Checkatrade Trophy Preview: Saying hello to an old friend

Once upon a time Rochdale and Lincoln was a staple of the football calendar. Throughout my younger years we were both Division Four, Division Three and the League Two sides, constantly pitted against each other in a never-ending cycle of averageness. Spotland was rarely a nice place to visit, they inevitably travelled poorly and sure enough, next season we were back battling out to find out which of us was slightly better for another year.

Eventually though, everything changes. Kingdoms rise and fall, land masses disappear into the sea and, after 36 consecutive years, Rochdale get promoted. For the last seven I’ve missed our yearly tussles with them, instead they’ve faced Blackburn, Sheffield United and even Leicester, whilst we’ve visited Telford, Bath and Ebbsfleet. Tomorrow we may not be visiting on entirely equal terms, but with eight positions between us, it’s as near as we’ve been for a long time.

They stand between us and moving a step closer to Wembley, we come sandwiched in between an unlikely FA Cup win for them and a crucial league campaign. They might have only beaten Doncaster, a side in the same league as them, but with only four wins in the league all season it must have felt like a giant-killing.

Speaking of giant-killings, it is almost a year since we defeated Ipswich in the FA Cup, curiously the referee tomorrow night is Ben Toner, the same man who took charge of that historic evening at the start of 2017. Is it an omen? Let’s hope so.

Rochdale and City have met on 111 occasions in the past, City narrowly winning more games, 41 to 38. We haven’t registered a win over the imaginatively nicknamed ‘Dale’ since 2008 when Jamie Forrester and Danny Hone gave us a 2-1 victory at the Bank. Rene Howe scored that day and as we know, he went on to become an Imps legend player. Of sorts.

The last time they beat us was in 2009 on their last visit to Sincil Bank. It was not long after Chris Sutton took over and a disjointed City went down 3-1, Chris Herd scoring our only goal in a game we could (and should) have lost 6-0. Rochdale had evolved by then, Keith Hill had got them playing as a slick unit and he’d recruited incredibly well. Chris O’Grady scored and Chris Dagnall played a blinder. Somehow we managed to draw 1-1 with them later in the season on our last visit to Spotland, Chris Herd also scored that day, although Dagnall equalised with twenty minutes to spare. It’s worth pointing out we featured Drewe Broughton, Stephen Lennon, Paul Connor, Ian Pearce and Moses Swaibu that afternoon, for anyone panicking that our current squad might not be good enough.

One very famous game against Dale in 2006 saw us win 7-1. City were superb that afternoon, little did we know it would be one of the final times we asserted any dominance over them in an awfully long time. That came at the height of Stallard and Forrester’s electric partnership with a youthful Lee Frecklington pulling the strings in the middle of the park. That afternoon will remain with me for ever and rightly so.

History doesn’t win you football games though and despite a decade of success (of sorts) for them and the same period of despair for us, tomorrow night we probably go into the game as favourites. As ludicrous as it might sound, they’re struggling and likely to play an under-strength side tomorrow. For all our perceived issues, we’ve not really got an under-strength side to put out and despite the furore over players leaving, we’re in great form. I guarantee they won’t want to get involved in a battle with us and you know Danny as well as I do; he’ll be going out to win this game at all costs. He wants to go to Wembley, I want to go to Wembley and this is a great opportunity to do so. 16 players or not, we’ve got to be favourites tomorrow night.

Their form really does stink too. Whilst we’ve lost one in eight, they’ve won just two in eight, both in the FA Cup. They’re at this stage of the Checkatrade by virtue of a penalty shoot-out against Doncaster after a 90 minute draw. They also drew with Blackburn and Stoke U21s, meaning they’ve only won one game in the competition. We’ve got a 100% record, no penalty shoot-outs, no draws and no fuss.

They’ll make changes but not necessarily wholesale ones. For the match against Doncaster they made five change from the team that played in the league a couple of days earlier, but whether that will change now they’re fighting in the FA Cup remains to be seen. Joe Bunney, Daniel Adshead and Kgosietsile Ntlhe are the only three players to have played in all four of their matches so far, so expect to see them tomorrow night for sure.

Despite being shot shy, one player who did have a few efforts in his two games is Jordan Slew. He was on trial at City before signing for Dale on a short-term deal and he had 12 efforts in just two games, scoring once. He hasn’t played since November though and his short-term deal runs out this week, so it is likely we’ll not see him tomorrow.

Despite all the signs pointing towards a City win, it isn’t going to be straightforward. Winning is a habit and after grabbing the cup win, Keith Hill will want to keep his side in that habit. A win tomorrow night might build confidence ahead of Gillingham on Saturday, plus it’ll haul Wembley one step closer. When a competition gets to this late stage, does any team really go out half-hearted? Of course not, which is why any sort of result tomorrow will be excellent for the Imps.