliffe Arms! The ground has a pub practically connected to the home end! Wow! I quashed my excitement and decided to the save this gem for later when, just before going into the ground’s Sandy Lane Terrace (I’d preemptively opted for this stand as it was cheaper and it was a standing terrace). There was nothing else of interest to pick out on my wander apart from a very good looking chippy opposite the away end called Wilbutts Lane – a mental note was made for a post-match ‘scran’ (for those who haven’t lived in the North-West like myself, that’s northern for ‘food’). Next stop: ‘The Church’.
No, I had not had some sort of epiphany before a League Two football match and I was not seeking some sort of religious reassurance, unsurprisingly, ‘The Church’ was a pub, although it was a pub of biblical proportions. On ordering a pint, my jaw almost cracked the floor when the barmaid said “£1.80 please.” I was sure I’d ordered a pint and not a half, but I still sheepishly handed over my change and it soon became very apparent that a pint, a whole pint, cost £1.80! £1.80 a pint and it was not 1997! God bless Rochdale! (I could get more into this religion thing after all). Despite being a small pub, the Church was a great place to enjoy a prematch drink with it sitting directly next to the ground. The pub was split into a main bar area, with friendly staff serving, with two small rooms and another seating area going off from it. The winning colour in the pub was easily the yellow of Oxford United, as many of their support enjoyed a few pints before kick off after making the long journey up north. With the pints at £1.80 I decided to stay for another and I was even going to push the boat out and buy a third, before an Oxford fan I had befriended bought me one instead; I felt quite bad letting someone buy me a £1.80 pint though! The clock was now edging past 19:15 and there was no way I was missing out on the pub behind the stand, so after hastily finishing off pint number 3, I adopted a pacey walk to reach the Ratcliffe Arms.
The night sky was now very much over Rochdale and the temperature had plummeted further, so the warmth of the Ratcliffe Arms was very much welcome. Unlike the more classic appearance of the Church, the Ratcliffe was a little more Harvester-like with plenty of tables, big open spaces and plenty of TVs around the place. There was a healthy crowd of Rochdalians (??) discussing the now rapidly approaching kick off. Any pub outside a club’s home end is good by me, but the place just didn’t charm me (or my wallet) as much as the Church. Pint drunk and onward through the turnstile into Spotland.
Spotland has been the sole home of Rochdale AFC since their formation and was built in 1906 purely for their use (although the club didn’t move in until 1907, the year they formed). Despite having a slight rundown appearance, Spotland has transformed over the past 20 years thanks to the Taylor Report and the ground now holds just over 10,000 fans. I was here this evening for League Two football and the ground has spent the most part of its 90 year history hosting fourth tier football. This record is largely thanks to Rochdale’s incredible run of 36 years in the bottom division of the Football League between 1976-2010, before achieving promotion to League One and subsequently coming straight back down to League Two for this season; in fact, the club has never climbed above the third tier, so there has not been much glamour to talk about at the ground over its history. However, Spotland is to host a World Cup game soon – a 2013 Rugby World Cup game that is, as Ireland and Fiji face off at the home Rochdale AFC. The Sandy Lane Terrace is routinely touted as the loud section of the ground as the Dale faithful gather on its standing terrace which sits behind one of the goals. To the left of the Sandy Lane Terrace stands the Wilbutts Lane Stand which houses the away support and along the opposite side of the pitch is the club’s Main Stand. Finally, directly opposite me behind the far goal was another all seater stand called the Pearl St. Stand. By the way, all these stands now have sponsored names, but I refused to mention them – have that commercialism! The thing I liked best of all about the stands was the fact that they all stood separate, which gave the ground quite a unique look; however, the downfall of this quirk was that the wind was blowing through the stadium and it was still bitterly cold. Only one way to warm up…
PIE!!! The first thing I noticed on going through the turnstiles was the large queue spreading out from the food hut. I had heard that Rochdale offered a mean pie so I was eagerly anticipated my pastry treat. After going all exotic with a Chicken Balti pie in Glossop last time out, I went more traditional this time and plumped for a meat and potato pie at a very reasonably priced £2. My verdict: it was brilliant! A top effort from Rochdale in the pie department!
