1) Two minutes to go at Bloomfield Road, the January thaw complete, and Blackpool are somehow losing 2-1 at home to Watford. Sunday tabloid headline writers are preparing their best puns on the surname of Tom Cleverley, whose goal looks like winning it, although all the nearly-written reports have Watford’s goalkeeper Scott Loach down as man of the match.
Late comebacks are a bane for a football writer, particularly if you have to e-mail your report to the office as soon as the final whistle goes to meet a tight deadline.
So when Keith Southern equalises for Blackpool, there are sighs in the press box as the hasty re-writing begins, filled with clichés such as “salvaging a point” and “dramatic equaliser”. There is no time for flair.
As injury time begins, I look up from my laptop to see a tangerine-shirted striker stretch out a leg to score Blackpool’s winner. It takes me several seconds to figure out that it’s Brett Ormerod. “Dramatic equaliser” becomes “last-gasp winner that reignited Blackpool’s play-off charge”. It’s the start of a good year at Bloomfield Road.
The reporter next to me, who is from The People, or perhaps the Sunday Mirror, or perhaps the Mail on Sunday, leans over. “Did you see whose cross it was?” The reporter next to me, whoever they work for, almost never sees whose cross it was, regardless of whether it’s the 90th minute or the 19th, and almost always seems to think I might know. I rarely do. It’s the same when strangers stop me in the street to ask for directions, then look disappointed when I’m unable to help them. He goes and asks someone else.
Friends tell me I have one of those trustworthy faces, that I’m the sort of person who looks like he might know things. There was a time one summer when I wandered into HMV sporting a dark T-shirt, a bit like the ones the staff wear, and a woman asking me to help her find some CD or other seemed quite taken aback as I tried to convince her I didn’t work there. “Are you sure?” she asked.
People who see me initially as a solid, reliable type are invariably disappointed. A few days after Blackpool’s victory, my girlfriend of seven months rings to suggest we call it a day.
(If Opta did relationship stats – which they don’t, thank goodness – they might flag up the fact that this is the third time I’ve split up with a girlfriend in the final week of January. Maybe the combination of post-Christmas blues and the imminence of Valentine’s Day can make a faltering relationship seem intolerable. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. That’s the trouble with Opta: it only tells you what, never why.)
She does it as nicely as she can, and I know she’s right. I think she wants someone who isn’t off working every Saturday and Sunday. Who might, you know, actually spend a bit of time with her.
My first Saturday night after the break-up is spent watching Leicester and Newcastle play out a dreary goalless draw. I don’t have to worry about late re-writes.
2) In April, Rochdale win promotion from League Two, a division they have occupied under its various names for the last 36 years. I don’t support them, but feel pleased, as I might for a good-natured work colleague who has just won the Euro Millions.
Dale were in danger of relegation to the Conference when Keith Hill took over in December 2006. The first sign that he might be on to something good came about a month later when Dale, in the relegation zone, played at home to MK Dons, lying third. Hill’s side were three-up inside 15 minutes, and could have ended up with double figures. They had to settle for 5-0. Martin Allen, MK Dons’ voluble manager, was rendered near speechless.
Hill achieves Dale’s improvements without huge financial investment, selling talent such as Adam Le Fondre (to Rotherham) and Will Buckley (to Watford) to balance the books, bringing through players from the youth system and making judicious use of the loan market.
He takes the job seriously, but his sense of humour is never that far from the surface. Twice when I interview him for the Rochdale Observer towards the end of the year, he manages to slip song lyrics into the conversation: first Orange Juice, then TLC.
“I don’t want to rip it up and start again,” he says when I ask him about mid-season squad rebuilding plans around November. I put the question to him again just before Christmas. “We mustn’t go chasing players we can’t afford, Mike,” he says. “We can’t go chasing waterfalls.”
He likes his music, does Hill. Interviewed by Radio Manchester in early 2007, about three months after taking the Dale job, he was asked if he was a fan of traditional cup final football songs. “Not really,” he replied. “I’m more into Inspiral Carpets and the Stone Roses.” It’s not that unusual for a man in his early 40s to like that music, but it is unusual to hear those words from a football manager.
Dale’s matchday announcer is Dave Sweetmore, a club DJ who was worked with the Carpets, and is also a huge fan of Manchester’s music heritage of the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, Spotland is perhaps the only place where you can be guaranteed to hear The Smiths over the public address system in the hour before kick-off.
Despite a good start following promotion, Dale aren’t really good enough to survive in League One unless they sign a few players. The club haven’t overspent, though, and should be in decent shape for another promotion tilt if they are relegated. Should I speak to Hill in the next few weeks, I’m expecting a Chumbawumba reference.