The Hatters’ first league meeting with Rochdale for 15 years saw them continue their winning February run, after they edged out their struggling hosts by the odd goal in three at Spotland.
Their fifth successive win of the month saw them move up two positions to fourth, just a single point away from the automatic promotion places, after an early second-half Will Collar brace secured maximum points, in spite of a late consolation goal for bottom-of-the-table ‘Dale’.
County took to the field for the rescheduled fixture on a clear and mild evening with the same line-up as that which had started the previous three matches. But there were two changes to the bench named against Stevenage at Edgeley Park three days earlier – with newly-arrived midfielder Jacob Davenport, and Fraser Horsfall, whose return to the squad came almost eight weeks after he had been injured at Walsall in the final game of 2022, replacing Joe Grayson and Joe Lewis.
The Rochdale starters included two players – namely, Danny Lloyd and Devante Rodney – who had once plied their trade for County. Scott Quigley, however, did not participate for the hosts, in accordance with the terms of his season-long loan from SK3. Of other ex-Hatters now at Spotland, James Ball and Jim McNulty were omitted, while goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell missed out after suffering an injury at home to Gillingham over the weekend.
Following 11 minutes of opening exchanges that saw neither final third unduly threatened, the inaugural shot of the night, half-volleyed by former Dale double-centurion, Callum Camps, from the edge of the area, went incredibly close to troubling the scorers at his first club as it struck the left post before rebounding to safety.
With 25 minutes on the clock, a Chris Hussey free-kick fell to Ryan Croasdale, whose shot was blocked by Toby Mullarkey, once of Altrincham, before home goalkeeper Jake Eastwood saved Kyle Wootton’s follow-up.
County continued to apply the pressure, through Collar and Tanto Olaofe, who fired their respective shots straight at Eastwood and wide of the left upright. But at the other end, the pair of one-time Hatters combined well to go close 10 minutes before half-time, as Lloyd broke and fed Rodney, whose dipping shot from outside the area rattled the crossbar.
HALF-TIME: Rochdale 0, County 0.
The hosts launched the initial attempt on goal by either side following the resumption – with D’Mani Mellor’s shot taking a deflection behind off another former Rochdale player, Neill Byrne. But the first County foray of the new half, nine minutes later, saw Myles Hippolyte upended in the box by Jimmy Keohane, and the award of the penalty that would break the deadlock.
Collar stepped up to send his kick from 12 yards down the middle and convert from with aplomb – before adding his and County’s second goal a couple of minutes later. A long clearance by Ben Hinchliffe was flicked on by Wootton to the goal-scorer on the right, from where he cut in to fire an angled thunderbolt past Eastwood.
Dale brought on all-time record scorer, Ian Henderson, as half of an attacking double-substitution shortly after the hour-mark – and, three minutes later, a former Hatter again struck the County woodwork, as Lloyd’s shot from distance was deflected by Byrne on to the right post. And Lloyd went close once more half a dozen minutes from time with a venomous half-volley that Hinchliffe did well to parry around the right post.
From the resulting corner, delivered by Lloyd, Mularkey bundled the ball in from close range to reduce Rochdale’s arrears, as well as leaving close to 3,000 travelling County fans with a few nerves to combat in the closing stages – but, on the pitch, the Hatters saw out proceedings safely to propel themselves within touching distance of those all-important top three places.
FULL-TIME: Rochdale 1 (Mullarkey, 85), County 2 (Collar, 55 (penalty) and 57).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Byrne, Hussey; Knoyle, Camps (Davenport, 83), Croasdale (Capt.), Collar, Hippolyte (Rydel, 83); Olaofe (Stretton, 83), Wootton.
[Debut for Jacob Davenport, with a unique SCAN (Stockport County Appearance Number) of 1446.]
Unused Subs: Jaros, Horsfall, Evans, R. Johnson.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.