Manchester City and Manchester United may live like kings, dining out on the excess of Premier League football, but this evening our attention turns to two of Manchester’s satellite clubs, both of whom may in the past have been considered also-rans of the local scene but both of whom, this season, are having rather good seasons – Bury and Rochdale. Rochdale have been in League Two for thirty six years, now. Having spent much of the late 1970s and the 1980s struggling to avoid eviction from the Football League but in truth they have only come close to managing it once in the last twenty years, when they finished third from bottom, in 2004. They have been ballast for much of this time, but having lost the play-off final last season they have sprouted wings this time and sit comfortably clear at the top of the table. Victory this evening will put them ten points clear at the top of the table.
Bury, meanwhile, have tasted a little more of the high life than their rivals, although their two seasons in what is now known as the Championship towards the end of the 1990s now seem like quite a long time ago. Their fall through the divisions since 1999 makes sobering reading for supporters of any club in the Football League. They were hit hard by the ITV Digital collapse in 2002 and dropped to twenty-first place in League Two in 2007, when they went into the final match of the season needing a point to guarantee that they would avoid relegation from the Football League. Since then, however, they have steadily improved and missed out on promotion by one goal to Wycombe Wanderers at the end of last season before losing to Shrewsbury Town over two legs in the play-offs. They sit in fourth place in the table, behind Rotherham United on goal difference, and a point tonight will put them back in the automatic promotion places.
There is a feeling of event at Gigg Lane this evening, and this is amplified by the presence of Sky Sports cameras at the ground. There can be precious few derby matches between the two clubs that have attracted this much interest for some considerable time. It is Bury, wearing a distinctive sky blue and brown halved shirt created to mark their 125th anniversary, that seem to grasp the nettle more quickly than Rochdale, who seem slightly nervous and make several mistakes early in the match. In spite of their dominance of possession, however, Bury can’t find a great deal of attacking rhythm and it is a scrappy first half, characterised by misplaced passes, poor control (something possibly exacerbated by a poor pitch that seems to be cutting up under the steady rain) and the overwhelming sense that these are two clubs set to cancel each other out. Rochdale are the division’s top scorers, but Bury’s Efe Sodje – who may or may not be wearing a woolly hat – seems to be enjoying the physical hustle and bustle of the occasion and keeps Rochdale’s main danger man, Chris O’Grady, pretty quiet. The best chance of the half falls to the Bury captain Stephen Dawson, who shoots first time from ten yards out only to see the ball palmed away by Rochdale’s pleasingly archaically named goalkeeper, Frank Fielding. Half-time comes with the two sides having completely cancelled each other out.
Anyone hoping for a considerable improvement is set to be disappointed. The play continues to be bitty, with both defences comfortaby on top and goalkeepers troubled only by shots that are straight at them or having to run behind the goal to pick up wayward shots and passes. With about twenty minutes left to play, though, Rochdale start to pick up the pace a little and it almost reaps them dividends. Tope Obadiyi robs a dallying Bury defender on the by-line and cuts inside. He rolls a perfect ball across the six yard area for O’Grady, who contrives to stab the ball wide of an open goal, although he is uner pressure as he does so. It doesn’t take long before they are paying for the miss, but it takes some sloppy defending for this to happen. A defender caught in possession forces a ricochet that bounces kindly for Ryan Lowe and Lowe’s, well, low shot beats Fielding at his near post to give Bury the lead. Rochdale finally start to show some of the urgency that they perhaps should have shown earlier in the match, but even with ten minutes to play, they seldom look much like scoring. A mishit cross bobbles across the Bury goal, but as the match ticks over into stoppage time Bury look the more likely team to score, with Andy Morrell getting free on the right hand side and firing over a cross-cum-shot that squirts across the face of goal. Full time brings all three points to Bury, who leapfrog over Rotherham and into third place in the table.
Rochdale’s lead at the top of the table, then, stays at seven points. Their reaction to this defeat – their first since November – will shape the rest of their season. Will end of season nerves now set in or will they recover their composure and kick on to win the promotion that their form for much of this season has suggested should be little more than a formality. Spring time, when the legs start to tire, is the toughest time of the season and those legs start to feel just a little heavier if form is drying up. It could be a weight of history that is hanging heavy on their shoulders. Thirty-six years in the same division is a long time and small psychological issues could become blown out of all proportion if they’re not kept in check. Bury, meanwhile, have the coveted third automatic promotion place, but, just below them, both Rotherham United and Notts County just below them with games in hand it seems unlikely that the automatic promotion places in League Two will settled much before the spring.