It was going to take an escape act of Houdini proportions in order to survive, but much like the great man himself, when the end came, it felt like being punched in the stomach, hard.
While this recent run under Mark Robins has supplied some optimism that we can actually challenge for promotion next season, the disunity off-the-pitch that we witnessed before, during and in the days after the Charlton game is probably going to be the bigger challenge to overcome than the actual winning of games next season. Just what kind of shape we’ll be in come August remains a mystery with so many unknown factors likely to affect Robins’ ability to retain and rebuild this squad.
Although these past few games have demonstrated that this squad has the ability to win games on a consistent basis, we also saw in the Charlton game just why this squad would need strengthening where possible in order to achieve that. We’re looking increasingly intentful as a team-unit, however, the gravity of the situation on Friday clearly got to the players, manifesting itself via a number of nervy errors in the second-half when we were chasing the game. Finding the right kind of experience to help whoever remains from this squad is going to be vital element of a push for promotion
As for these final three games of this season, it makes little difference whether or not we finish bottom or as close to safety as possible – this season has already been an embarrassment. With this Rochdale game coming so close to the physical and mental exertion of our last game, the players have an easy excuse for not really turning up for this one – although they may need to be aware that their performances could affect their chances of a contract for next season.
The team selection is likely to be heavily influenced by injuries, much like every game we’ve had since the Checkatrade Trophy final. I would imagine that this will mean a start for Kevin Foley, and possibly the likes of Marcus Tudgay and Callum Reilly. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the game where Michael Folivi finally makes an appearance.
Last Time We Met
Our last game against Rochdale was probably one of the most one-sided games I’ve ever seen us win. Of course, it was one-sided in favour of Rochdale, and I’m still not sure how we won it. Right from the very off, the away side at the Ricoh Arena pressed us all over the pitch, fashioning several great chances and making it difficult for us to string two passes together. Somehow, we took the lead when Ruben Lameiras broke free and teed up Dan Agyei to scuff the ball into the back of the net.
The second-half followed a similar script, and to cap off what an odd game it was, Andre Wright scored a decisive second goal for us from a Lewis Page cross. To sum up the man, Wright stayed on the pitch long after the final whistle to watch the replay of his goal on the big screen.
How Are They Doing?
Having been in the play-off places around the turn of the year, Rochdale have had a poor 2017, winning just four of 16 games. Somehow though, they still harbour half a chance of making the play-offs heading into this fixture, sitting six points off sixth place with three games to go.
Despite it probably being too late to salvage a play-off spot, Keith Hill is still doing a remarkable job at Rochdale. With one of the division’s smallest budgets, Rochdale have consistently been close to the play-off spots over the past three seasons, playing a brand of football that is both pleasing to watch but with a competitive, physical edge that can make them one of the most difficult teams to play against in this division.
The trifecta of Callum Camps and Jamie Allen in midfield with Ian Henderson in attack has often been the key to Rochdale’s success over the past few years. Camps and Allen are delightful and mobile ball-playing midfielders who control possession in midfield, while Henderson is a real dynamo in attack, capable of sliding players through with wonderfully precise passes or finishing chances off with unerring nerve in front of goal.
Additionally, the form of winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and left-back Joe Bunney has added further quality and cutting edge to Rochdale’s play this season. Mendez-Laing has been one of those wingers who has threatened for many years to become a consistently decisive player and has finally made that breakthrough this season. Bunney, although he’s struggled with injuries at times, has been converted from a frustrating striker into a marauding left-back with wonderful delivery this season and has been a reliable source of assists from open play and set-pieces.
Rochdale have a physical edge to their game, with players like target-man striker Calvin Andrew and defensive enforcers such as Keith Keane and Jim McNulty to call upon, although that edge to their game often manifests itself in zealous pressing and the ability to commit niggly fouls to break up opposition attacks that fall under the radar of referees. Another edge to Rochdale’s game also comes from Keith Hill’s ability to switch things up tactically to exploit an opposition weakness.
I’m struggling to see how the players will be mentally ready to throw everything they have at a difficult away game against a side still harboring play-off ambitions. We have won just once on the road all season, and to double that number now that relegation has been confirmed seems unlikely. The only hope is that the lack of pressure allows the team to express itself rather than provides an excuse for giving up.
Nonetheless, this looks all set for a comfortable 2-0 victory for Rochdale.