Notts County's title but Rochdale's triumph
At Meadow Lane.
Notts County all but secured the League Two title with their deserved victory over Rochdale on Tuesday, but the greater achievement this season still rests with the visitors.
Rochdale, like County, secured automatic promotion last Saturday. In doing so they ended a 36-year tenure in the bottom tier of English football. One of the football's most unwanted statistics was laid to rest.
Youngsters who experienced Dale's relegation in 1974 are mature adults now, many of whom were reduced to tears when their team's 1-0 win over Northampton ensured they will play League One football next season.
Nick Brierley has not missed a Rochdale game since 1987 and was one of the tearful grown men at Spotland.
On Saturday evening he travelled the short distance from the ground to 'headquarters', known to the rest of us as The Cemetery pub. The landlady put on a spread and later in the evening the club's chairman Chris Dunphy and his fellow directors turned up and joined in with the celebrating, singing and hugging.
It must have been an evening of the greatest, purest pleasure; the sort that follows so many years of underachievement and disappointment.
Rochdale's promotion prompted great scenes of celebration
As Brierley travelled down to Tuesday's match at Notts he explained to me how his years of loyal support had impacted upon his expectations. I suspect it is a sentiment that chimes with fans of many clubs.
"Supporting Rochdale is a lesson for life in that you learn to accept disappointment," said the affable Brierley. "We are quite a stoical breed and have come to expect failure. Even in recent weeks when we were on the verge of going up there was always doubt."
Until Keith Hill took over as Dale manager in December 2006, bringing in David Flitcroft as his assistant, Brierley always thought that Rochdale would only ever leave the fourth tier by slipping down rather than climbing out - but there can be no doubt that his team deserve their promotion.
They were blunt in attack at County and, truth be told, just one goal in their last five games illustrates how their form has fallen away over recent weeks. But nonetheless there were glimpses on Tuesday of the measured possession football that Hill's team have displayed so often this season.
Dale have scored 80 goals and done so despite working within a modest budget.
It was not for nothing that the Rochdale fans chanted as their County counterparts: "We're going up and we pay our bills."
Hill had stoked up the sense of anticipation ahead of the top-of-the-table clash by having a very vocal dig at County's spending this season.
"If we can't catch Notts County, I'm sure the tax man will," remarked Hill with a quip that drew a very public response from County chairman Ray Trew.
The likeable and upbeat Hill was barracked by the home support throughout at Meadow Lane, while Flitcroft exchanged angry words with several Notts supporters as the half-time whistle sounded.
Hill repeatedly stated afterwards that he revelled in being part of a big-match atmosphere and there can be no doubt that the 10,536 in attendance made for a very lively 90 minutes.
The game was settled by Lee Hughes's 31st goal of the season and came after two Rochdale players left a loose ball to each other, with Notts' Neal Bishop eventually pouncing before passing to the prolific striker.
"To me, to you, to B&Q, it was like watching the Chuckle Brothers," was Hill's pithy assessment.
The Rochdale boss added that his bugbear with County was not with Trew, who has worked hard to clean up the situation he inherited after becoming chairman in February, or the management and playing staff.
Hill is angry that the mysterious Munto Finance consortium was allowed to take over at County last summer and assemble a squad that, it has since emerged, they obviously could not afford.
"Ray Trew has been very honest but what happened before is unacceptable in football," said Hill.
The club breached the Football League's salary cap regulations of 60% of turnover plus shareholders' donations.
Lee Hughes (centre) has been a prolific scorer for County this season
Trew claims to have the situation under control but the transfer embargo placed on the club hardly hurt since their high-quality squad was already in place.
In contrast, succeeding despite the constraints placed upon their club is an obvious and worthy source of pride to Hill and Rochdale's supporters. I got the very definite sense that they feel they occupy the moral high ground on this issue.
Hill can bask, at least momentarily, in the glory of what he has achieved this campaign but it is obvious that his mind has already moved on to planning next season.
He lost key striker Adam Le Fondre to Rotherham last summer and the influential Will Buckley in January. Finances and wage restrictions mean that he will lose many of the side that have won promotion.
"The finances next season will be relatively similar to this and we will be expected to pull a few more rabbits out of the hat," said the Dale boss.
"When we've got about six left in the squad we'll have to build all over again. I expect to be recruiting in excess of 14 players."
Rochdale scaled their Everest this season with a blend of spirit, unity and determination.
Their route to the top has been very different to County's, who have got through three owners and four managers, faced a winding-up order and, at one time or another, had Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sol Campbell at the club during a very turbulent campaign.
It looked at one point as though County would succumb to the storm clouds that threatened to engulf them.
But the arrival of manager Steve Cotterill in February provided some much needed leadership. He has obviously worked hard to steel his side's defence and a record of 12 wins and two draws in his 14 games in charge is testimony to his impact.
I'm not sure whether County fans feel relief or, after several seasons at the wrong end of the table, are simple revelling in success. What is for certain is that it would have been a disaster if a squad with County's quality did not win promotion.
Whether their high-roller status will continue into next season is extremely doubtful. Trew is preaching common sense, not selling impossible dreams.
It looks inevitable that the club will lose players such as goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who currently earns a five-figure wage, and thus Cotterill, like Hill, might have some rebuilding to do over the summer.
But the next time they meet will be in a League One fixture and to supporters of both clubs that must be a point of the greatest satisfaction.