On the face of it Rochdale’s hosting of Tottenham this Sunday lends itself to every FA Cup cliché going. It is an archetypal pairing of David v Goliath with the visitors still on a high from holding Juventus in their own back yard while the home side languish at the foot of League One. There has even been a distracting controversy in the build up to the game concerning the state of the pitch, which brings to mind Yeovil’s infamous slope to anyone of a seasoned age.
Frankly all that’s missing is for Dale’s centre-forward to complete a postal round on the morning of the match or – if we allow ourselves to momentarily dream – a veteran such as Ian Henderson to arrow in a twenty-five yarder past Lloris and be engulfed by a swarm of parka-clad kids.
At this point, before a ball has been kicked, the tie has all of the necessary ingredients to enter cup folklore. Even just the names are sufficient. Rochdale. Spurs. Harry Kane vs a back-line who could go out en masse in Manchester of an evening with not one of them recognised.
This naturally means that the BBC’s coverage of the mismatch will be misty-eyed, lovingly trumpeting the magic of the cup while for Rochdale – aggrieved at the belittlement of a pitch so dilapidated that its led to three postponements of league fixtures and furthermore a town that is seemingly never in the news for positive reasons – the day affords an opportunity to bask the ancient parish and all of its residents in glorious, rare sunshine.
All of this is enough. On the face of it it’s enough.
Yet this is Rochdale. Not Shrewsbury, or Wycombe, or Lincoln, or indeed any traditional ‘minnow’ who have gone deep in the FA Cup in recent seasons and reached the stage where a nation is fully behind their cause for ninety thrilling minutes. No, here there is something incalculably more at stake; infinitely more meaningful than the revelling in cliché and certainly more substantial than the successful completion of a PR exercise.
For the first time in forever Rochdale can carve their name in the history books.
In 2014 the English National Football Archive crunched data from 220,000 results dating right back to the Football League’s inaugural season in 1888/89 and concluded that Dale supporters are the game’s longest suffering fans. They have seen their team dwell in the lowest tier longer than anyone else (78 all told), and once sustained such an unbroken spell of purgatory down there that rival fans began to call it the ‘Rochdale division’. It perhaps naturally follows then that they also have the lowest average league placing of any team. More so they are one of only a select handful of clubs who have never been promoted as champions nor won a significant trophy. Indeed their total summation of silverware from 111 years of existence is a trio of Lancashire Senior Cups.
This is not to imply of course that the fan-base is devoid of moments to cherish: last-minute derby winners and the like. Similarly there is a roll-call of icons – cult and otherwise – who have served Rochdale with great distinction down the years who are suitably revered.
But glory? Memorable and special days shared with kith and kin that are so enriching that they rival births of offspring in your life’s highlights reel? Nada. Not a sausage never mind a hotpot.
Every fan-base deserves to have such a moment, even if it occurred decades before and is passed on vicariously down the generations. It’s a base reward for a lifetime of great sacrifice.
This Sunday afternoon the television cameras will pan across a packed out Crown Oil Arena showing the excitement on the faces of locals as they await the somewhat surreal prospect of their struggling side taking on eleven household names. The commentator will no doubt contrast the wages of each side and namecheck Ronnie Radford if the chance presents itself. In the Carlsberg lounge via the Pearl Street turnstile kids will be enjoying a beach party, a cheeky nod to the damning nickname of a pitch now re-laid. There will be smiles and pride in abundance.
What shouldn’t be forgotten though is right now, before a ball has been kicked, Rochdale AFC are just a miracle away from cementing their place in legend. It’s long overdue, it’s richly merited, and should a famous victory take place at the foothills of the South Pennines this weekend, both on and pitch and historically, it will have been very hard earned indeed.