Words John Edwards | Pictures Jonathan Moore
Altrincham 3 Rochdale 0
ALTRINCHAM made history by hosting Rochdale in a league game for the first time on an afternoon that ended with an increasingly pertinent question forming on the lips of a growing number of Robins fans.
Could history possibly be beckoning Phil Parkinson's side again three months from now?
That is when two teams from the Vanarama National League meet head-on for the prize of accompanying the champions - Chesterfield, in other words - into the promised land of the Football League.
For years now, as the National League has become ever-more congested with big-budget ex-EFL clubs, it has been beyond Alty's wildest dreams. But not anymore.
The enticing prospect of a first-ever promotion to the fourth tier of English football is looking more attainable with each passing week, and it will be no less a realistic proposition after the way the Robins reclaimed fourth place by exacting ample revenge for their defeat at Rochdale towards the end of November.
This was an Alty side making light of conditions that could hardly be less suited to their preferred easy-on-the-eye passing style of football, and they were good value for a victory achieved with a close-range Justin Amaluzor finish just before half-time and two goals in as many second-half minutes from Regan Linney and the irrepressible Chris Conn-Clarke.
There are tough challenges ahead and Phil Parkinson will doubtless ensure feet stay firmly on the ground, but there is a sense of purpose and optimism around Moss Lane that is unmistakable.
Alty threatened in only the second minute with a move that ended with Linney having penalty appeals waved away.
A superb floated pass by Conn-Clarke found Linney in space on the right of the area, and when the Alty striker was bundled over, he turned to the referee with arms outstretched, only for his spot-kick claims to fall on deaf ears.
Much of the early action, it has to be said, was unfolding at the other end of the pitch, with Alty finding themselves pegged back by some fine approach play by the visitors.
When the Robins lost possession inside their own half in the sixth minute, the ball was threaded through to Harvey Gilmour, whose fierce left-foot shot skimmed off the head of Jake Cooper for a corner.
The ever-agile Matt Gould was flying through the air behind Cooper and may well have pulled off a spectacular full-length save, but there was still relief in the Alty ranks that the big defender had intervened to change the trajectory of a shot that looked net-bound.
There was another escape for Alty when Kairo Mitchell steered a header wide of the far post from the resulting corner, and more resolute defending was required when Rochdale carved out another opening in the 10th minute, as a deflected angled drive from Tyrese Sinclair was well gathered by Gould by the near post.
Not the sort of start Alty fans in a bumper crowd might have expected, but the Robins began to find their feet on a heavily-sanded surface and really should have gone ahead in the 12th minute.
An excellent flowing move down the left led to Eddy Jones whipping in a low cross to Alex Newby, who rolled the ball back for Conn-Clarke to fire a shot that was well parried by Tiernan Brooks.
If that was a decent save, the one that followed was exceptional as Brooks reacted brilliantly to keep out a close-range follow-up from Amaluzor. Even then, he wasn't finished, as he held on to an Amaluzor header from yet another rebound.
With Conn-Clarke seemingly covering every blade of grass, and grain of sand, momentum was shifting Alty's way as they continued to press for a breakthrough.
Conn-Clarke had a header saved in the 24th minute and then, seven minutes later, another move that showcased Alty at their finest so nearly yielded an opening goal.
A pass curled to perfection by Conn-Clarke into the path of Newby gave the winger the chance to look up and pick out Elliot Osborne for a low shot that was surely going in until being deflected off a defender for a corner.
Conn-Clarke's flair for the unexpected opened up Rochdale again and almost paid dividends in the 42nd minute, as he cut in from the left and, just as a far-post curler appeared the likeliest option, drilled a low effort towards the near post, where Brooks was equal to it with a smart save.
There was nothing Brooks could do two minutes later, as Alty claimed the goal their growing dominance deserved.
Linney rolled the ball infield from the left for Jones to latch on to and set his sights for a drive that the diving Brooks managed to palm on to a post. Amaluzor was first to react, pouncing on the loose ball and rifling it into the roof of the net to spark jubilant scenes among Alty players and fans.
After a quiet start to the second half, Alty exploded into life in the 55th minute with a sweeping move that almost produced another classic Robins goal.
A pass by Linney to Conn-Clarke was transferred instantly and expertly to the overlapping Lewis Banks, who spotted Newby unmarked in the middle and would have picked him out with a low curling centre but for the straining studs of a covering defender cutting the ball out.
On the whole, it had been a bit of a grind on a cloying, bobbly surface, but moments like that - two crisp pinpoint passes despatching the ball from one end to the other in the blink of an eye - still served as a reminder of the quality that has lifted Alty so high in the table.
There were a few more to come, too, as Alty turned the screw on the visitors and motored into a 3-0 lead.
Rochdale paid the price for a lapse 30 yards from their own goal in the 66th minute as Conn-Clarke seized on the loose ball and measured a delightful pass through to Linney, who kept his cool to slot an unerring finish beyond an unprotected Brooks.
The Robins were on the rampage now, and they made it 3-0 a minute later when Isaac Marriott burst into space on the right and squared the ball for Conn-Clarke to claim the goal his tireless and at times peerless prompting deserved.
Rochdale's travelling fans began streaming for the exit, but there was no sign of their players throwing in the towel, as Alty's goal had a remarkable escape after 70 minutes.
A deep free-kick from the left was headed firmly back across goal, where it smacked against the opposite post and was somehow prevented from crossing the line by a stunning reflex action from Gould.
Even then, Rochdale should have scored, only for D'Mani Mellor to blaze over from a couple of yards out, but there was no denying Alty their clean sheet or another hugely impressive and important three points that keeps the promotion dream well and truly alive.
Harvey Nichols Man Of The Match | Eddy Jones
Altrincham Gould; Banks, E.Jones, Baines, Osborne, Marriott (c), Linney (Wilson, 84'), Conn-Clarke (Angus, 84'), Amaluzor, Cooper, Newby (Kosylo, 90'). Subs not used: Roscoe, Mooney.
Rochdale Brooks; Gordon, John, East (Clayton, 59'), Ebanks-Landell (c), Sinclair, Mitchell (Henderson, 76'), Mellor, Nevett, Hayes (Uchegbulam, 76'), Gilmour. Subs not used: Keohane, Ferguson.
Goals Amaluzor 44', Linney 66' (Conn-Clarke), Conn-Clarke 67' (Marriott) | None
Yellows Amaluzor 53', Osborne 79', Banks 90'+3 | None
Reds None | None
Referee Steven Copeland
Assistants Steven Dawson & Tom Wall
Fourth official Callum Jones
Attendance 3,441 (898 away fans)
We're live on TV next Saturday when we head for Aldershot Town - kick-off 5:30pm. Get your tickets here.
Tuesday's Vanarama National League game with Wealdstone at the J.Davidson Stadium has been postponed due to Wealdstone's rearranged Isuzu FA Trophy tie with Hendon taking place on the same date (the original tie was postponed this morning due to a waterlogged pitch).