Realism rules Docherty's fantasy

The Rochdale manager is laughing all the way to Anfield, says Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
Down the generations, Rochdale have tested football folks' sense of humour as few clubs can. Even the most humble of aspirations have proved wildly extravagant and the consequences devastating.

Whole regimes, not merely managers, have "died" on the Spotland stage. Tommy Cannon, never to be forgotten in these parts as "that comedian of a chairman", arrived with his panto and television countenance only to depart with a scowl and the derision of the locals beating his eardrums.

Financial crises have pushed the club to the brink of extinction, and well-intentioned endeavours have not always been enough. In 1939, a "shilling fund" to help pay the players' wages raised precisely that - a shilling.

The present board, led by David Kilpatrick, a former undertaker, have resuscitated the corpse. Yet at the start of this season, there remained scant prospect of Rochdale's rising from the bottom division that had entombed them for 21 years. But then no one had accounted for the influence of their manager. In fact, as the directors concede to their shame, they promoted Mick Docherty from caretaker more by luck than judgement, late in the disarray of last season.

Negotiations with other candidates became a shambles and, as the club's financial director, Graham Morris, recognised, would have drained not only their coffers but also their morality. New managers tend to have their own back-room staff in tow, which would have meant sacking Docherty and his trusted aide, Jimmy Robson.

Docherty has embarked upon the task with a seemingly boundless inner resilience and a public visage encouraged by his father, Tommy, a manager who had a gag whatever his emotions or club of the day.

"My dad always told me that no matter what troubles I might have, the moment you step through the door for work you make sure you have your stick-on smile, because if the players see you are down, you haven't got a chance," Docherty junior said.

The family resolve has been examined by family and professional traumas, but Mick, a chip off the old Doc, is swaggering through with his smile, his one-liners, and a football team delivering long-lost cheer to this corner of Lancashire. Rochdale are in the midst of the promotion contest and on Saturday have one of those dates they fantasise about in the lower reaches of the game: an FA Cup third-round tie at Liverpool.

Docherty, who learned his trade with Burnley and also played for Manchester City and Sunderland, has achieved the transformation with meagre resources - he was allowed to lavish pounds 20,000 on the signing of a goalkeeper, Ian Gray - and abundant energy. The players respond to his brand of man management ("I treat them the way I liked to be treated") and his demands for constructive football.

"What you learn above all else at our level is that you just have to get on with it," Doch-erty said. "Last season we had to beg, steal or borrow to get a goalkeeper. Now we're well off in that department. We still have to beg, steal, or borrow when it comes to training because we don't have our own training ground, and as we share Spotland with Rochdale Hornets rugby league club, we can't use that.

"We get use of an all-weather pitch, but even that can be iced over. One or two schools lend us their gyms and sometimes we'll go upstairs in the stand and organise some circuit training. You just have to improvise."

That ethic extends, in the manager's case, to organising the laundering of the kit with the local infirmary and taking over the responsibilities of MC at a fund-raising dinner for the club's centre of excellence.

Money is a subject never far from the consciousness of Rochdale. If necessary, they would sell a player - perhaps the redoubtable central defender, Paul Butler, or the midfield orchestrator, Jason Peake - but the trip to Anfield fends off immediate pressures. "It will make us at least pounds 100,000, even up to pounds 125,000," Docherty enthused.

For Docherty and his players, this tie means much more besides. "These lads may never get another chance to play against a team like that in a stadium like that," he said. "It's light years from our world. And for me it's the chance to pit myself against Roy Evans. It's an unbelievable experience for all of us. The excitement is difficult to explain to anyone who doesn't know the Third Division.

"I watched Liverpool on television beat Manchester United the other week and wanted to switch off after 10 minutes. But, as Alex Ferguson admitted, his team were very poor on the day and if we play the same way, relative to our ability, we'll get exploited tenfold.

"We're going to try and win, but if we went out there intent on all-out attack, they'd murder us, so we've got to be realistic. The longer the game goes on scoreless, who knows? I went there in 1981 with Sunderland and we had to win to guarantee staying up. We won 1-0."

Omens being the pillars of football optimism, Docherty might also consider this: his father capped his contribution to Manchester United's cause by winning the FA Cup in 1977.

The opposition in the final? Liverpool, of course.