A trip to Spotland to ring in the new season..
(updated following technical hitch where half of the post was missing!)
It is often said that the first day of the new season is Christmas day for football fans. Everyone is on a level pegging and the nine months ahead are filled with promise, like a beautiful new leather-bound notepad, whose pristine blank pages are there to be written in.
That most notepads are destined to be filled with doodles rather than the germs of ideas that will form a novel to rival that of Hemingway or Kerouac matters not at this stage, it is the hope and aspiration that provides the ink for the pages.
On 3rd August this year, Christmas arrived early. Thanks to the excellent Rochdale AFC In the Community initiative – and my son’s sponsored penalty-taking prowess at their school training event – family tickets were secured for us to kick the season off with a visit to our most local league ground, Spotland.
Spotland, Rochdale welcomes the new season
Accompanied by my son and a truly Grumpy Old Fan (my Spanish father-in-law, a Real Madrid supporter), we set off in a blazing August sunshine that ought to have been set to the sound of leather against willow rather than the strains of a season opener between Rochdale AFC vs. Hartlepool United.
That the sun showed up was a relief to El Guapo as he had already intimated a reluctance to venture in to the Pennines should the forecast of rain ring true. I assured him that Spotland had a roof. He needn’t have worried.
We enjoyed some quick refuelling at the pub adjoining the ground, a friendly affair with both sets of supporters partaking in their pre-match pie and chips, washed down by lovely cask ales without antagonism. All very civilised.
El Viejo Takes His Seat At Spotland
Once inside Spotland, El Guapo looked around, nodding his approval as he carefully sought out the best position to enjoy the sunshine. “This is not bad. Very nice.” As if he had expected to be faced with something akin to Hackney Marshes with a turnstile.
The ground exudes that peculiar charm that many in the lower leagues have. No identikit bowl, this. Spotland was resplendent in its pre-season glory: the small terraces were framed by abundantly green trees and the virgin turf glistened in the sunlight following the sprinkling of water that had been applied pre-match.
A particular favourite sight of mine is the glimpse of another kind of terrace in one corner of the ground – the opening between two stands giving a small view of a row of red-brick houses, a reminder of the outside world that you seldom get at many grounds now.
Tight against the pitch in parts, yet seemingly with space to wander around and chat with friends the stands offer those wonderful acoustics that we love to hear at football, brought about by the low roofs and corrugated metal.
For my son, however, the lack of Double-Deckers at the kiosk threatened to bring in the first rainclouds of the day.
For him, the day was saved by my handing over a bag of Oreo cookies. For me, it was not so good.
A better view of a cracking opening goal from Scott Hogan for Rochdale could not have been wished for. However, I missed the goal as I was buying the biscuits. And a pie.
Hartlepool United showed all the signs of a side who will struggle this season – and their continued poor form so far has echoed these early thoughts. Their travelling support had little to cheer and it wasn’t a surprise to feel a change of atmosphere as the game neared its end. A steady stream began to escape back to the North East as early as ten minutes from time, causing the stewards to close our nearest gate and turning El Guapo in to El Grumpo.
There is a lack of bling, certainly, but what did shine through – as with the sight of the terraced houses – was that the club and community are still very much intertwined. Which is something that seems lost to the giant behemoths who report streams of new deals for official paint suppliers and potato snack manufacturers in far-flung corners of the world.
It could have just been the conditions. It was unusual weather for these parts, and that aforementioned unadulterated piece of notepaper served to keep the mood light – unless you were a Hartlepool fan – but people chatted, wandered around, waved at friends and relaxed.
Further visits deeper in to the season in more inclement (proper football) weather are in order, I think, to reappraise – and for the ale, of course.
As if to underline just how relaxing the whole day was, I was entertained by eavesdropping on a seemingly knowledgeable chap behind me, telling tales of away days last season and extolling the virtues of various players, particularly the Dale’s goalkeeper, Josh Lillis (who, incidentally, had a fine game).
I turned to the young man for more information on the man between the sticks. “How long has he been at the club?” I asked.
“I don’t know, actually…” was the reply.