First published in League Express, Mon 23rd Sept 2013
The last time Rochdale Hornets made a final, the Charlatans topped the UK charts, a pint of beer cost £1.40 and only Wigan won Challenge Cups.
This Sunday, the club will end a 22-year wait to appear in a final – the longest of any in the professional game.
Back in 1991, when they were seen as one of the strongest clubs outside the top flight, having just been relegated, Rochdale made the last two of the Lancashire Cup, taking on St Helens in front of 9,269 at Wilderspool.
A team including Martin Hall, Mike Kuiti and Matt Calland actually led big pre-match favourites Saints 10-8 at half-time, before falling to a creditable 24-14 defeat.
After over two decades of disappointment and a handful of near misses, one of the sport’s founder members now has the chance to earn promotion back to the second tier in Sunday’s Championship One play-off final.
It hasn’t been an easy road for coach Ian Talbot and his squad for much of this year.
They lost six of their 16 league matches, including a mid-season slump that hit a major low with a 48-0 thrashing at North Wales Crusaders and defeat at Hemel Stags the following Sunday.
But in recent weeks Talbot has been able to name a more settled side, and in their two play-off games they have shown a steely resolve that should serve them well at Leigh Sports Village this weekend.
First they saw off the determined challenge of London Skolars at Spotland, recording a nail-biting 26-24 win.
Seven days later it was even closer, as Hornets edged out local rivals Oldham in awful conditions, reaching the final at the first attempt with a 23-22 win.
The key man in both matches was stand-off Paul Crook, with his kicking game crucial to the victories.
The former Widnes playmaker booted the decisive penalty from inside his own half in the first game against the Skolars.
Then last week, he kicked two 40/20s, five goals from as many attempts and the all-important drop-goal against the Roughyeds.
Crook is again likely to be their go-to man at Leigh on Sunday, and there are few better in-field kicking games outside Super League.
Coach Talbot deserves considerable credit for the way he has held the squad together this season in far from straightforward circumstances.
He has been hit by injuries to key players, and with a small squad Hornets relied heavily on their dual-registration link with St Helens at times early in the season, which wasn’t always successful.
But when the side was at its lowest, after the Crusaders defeat at Wrexham, Talbot fronted supporters at a meeting, outlining his vision for the rest of the season.
His team has been much more settled in the latter stages of the campaign, and the dual-registration players that have remained, with prop Carl Forster the outstanding example, have been regulars in the side, which is how the system was initially intended to be used.
The mid-season return to Spotland of player and assistant-coach Chris Hough should not be underestimated either. Hough is a player with long-standing Hornets links, and one whose passion for the club shines through in every performance, not least against local rivals Oldham.
Rochdale-born fullback Wayne English, powerful centre Danny Davies and prolific winger Gareth Langley have been other key men, along with forwards John Cookson and Warren Thompson.
Now Talbot and his team stand one win away from the club’s ultimate goal in 2013 – promotion back into the Championship.
And for the club’s small but loyal band of supporters, it’s a first day at a final for 22 years. For those that were at Wilderspool back in 1991 it will be even more special.
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