A Taylor Richards’ brace saw Rovers pick up three points on the road against Rochdale in their penultimate away game of the 2020/21 season.
The home side weren’t able to make their dominant possession count and even though Matty Done did get a goal back late in the game to make for a frantic final ten minutes, it wasn’t enough for The Dale to save themselves from the relegation.
There was a lot riding on the match for Rochdale who needed a win to keep their survival hopes alive. Despite that, the club still took a moment to celebrate James Coppinger’s Tom Finney Award, with The Dale’s club captain Eoghan O’Connell presenting him with a bottle of champagne ahead of kick-off.
Andy Butler made two changes to his side that fought back to pick up an impressive point in Peterborough in midweek. Omar Bogle and Josh Sims were replaced by Tyreece John-Jules and Taylor Richards. Brian Barry-Murphy also made two changes with Aaron Morley and Matthew Lund returning to the starting XI. Jimmy McNulty and Connor Shaughnessy dropped to the bench.
The match started quite slowly with both teams truing to play their way into things with passing football and mostly cancelling each other out. They exchanged half-chances early on Joe Wright was on hand to turn a Ryan McLaughlin cross behind (though it was probably closer to his own goal than the centre-back playing right-back would have liked).
At the other end, Jason Lokilo who carried his form from midweek into the game provided Rovers first half-chance when his effort from John-Jules lay-off was fired wide and it was the Belgian who would play Fejiri Okenabirhie through only for Jay Lynch to make a decent stop from close range to deny Rovers’ top goal scorer.
When the game did settle, it was Rochdale seized control of possession with Rovers seemingly content with using the pace of John-Jules, Lokilo, and Okenabirhie to hit the home side on the break.
Matty Done looked the most likely for The Dale in the early exchanges he had decent efforts blocked by Butler and saved by Louis Jones and dragged a third wide of the near post and the visiting defence had to ride their luck when the home side hit the woodwork with a header before Butler bundled the follow-up effort off the bar and got back up to clear another.
The player-manager was on hand again to prevent Matthew Lund’s stinging effort from distance and centre-back partner Tom Anderson denied Ollie Rathbone from a similar position.
On the break, Rovers did look dangerous, but The Dale’s centre-backs were martialling the young forwards well winning free-kicks and fouls that frustrated the forward players, particularly John-Jules who struggled to get beyond O’Connell and Gabriel Osho.
Just before the half-hour mark, Rovers had a period of possession which started with smart play out from the back, building through the thirds and pinging the ball around the opposition box with speed and purpose. The first chance came from a looping cross to the back post by Branden Horton which was headed on target by Butler but didn’t have the power to trouble Lynch but if that was a warning, it wasn’t heeded by the home side.
The goal when it came was the produce of good play down the right by Lokilo. He used his skill and trickery to wrong-foot his marker and play the ball into the box – a couple of loose touch Richards who had found a pocket of space between the centre-backs and was able to tuck the ball away for his second goal in two games, and Lokilo’s third assist.
The home side almost had an immediate response Jimmy Keohane forcing a save from Jones down to his right, but Rovers, once again, showed their counter-attacking prowess going straight down the other end with Horton. His cross found Richards who was denied by a last-ditch block.
The Dale soon wrestled back control of possession without putting Rovers under any real pressure as they continued to look for the perfect pass. In the final minutes of the game, they had a few efforts from distance: Jones made another save to deny Keohane through a crowd of bodies, Conor Grant’s thunderbolt was blocked by Okenabirhie, and Rathbone saw a strike late in the half deflected for a corner.
Rovers started the second half stronger and had a couple of early half-chances. Richards’ shot-cum-cross flashed across the face of goal and Horton was close to his first goal in professional football when his ball to the far post was just played just wide.
Rochdale continued to work the ball for the perfect shot and for all of their possession and nice football the chances they created were few and far between. They did work the ball to Done – who continued to look the most likely goal-threat – after some more good work by Rathbone but The Dale’s midfielder really should have done better when the ball was working to him in the 18-yard-box. He side-footed it over the cross bar from close range.
Rovers, however, were clinical with their chances. Lokilo picked up the ball high up the pitch, worked the ball to John-Jules and his through-ball split the defence and found Richards who had curved his run. Left one-on-one with Lynch, there was only ever going to be one outcome.
John-Jules was close to compounding the troubles for The Dale when some sloppy passing around the defence from the home side meant he picked up a loose ball and was allowed to drive at the back four. He opted to shoot from the edge of the box forcing a save from Lynch.
The hour-mark brought a triple change for Rovers with Lokilo, John-Jules, and Richards withdrawn to be replaced by Bogle, Coppinger and Sims. Rochdale also made a series of substitutions and Stephen Humphrys’ introduction almost proved an inspired move when his effort from the edge of the box through a sea of bodies required a smart stop by Jones to keep it out.
And it was Rovers’ substitute Sims who went closest to a third for Butler’s men. Bogle worked the ball to him in the box but his effort on the spin was well saved by Lynch.
The home side got one back with less than ten minutes remaining. A ball to the back post was struck on target by Done drawing an impressive stop by Jones but the rebound fell back to Done who couldn’t miss from two yards and sent it into the roof of the net.
Coppinger probably should have done better with his effort late on – he was picked out by Smith but the veteran looked caught in two minds about whether to blast it or curl it around Lynch and ended up doing neither with the ball rolling to keeper.
With a massive six minutes added on at the end of the game, if the home side were waiting for one more big chance - that chance was going to fall to Coppinger who didn't get enough on the chip to beat Lynch when he was played through.
The full-time whistle signalled three-points for Rovers, and relegation for Rochdale.