The most surprising thing about the wave of shocks that rolled over the FA Cup on Saturday afternoon was that only one of them was thought worthy of television coverage. And, frankly, by teatime Blackburn Rovers’ 3-1 win over Swansea City had been relegated to a footnote.
The scenes as Rochdale prepare for tonight’s encounter with Stoke City are what television expects from the FA Cup. A manager who would pass largely unrecognised outside his own town is talking to a troupe of journalists, most of whom have never covered the club before and might not do so again. The talk is of how the FA Cup has put Rochdale back on football’s map, how much money it will bring to the club with the lowest budget in the Football League – BT is paying £150,000 to screen the game. Outside, the groundsman is shovelling snow from the Spotland pitch. All that is missing is John Motson in a sheepskin overcoat.
If you closed your eyes and imagined a town about to be touched by the FA Cup, the snow-smeared streets of Rochdale might come to mind: solid, self-reliant and a bit scuffed at the edges.
Keith Hill, on his third stint with the club as player and manager, spent the run-up to this, the last of the fourth-round ties, confined to bed, joking that he was suffering from “cup fever”. He laments the fact that Rochdale do not have their own training ground. “We have to beg, steal and borrow facilities,” he said. “Mostly, we borrow. We are very fortunate the Soccer Factory allows us to use their facilities, which are indoors.
“One of the worst things I ever experienced as a player was sitting around in the changing rooms waiting to find out where we would be training. There are times I endured rather than enjoyed being a player.”
By way of contrast, his counterpart, Mark Hughes, has been preparing his Stoke squad in Dubai. You trust that, unlike Manchester City, who returned from the Gulf 19 hours before their fateful encounter with Middlesbrough, Stoke have left themselves enough recovery time. However, it is hard to imagine Hughes will be as nonplussed by the attitude, the pitch and the facilities of lower-division England as Manchester United were at Cambridge on Friday night.
At the start of the month, Hughes was on the touchline of the Britannia Stadium wondering what he might say when asked how it felt to become only the second Premier League manager to lose to non-league opposition in the FA Cup. Three late goals against Wrexham, his home-town club, spared him but Stoke will come prepared.
“And they are Stoke,” said Hill. “They are a strong team with plenty of British players. Someone like Jon Walters has played through the divisions. They will come here and embrace the FA Cup.”
When Rochdale was thought of at all it was for three things – Gracie Fields, the Co-op, which was founded here, and its outsized MP, Cyril Smith. Its football club was never mentioned.
Perhaps it should be. We always knew Our Gracie preferred Capri to this corner of Lancashire, but until lately we didn’t know the Co-op would be chaired by a Rochdale councillor and Methodist minister with a liking for crystal meth. Smith now appears to have been a Jimmy Savile with a rosette.
In the meantime, the football club has progressed admirably. It may have no money but it has never had to make a call to administrators that some clubs have on speed dial and it has a fine record for producing its own footballers.
Half the side that knocked out Nottingham Forest in the third round played against the same opposition in the FA Youth Cup. For the second successive season they have reached the fourth round by humbling one of the great clubs from the 1970s. Last year it was Leeds United.
In between, Hill has steered Rochdale to promotion to League One. The highest they have ever finished is ninth in the third tier in 1970; this morning they are fifth in League One, two places above Bradford City, the humblers of Chelsea.
The budget, however, has remained at levels the 1970s would recognise, which creates its own stresses. “Sometimes it weighs heavy, that expectation,” said Hill. “There should be more fear to what we do because we like to give young players an opportunity and we do revive players’ careers but, ultimately, we have to sell those players to make ends meet.
“We don’t go begging to the banks, we generate our own money – which is special – but to continue to be successful is hard. If I thought about it too much, it would scare me.”
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