JOHN Coleman’s 400th league match in charge began in party mood, but by the end of a ragged second half the Reds were nursing a Sunday hangover.
In front of a bumper derby crowd there were smiles all round as birthday boy John Miles celebrated by producing a spectacular 25-yard volley, putting to bed a 16-month goalless streak with under a minute played.
But, as with last season’s 4-1 reverse at Spotland, an Adam Le Fondre penalty equaliser just before the interval tilted a game which the Reds had bossed for long spells, against them.
In the second half Stanley were often chasing shadows. Teenage winger Will Buckley’s decisive second goal had been coming, and Stanley had been carved open at will long before they were pierced by Jordan Rhodes’ stoppage time third.
The Reds boss could point to spurned opportunities of their own which could have secured at least a point, but Keith Hill’s catalogue of rued misses was longer as Kenny Arthur kept last season’s beaten Play-Off finalists at bay with several fine blocks and claims.
By the final whistle the early chants of “There’s only one John Coleman” had given way to discontented rumbles from the Stanley faithful, to the bitter disappointment of Coleman, who knows Hill’s resources currently outstrip his own.
He said: “The frustrating thing for me is some of our fans slating the team. The fans come off having a go at our players but they have to know our financial state. I don’t think you could question them for lack of effort today. They’ve got the likes of Chris Dagnall to bring as a substitute so you realise the cloth you’re cutting from.”
The performance was Stanley’s season in microcosm and with just one point from their last five games, early season optimism has fallen flat.
In a furious opening spell Dale almost found an instant riposte to Stanley’s goal, skipper Gary Jones steering his diving header wide from Adam Rundle’s left flank cross.
But it was the Reds who settled much the quicker and after Peter Cavanagh’s sizzling shot was tipped over for a corner, Paul Mullin’s hooked shot was parried to Jamie Clarke whose acrobatic follow-up was straight at the keeper.
Four minutes later, Rochdale stopper Sam Russell came perilously close to carrying the ball over his own line after Mullin linked up with Rostyn Griffiths and sent a perfect lob floating towards the net.
There were some tasty challenges flying in and after Colin Murdock was booked for a high tackle, Phil Edwards and Griffiths were floored in quick succession by late, yellow-card challenges. Dale full back Simon Ramsden then had to be carried off with a leg injury and was replaced by Scott Wiseman.
But the afternoon began to go sour for Stanley after referee Lee Probert had awarded a succession of free-kicks against them. Whether the home crowd’s jeers of the official affected concentration levels or not, Chris King promptly scythed down Buckley on the edge of the box and Probert pointed to the spot.
Le Fondre, who netted a hat-trick against the Reds in March, confidently drilled in from 12 yards and within a minute, frustrated skipper Cavanagh was in the notebook after colliding with Russell.
With half-time approaching Dale grew in stature and Arthur was needed to thwart Rhodes after Murdock was robbed on the half-way line. Then Rhodes hooked wide after being sent clean through by Le Fondre’s eyebrows header, before the latter sliced wide from eight yards following a goalmouth melee.
But the visitors had a lucky escape of their own at the start of the second half when Stanley came agonisingly close to catching them cold once again.
Blackburn loan-man Griffiths looked to have carried the ball too far as he embarked on a lung-bursting run, but he worked himself cleverly into a shooting position, only to drag his shot wide with Terry Gornell unable to apply a touch.
An increasingly overworked Arthur then saved from Le Fondre and smuggled a Rundle shot round the post, but he was powerless 10 minutes into the half as King was dispossessed on the edge of the box by Buckley, who drove gleefully into the left corner.
The best chances of a late Reds leveller fell to Gornell and he was again inches away from latching onto a Miles back post centre, before he snatched Paul Mullin’s flick-on wide from six yards.
But the visitors’ threat increased further when Dagnall was sent on and the highly-rated striker was denied by a brave claim from Arthur before Phil Edwards and Arthur again kept out Jones.
Ipswich loan man Rhodes then applied the killer finish at the third time of asking after Dagnall and fellow sub Joe Thompson had been denied by a stretched Stanley rearguard.
Coleman said: “I think we looked quite comfortable up to the penalty. I couldn’t complain about the decision but there were five or six strange decisions which culminated in the penalty.
“The second half was a disappointment and we didn’t pick up as many second balls as we could have done. The second goal we conceded was a terrible goal to concede - it was sloppy defending. We need to pick up points fast but I take heart from the fact that we made chances today.”