Lower league clubs held their own against the might of the Premier League but a meeting between the two sides on Tuesday offered a stark reminder of reality
FA Cup heroics a distant memory as Rochdale and Fleetwood return to League One survival scrap
It is 31 days since Harry Kane struck at Spotland, 31 since Rochdale emulated Juventus and Liverpool by holding Tottenham Hotspur to a 2-2 draw on their own turf, and Spurs are on the agenda again. Memories will not fade of the day Dale bridged a 64-place gulf in positions, but mementoes are being discounted.
The club shop has a sale on. Mugs and scarves celebrating the FA Cup tie are on offer. Some ninety minutes before kick-off, the store is not doing a roaring trade. That is unsurprising. A reported British television audience of six million watched Rochdale frustrate Tottenham. When Fleetwood Town visit on a cold Tuesday night, the gate is 2,403.
Having been catapulted into the limelight, Rochdale are now back in an overlooked normality. So are Fleetwood. League One clubs have provided much of the romance in this season’s FA Cup – most spectacularly when Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City – and, like Spurs, Fleetwood held one of the country’s top eight, drawing 0-0 with Leicester City.
Each confounded the image of lower-league scrappers who dragged favourites down to their level. They were passing teams who paraded their principles and impressed on a grander stage.
“I thought it was the best game I’ve been to. I thought we were unlucky not to win,” said Fleetwood fan Dave Hudson. “Same with Rochdale against Tottenham.”
Both lost their respective replays. They meet, not to compare experiences of endearing overachievement, but in a scrap to stay in League One.
The FA Cup has galvanised Rochdale, who took eight points from four games after their 6-1 Wembley defeat to Spurs. It sent Fleetwood spiralling downhill. The 2-0 loss to Leicester was the first of eight consecutive defeats. Manager Uwe Rosler was sacked after the seventh.
They arrive at Spotland only out of the relegation zone on goal difference. Rochdale begin five points from safety; even that is an improvement after they were 11 points adrift, partly because of a raft of postponements, some caused by that FA Cup run.
These clubs have common denominators. “We have got one of the worst budgets but we rely on youth,” said Rochdale supporter Kenny Gill.
For the second successive year, Dale and Fleetwood have the lowest average attendances in the division. Fleetwood “is a dead end,” says fan Mick Garstang; with the Irish Sea to the north and west, the catchment area is limited. But their average gate is around 15 per cent of the town’s population, the highest ratio in the division. Dale hope their FA Cup exploits will produce an upturn in support, especially when the weather warms up.
“Last year we punched above our weight,” added Hudson; Fleetwood finished fourth, the highest finish in their history. Dale, with three successive top-10 finishes, have had finest run under their greatest manager, Keith Hill.
Footballing gravity and fiscal prudence have dragged each down. Dale lost three key players to Championship clubs in the summer, Fleetwood two to wealthier League One rivals in January.
Dale suffer another loss. Midfielder Andy Cannon’s season is ended by a fractured cheekbone after a clash of heads. Fleetwood capitalise, proven League One scorers Paddy Madden and Jordy Hiwula offering predatory finishes. It is a first win for the unbeaten new manager John Sheridan.
“He is like the escape artist, Sheridan, he did it at Oldham,” Hudson added. One improbable escape was branded a “Shezerection”. Another may be on.
“You have got to make yourself hard to beat,” said the pragmatic, blunt Sheridan. “They are in this position probably because they have been an easy team to beat.”
Rochdale are now six points from safety because they struggle to score. They have two goals in four matches, just 14 at home this season. They look less streetwise than Fleetwood. Hill, who still has seven more home games, sounds defiant.
“The four teams who were in this position last year all went [down] so people have already wrote us off,” he said. “I certainly haven’t.”