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Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 10:03 UK

North-west duo take centre stage

By Pete Oliver

Stockport manager Jim Gannon
Gannon made nearly 500 appearances for Stockport
With Manchester United, Liverpool and half-a-dozen other Premier League clubs on their doorstep, it is no wonder Rochdale and Stockport struggle for a share of the limelight.

But on Bank Holiday Monday that will all change as the two local rivals - situated less than 20 miles apart in Greater Manchester - take centre stage at Wembley in the League Two play-off final.

A mini-exodus down the M6 will take thousands of supporters down to London as two of the game's lesser lights get their chance to shine in pursuit of promotion.

"I think Wembley will be a great surface and stadium to showcase not just our talents but also Rochdale's great footballers," said Stockport manager Jim Gannon.

"I think people will be surprised how good the football will be.

"I am absolutely delighted for (Rochdale's management team) Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft. They have worked really hard under difficult circumstances and have put together a fantastic young side.

"I'm really pleased for the North West that we have two really good teams going to Wembley to play against each other.

"I'm looking forward to revelling in the atmosphere that our fans create and the football our team can play."

Gannon is looking forward to appearing at Wembley

The regular League Two season ended with the clubs just one place and two points apart - Stockport having the upper hand thanks to doing the double over Dale - and their recent progress has also been remarkably similar.

Both managers are aged 39 and played for their respective clubs before answering the call to rescue them from the threat of relegation from the Football League.

When Hill stepped up from his role as youth-team coach at Spotland in December 2006, Rochdale were 21st in League Two, while Gannon's mission started 12 months earlier when County were bottom of the Football League.

We've got a fantastic young team, with great staff and support - it's a dream for me to manage these people

Jim Gannon
"Going out of the League can be a critical stage and there were a lot of people that were particularly depressed about the situation we found ourselves in," added Gannon, whose near 500 games put him third in the club's list of all-time appearance makers.

"I am delighted to have come in and made a difference. All I wanted to do initially was come in and lift the spirits of the club and put them back on the right track.

"We've done that and we've gone up another level this season. We've got a fantastic young team, with great staff and support - it's a dream for me to manage these people."

Despite two Wembley play-off final defeats as a player, Gannon was part of a remarkable run as he helped them climb from the bottom division to the top eight of the Championship as a goal-scoring central defender.

Rochdale, on the other hand, have rarely had it so good.

They have been promoted only once before, in the year that Hill was born, have played in the bottom division for the past 34 years and despite playing in the 1962 League Cup final - then a two-legged affair - have never been to Wembley.

"It's absolutely superb. It's tremendous for the town and for the supporters," Hill told BBC Sport.

"They have been the whipping boys of the Football League and they shouldn't be. They are very loyal and they deserve to go to Wembley.

"That's what we are here to do. We are here to make history. I'm sick of hearing about the history of the football club and what we haven't done.

"That's what we always talk about - making history. We are here and we are trying to make history for other people to talk about."

Hill has sheltered his players from the hype surrounding the match

Fittingly, Dale are heading to Wembley in their centenary season, while Stockport are also celebrating an anniversary - their 125th.

And on the pitch they are like-minded too, as both sides try to play 'the right way' through careful nurturing of their resources.

Many of Rochdale's players started their careers elsewhere but have flourished under Hill, while County's line-up has even less first-team experience but have been moulded to play attractive, passing, penetrative football by Gannon - epitomised by play-making Irish midfielder Gary Dicker and 20-goal top scorer Liam Dickinson.

"We have got a very young team. I think the average age is 21-and-a-half and I'm looking forward to seeing them grow and rising to every challenge over the next couple of years," said Gannon.

"I think in any walk of life, whether you are a parent, a teacher or a manager, it should be all about creating the right environment for the people you care for to flourish.

"I think we are capable of going a long way. The journey has started and the momentum is there."

The same could be said of Rochdale, who have lost just 17 times in 72 League matches since Hill, who also played as a defender for Blackburn and Plymouth, took over a struggling side.

Unfortunately for Dale, key midfielder David Perkins, who scored a vital goal in the semi-final win over Darlington before being sent off, has failed in an appeal to overturn that red card and will miss the final.

This club shouldn't be seen as a small club. We are nurturing a very good, young squad here and we want to be successful

Keith Hill
But Gary Jones, the club's record appearance maker, will still form a formidable midfielder barrier, while striker Chris Dagnall has proved his recovery from a knee injury with goals in each of his last three games.

"It's a combination of the hard work we've put in over 46 games this season and on the training pitch," Hill added.

"We came with a plan which started to work early doors and it's continued.

"There's a lot of belief in the players, no questions about that, and a lot of ability."

And according to Hill, the perennial underdogs are ready to punch above their weight.

"This club shouldn't be seen as a small club. We are nurturing a very good, young squad here and we want to be successful," he added.

"That's how ambitious the players are and the coaching staff. The club has turned the corner and want to be ambitious and want to get into League One and that's our aim now.

"We have got the Wembley showpiece and we are looking forward to it."

see also
Stockport v Rochdale
24 May 08 |  League Two
Lawro's Play-off predictions
23 May 08 |  Football
Dickinson hails Stockport support
19 May 08 |  Stockport
Masked Owen set for Wembley final
21 May 08 |  League Two
Rochdale fail in red card appeal
20 May 08 |  Rochdale
Stockport 1-0 Wycombe (agg 2-1)
17 May 08 |  League Two
Rochdale 2-1 Darlington (agg 3-3)
17 May 08 |  League Two
Wycombe 1-1 Stockport
11 May 08 |  League Two
Darlington 2-1 Rochdale
10 May 08 |  League Two

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