Distant view of Wembley totally obscured as Doncaster Rovers fall to shoot-out defeat against Rochdale
ROCHDALE famously spent 36 consecutive years locked in the basement of the Football League, a record that is unlikely to ever be broken.
At times during a spell that only ended in 2010 via promotion to League One, the Spotland faithful must have despaired of ever seeing their side escape such a treadmill-like existence.
Football supporters whose teams have plied their trade in the third and fourth tiers for the past two seasons will recognise such a helpless feeling when it comes to the now interminable group stage of the Checkatrade Trophy.
Since the ‘revamp’ of two summers ago that changed what had been a one-off game in late August to a marathon three-game series that stretches into December for some clubs, the first round has been reduced to a dreary slog that has turned most fans off long before the chill of winter starts to bite.
The arrival of the knockout phase, therefore, is to be welcomed – even if this was not reflected in the attendance of just 786 last night as Dale hosted Doncaster Rovers, a figure that included 103 hardy souls from south Yorkshire.
Such lethargy is perhaps understandable; on such a bitingly cold night the prospect of a Wembley final seemed a lot further away for either club than four victories.
Nevertheless, Rochdale are this morning a step closer to a possible appearance under the Arch after holding their nerve in a penalty shoot-out.
Tommy Rowe, brought on in the final minute after Ben Whiteman was unable to continue through injury, was the unfortunate man to be denied from the spot with the tenth and final spot-kick.
Josh Lillis was the hero for the home side, diving low to his right to keep out a firmly struck effort.
It meant successful penalties from Niall Mason, Liam Mandeville, Issam Ben Khemis and Craig Alcock were to no avail as Doncaster crashed out at the second-round stage on penalties for the second year running, Blackpool doing the honours 12 months ago.
On the balance of play across the 90 minutes, Dale just about deserved to progress after creating the better chances.
Keith Hill’s men had gone ahead just after the half-hour, a neat passing move ending with Andrew Cannon being bundled to the floor by Harry Toffolo
Referee Darren Handley had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Matthew Gillam sent Marko Marosi the wrong way from 12 yards.
Up to that point, Rovers had seemed the more likely side to break the deadlock with Matty Blair having had an early shot cleared off the line before later bringing a fine save from Lillis.
Once behind, however, the visitors struggled and were fortunate not to fall further behind either side of the break.
First, Calvin Andrew headed just wide when unmarked six yards out and then Marosi had to be at his agile best to keep out a searing drive from Callum Camps.
Another let-off followed as the tie moved into the final quarter when Mark Kitching headed over after being picked out by Joseph Bunney’s pinpoint cross.
It proved a costly miss as Rovers, after Alfie Beestin had almost wriggled his way through, pulled level against the run of play. A lovely through ball released Mandeville, who finished with aplomb past Lillis.
Seventeen minutes remained, but the closest the tie came to a winner in normal time was when a looping header in stoppage-time from Dale substitute Jordan Williams was flicked to safety from underneath his own crossbar by Mathieu Baudry.
This meant penalties, but any hopes of Rovers taking a step towards a possible day out at Wembley were dashed by Lillis’s save from Rowe.