I found a perch on the sparsely populated standing terrace and watched the team’s kick off. And that was it. There was really nothing to report in the first half apart from that I was marginally enthused to see Football League journeyman Dele Adebola have a run out for Rochdale (not that he did much though). Also making an appearance for Oxford was pint-sized wigner Alfie Potter, a player you may remember as the youngster that scored at Anfield for Havant and Waterlooville when the Conference South side lost 5-2 to the mighty Liverpool in a FA Cup fourth round tie in 2008. I was also keeping an eye on the Rochdale captain Jason Kennedy who’d I’d seen play in snippets and always been impressed with, but he was having a frustrating first half, although he would improve dramatically in the second half. As well as very little talent on show, I also noted that there was absolutely no atmosphere in the ground whatsoever apart from the odd lone shouts of ‘Come on the Dale!’
At half time with me frustrated by the dreary 45 minutes of football I had witnessed and also freezing my bollocks off, I headed to get a pint to cheer me up. Disaster struck: I could not find a bar in my end of the ground! Instead I went back to pie hut and whilst resisting the urge to go for pie number 2, I bought a hot chocolate which considering the temperature of the ground was probably a more suitable option than a cold pint of lager in a plastic cup.
The second half: well it was an improvement but still pretty dire. As mentioned previously, Kennedy now started to impress and dictating play for Rochdale from his Xavi-esque position (and let’s never compare Rochdale’s Jason Kennedy to the great man again), but there was another player who I’d begun to take a shine to. The only glimmer of hope for me on this bleak night for entertaining football was a player I’d never even heard of before the game called Andrew Tutte. The young central midfielder looked quite a player and he stood out like a sore thumb amongst the mediocrity around him. He could play inch perfect passes, he was strong in possession and, most importantly for a young player, his decision making was spot on. On doing some research on arriving home (just after midnight by the way) I soon discovered that he was a product of Manchester City’s academy and was loaned out to three Football League teams including Rochdale, before signing for the Dale permanently last season. I think he could be one to watch and from what little I’ve seen I think he should be stepping up the leagues soon.
Resisting the urge to leave early to catch the 21:52 train back to Manchester instead of the 22:52 (you must NEVER leave football early is my number one football rule), I battled on through the drudgery of this tepid game until just over ten minutes from time there was a goal. Thank god! Some excellent work from Bobby Grant down the left wing led to an excellent cross into the box which was headed into the far corner by substitute George Donnelly. 1-0 to Rochdale. In the 87th minute the victory was secured for Rochdale as the two combined again with this time Donnelly supplying a driven cross for Grant to tap home. 2-0 and game over. Jason Kennedy was awarded with the club’s Man of the Match award, but Tutte was the best player on the pitch for me by a long way.
I decided to stretch my legs and make the 30 minute walk back to the train station instead of hitching a ride in a taxi. I referred back to my mental note from earlier and decided to get some chips from the excellent looking Wilbutts Lane Chippy to accompany on my stroll through Rochdale, but to my dismay the place was closed! Some business advice to the owners – stay open after the game to feed hungry football fans! My incredible memory directed me through the streets of Rochdale and all the way back to the train station via the most incredibly lit up kebab shop ever, where I had no choice but to buy some food chiefly because of their efforts with illuminating half of Rochdale.
Highlights: The Church pub, £1.80 a pint, traditional ground with classic four seperate stands layout, pub attached to the home end, very tasty pies, standing terrace, the performance of Andrew Tutte.
Low Points: Not much atmosphere, bit awkward to get to the ground form the train station, no bar (or that I could see) in Sandy Lane end, awful game of football.