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Football: Cotterill lost in unknown territory

The debutants: Cheltenham Town
Cheltenham Town 0

Rochdale 2

Atkinson 26, Ford 42

Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 5,189

THE EDITOR of the match programme, Paul Godfrey, summed it all up. "Well, here we are, Cheltenham Town in the Football League. Who'd have thought it?"

Who indeed? The journey has taken the Gloucestershire club 107 years but yesterday they finally arrived. Unfashionable Rochdale may have been the first visitors to the refurbished Whaddon Road but it did not matter. New executive boxes, a players' tunnel and dugouts, CCTV and a computer system were all ready - but were the team?

Having finished second in the Conference in 1998, the Robins went one better to win the title by four clear points last season - but how would they handle the transition to full-time football?

The obligatory police dog stood guard as Rochdale and their supporters arrived about 90 minutes before kick-off looking relaxed and confident. "We're delighted to be part of this really special day for the people of Cheltenham but we'll be doing our best to spoil the party," said Steve Parkin, the new Dale manager with six out of seven pre-season friendly wins under his belt. His confident words proved prophetic.

By half-time the "Good Vibrations" provided by the Beach Boys, among others, during the pre-match entertainment had been well and truly replaced by bad vibes as Rochdale settled into their stride.

There were no immediate signs of Cheltenham being overawed but, as the match wore on, the visitors started to threaten with David Flitcroft and Jason Peake dominating midfield.

Graham Atkinson forced Steve Book into an early sprawling save, Andy Morris then connected well with a shot which nestled nicely into the keeper's midriff and Rochdale's assistant manager, the evergreen Tony Ford, in his 969th first-team appearance, shot just wide after an intricate passing movement.

The inevitable breakthrough arrived in the 26th minute when Morris sent Graham Lancashire clear on the right and Atkinson rifled home his cross from just inside the area.

It might have been worse for the new boys. Ten minutes before half-time a tapped free-kick led to Atkinson hitting a post. As it was, Atkinson skinned Anthony Griffen down the Rochdale left to cross for Ford to head home the second three minutes before the break.

In first-half injury time Cheltenham nearly fought their way back into the game. A fine run by Jamie Victory set up Neil Grayson but he shot wide when well placed. Cheltenham's main problem was making their extra man in midfield count which meant Grayson and Dale Watkins struggled to receive any sort of service.

After the break Cheltenham's manager Steve Cotterill reverted to a flat back four and midfield parity seemed to suit his team better. But there was precious little to entertain the 5,000 crowd until midway through the second half. Play was held up as a lone Rochdale streaker stole the show for a couple of minutes before the regulation policeman's helmet prevented further public embarrassment.

Rochdale seemed happy with the lead and, although Hugh McCauley's introduction spiced up the Cheltenham attack, that elusive first league goal just wouldn't come.

Cotterill said: "It's been a good education for the lads and myself - we have just got to carry on from here: one down, 45 to go. We are very much into unknown territory - this is only the second Third Division match I've watched. We will have to learn game by game. Some of our players will swim, others will sink."

A great day out, shame about the result.