‘It was like the two weeks leading up an All-Ireland’

Right then, all set for the weekend’s big one in Blighty?

‘It was like the two weeks leading up an All-Ireland’

No, not Manchester United v Chelsea or even – oh, be still my beating heart - the Caribou Cup decider, silly. I am referring, of course, to today’s meeting of third from top against second from bottom in League One.

Or, as we now prefer to think of it: quadruple-deniers Wigan Athletic at home to Wembley-bound Rochdale.

I mean, who needs Paul Pogba when you can have Will Grigg? Or Eden Hazard when you’ve got Ryan Delaney?

Writing in the Independent in England recently, Jonathan Liew wittily dissected the thorny problem of how to go about saving the FA Cup.

His solution? “Easy: just reintegrate the Premier League back into the Football League, convince Uefa to restore the Champions League to a straight knockout format, rebuild the Iron Curtain, uninvent the smartphone and satellite dish, and reverse three decades of global capitalism.”

Indeed. Or, as a slightly handier alternative, you could just ask for more of the same, please, from Wigan and Rochdale.

The Champions League has provided us with plenty of state of the art football entertainment over the past couple of weeks – Man U excepted, obviously, unless you count the way their grim demeanour in Seville sent Didi doolally out in Montrose – but not even Messi or Mane or Ronaldo or Lewandowski or even the bould Fred with his stunning free kick for Shakhtar against Roma, could stir the romantic soul and bring football lovers to their feet in quite the same way that Will Grigg did with his winner for Wigan against Man City or Steve Davies with his 93rd minute equaliser for the Dale against Spurs.

In our house which, for the record - and to paraphrase the sage Muircheartaigh - is not a Rochdale stronghold, we were off the sofa and roaring like Spotland ultras when the ball hit the corner of the net, so you can only imagine what the mood must have been like in the home dugout.

In fact, you don’t have to imagine: just ask Rochdale’s Cork coach Brian Barry-Murphy (or as another Corkonian of my acquaintance prefers to call him: ‘Son of God’).

Brian freely admits that, when Harry Kane tucked away a penalty to give Spurs a 2-1 lead with just two minutes of normal time remaining - after Ian Henderson’s opener for the home side had been cancelled out by Lucas Moura – he thought the game was up for the underdogs.

“I did, definitely,” he tells me. “Our manager (Keith Hill) had insisted we have a go off of them from the word go and have no regrets, and I thought we put so much into the game that if we ever went behind in the second half we’d find it very hard to summon the energy to go again.”

With Rochdale already wrestling with a fixtures backlog, gallows humour prevailed on the sideline after Kane had done what Kane does and just before Steve Davies earned himself an immortal supersub billing.

“We were saying to each other in the dug-out, ‘sure, a draw wouldn’t have been any good to us anyway, we have too many games’,” Brian laughs. “Trying to put a positive spin on it.”

The magnitude of Rochdale’s achievement in holding Spurs – and the heart-stopping way in which it ultimately came to pass - reinforced for Barry-Murphy how special the tarnished old FA Cup can still be, especially for the game’s lesser lights.

“At our level it still really excites,” he says. “I never saw the town of Rochdale transform in such a short space of time from when we beat Millwall and drew Tottenham. No matter how hard we tried to protect the lads from it, the town was only focused on one thing.

"It was huge for the people in the area. I was thrown by the extent of it myself. It was like the two weeks leading up to the All-Ireland final. It was as big as that over here, I swear.”

Wednesday night saw a return to basics as Rochdale shared a scoreless draw with MK Dons in a relegation scrap but the point was to be welcomed for at least lifting the home side off the bottom of the table with those precious games still in hand.

And while Barry-Murphy insists minds are now fully trained on today’s trip to meet with the team which, under the guidance of ex-Sligo Rovers boss Paul Cook, so thrillingly blasted Man City’s aura of invincibility, he happily observes that “the lads are still high as kites” about the prospect of heading down Wembley way on Wednesday.

And that replay date with Spurs also means that, for a few more days at least, Wexford man Ryan Delaney remains on course to become a back to back FAI and FA Cup winner!

“He had an unbelievable season with Cork City,” says Barry-Murphy of the big defender, “but when he came back to Burton they were signing a lot of players and it was to our luck to get him in here.

"I think he very much wants to prove himself in the UK and we can give him the platform to hopefully do that. He’s a very popular lad here”

And clearly now relishing one of the times of his football life at the League One club. As, it seems, are all the players, even the walking wounded.

“Sure the minute we got the draw against Spurs all the injured lads seemed to be recovering miraculously,” Brian chuckles.

As for the Rochdale faithful, try telling them that the FA Cup has lost its magic.

“They were queuing out of the ground this week,” he reports. “They were saying there’ll be seven and a half thousand tickets available for Wembley.

"Everyone you meet in the street says they’re going. And, unlike the All-Ireland final, tickets are accessible so we’ll be bringing a huge crowd down.”

And, such is the romantic allure of the giant-killer, those numbers will be swelled by an even bigger crowd roaring them on from over hill and Dale and far away.

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