The result, no matter how it ends up, is only ever going to be part of the story of tonight. The broader issue – that of the coming of age, the arrival, the moment and the principle – will remain unbattered and unbowed no matter what happens at Spotland tonight. These are the days that money can’t buy, an evening that will live with the supporters of FC United of Manchester for the rest of their lives. It is their club and their rules, and tonight is their moment in the sun. The sunny disposition of the habitual underdog going into a big match just determined to “enjoy the occasion”, however, hardly seems likely to be hard-wired into the DNA of the supporters of this club, though. Making friends not millionaires, yes, but this doesn’t have to preclude a burning, searing desire to win.
Over the last few weeks, the media has descended on the club like a pack of wolves and, unsurprisingly, the club has lapped the attention up, never missing a trick to make their point and push their agenda. To this extent, their very appearance in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup is a victory in itself and amount of goodwill from all quarters today has been no less than staggering. We can see in this goodwill the extent of the sea-change of opinion within English football. This club isn’t a bunch of cranks with an idiot agenda. This an alternative – the alternative – way of doing things and its success cannot and should not be judged upon whether they can or should beat a team four divisions above them. And this goodwill matters. “No-one likes us, we don’t care”, is a dismal motto. FC United of Manchester will make friends no matter what the final score this evening.
Fifteen minutes before kick-off, Spotland is already jumping. The television cameras vibrate from the noise of the crowd. The singing is a pure wall of sound. “Bring On United! Bring On United!”, they scream before the watching world. The scale of the job ahead of the team is obvious – Rochdale broke out of League Two after thirty-six years of stasis and are holding their own in League One, although their recent form hasn’t been great. They were also handed a respite from the relentless schedule of the Football League when their match on Tuesday night was abandoned amid something approaching monsoon conditions. Within a couple of minutes, the gap between the teams seems apparent. Slack defending allows Rochdale a sight at goalkeeper Sam Ashton’s goal and the ball is scrambled wide for a corner. From the corner the ball seems to strike the arm of a defender but, after a massive appeal, nothing is given.
Rochdale continue to apply pressure, but FC United settle and absorb it with increasing ease as the half progresses. There is something of the Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde about their form in the league this season – six wins and six defeats from twelve matches in the Evostik League Premier Division so far this season – and how this evening might turn out for them may well depend upon which FC United team turns out this evening. Slowly,though, the worm starts to turn and the visitors start to push forward. Carlos Roca dribbles a shot straight at the goalkeeper. Michael Norton shoots narrowly wide. Rochdale find gaps at the back and have decent chances themselves as well, but FC United are holding their own and the worst case scenario – a hiding out of sight – diminishes as the half wears on. And then…
There are three minutes to play of the half when it happens. The ball is nudged through to Nicky Platt and the Rochdale defence is suddenly absent without leave. Platt draws the Rochdale goalkeeper Lillis and lifts the ball calmly over him and into the back of the net. Pandemonium. A section of the crowd is on the pitch but there is no malice here – this is just sheer, unrestrained joy and disbelief. It is defiant, unrestrained and may be misunderstood by those that seek to misunderstand them at every turn. It is, in its own way, a microcosm of this unique football club. Half-time comes in a flash and the teams leave the pitch to a crescendo of noise. It has been a remarkable, exhilirating, exhausting forty-five minutes of football, and this has only been the first half.
If the first half ended with the realisation that something unbelievable might just be possible, the second starts with a bolt of lightning. It’s smart, thoughtful play from FC United on the left-hand side, and the ball is rolled back to Jake Cotterill, who… thrashes it into the top left-hand corner of the net off the underside of the crossbar to double their lead with a shot reminiscent, oddly, of the best of mid-1960s Bobby Charlton. From now on, though, the going gets tougher and within four minutes Rochdale are back in the game as Anthony Elding heads in from a free-kick. Rochdale, the full-time club, start to assert their superior fitness and better organisation. FC United passes start to run astray. The vice tightens and it feels like only a matter of time before the League One club draws level.
FC United hold on for as long as they can – and considerably longer than we might have expected – but the equalising goal evetually arrives with a crushing sense of inevitability with thirteen minutes left to play. A corner from the left is met by Craig Dawson, who heads, unmarked, into an empty goal. The moment for FC United to win this match may have passed, but there is still so much to play for. Thirteen minutes plus stoppage time to hang on for a replay and all that comes with it. The revenue from a second match. A place in the Second Round draw. The headlines. A point having been proven. It’s still all there, but the FC United philosophy is to play to win and they still press in the closing stages, winning a couple of corners with three minutes left to play.
There are some moments when a double-take isn’t enough. The world slows and a possibly innate feeling that somehow, something – a whistle, a flag, something – will snatch this moment away grows within the stomach. This time, though, it doesn’t come. It’s a harmless ball down the left channel of the Rochdale penalty area and it should be routine for the Rochdale goalkeeper Lillis to gather the ball. The ball, however, squeezes free to Michael Norton, who steps inside and rolls the ball into the open goal. A nudge on the defender? Possibly. Did the goalkeeper have the ball in his hands? Maybe. Such considerations, however, are lost in the stunned, disbelieving chaos as the referee signals a goal. There are five seconds left to play in injury time. A game that has ebbed, flowed and pushed everybody watching to the point of exhaustion has reached a denouement that could never have been scripted for the fear of being considered too far fetched. It has been football as something approaching an out of body experience.
With the full-time whistle comes a moment to pause and reflect, at long last. The scale of the achievement, an away win at a club four divisions above them, cannot be understated, and that – that, of all things – isn’t the main point of this evening. Over three thousand of their supporters managed a spectacle tonight that was living, breathing, singing, shouting vindication of everything that they have been working so hard for and, on top of that, the team raised its game to the bar set by the supporters and both groups can be equally proud of each other. Rochdale can be justifiably angry at the smash and grab nature of the winning goal, but over the ninety minutes they were pushed every inch of the way. Sometimes the breaks go against you, and as the side four divisions higher up the pyramid, they should never have been in the position that they were in going into injury time in the first place.
Rochdale’s shortcomings, however, for another day. This evening was all about FC United of Manchester – this extraordinary club, a club which this evening came to resemble a force of nature. Every derisory comment and every sneering aside was cast away as, in front of an audience that sucked into the utter drama and spectacle of the evening, the club, as if it ever needed to, they justified and vindicated every shred of every step that they have taken on their road so far. And deep inside the rest of us, sitting at home, watching on the television, chewing our fingernails to the bone, came the feeling that this is what it’s all about. The romance of the cup is one thing, as is the priceless nature of what the supporters – and owners – of their club experienced tonight. With the full time whistle this evening there was no ending. This is a story that will keep running and running – the party has only just started.
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