Town 0-3 Rochdale
By Liz Owen
Andy Mangan missed a penalty and Nathan Pond was sent off as Fleetwood slipped to a disappointing home defeat to Rochdale; a further blow to any chances of claiming a play-off spot.
Town remain three points behind seventh-placed Exeter City but they slipped below both Bradford City, who hold two games in hand, and Chesterfield into 10th.
Goals from Ian Henderson, Jason Kennedy and former Town striker George Donnelly were enough to seal all three points for Dale, who kept their first clean sheet in five games.
An unchanged starting XI lined up for Fleetwood after Monday’s draw at Southend United, while fit-again Rob Atkinson replaced Shaun Beeley on the bench.
Meanwhile, Rochdale boss Keith Hill, whose side visited Highbury fresh off the back of their first win in five games at Exeter, made one alteration as Joe Rafferty was favoured over Kevin McIntyre.
Peter Cavanagh captained Dale on his return to the Fylde Coast, following his departure from the club in the summer, alongside Donnelly, who scored five goals in 26 appearances for Town in 2011.
And it was Donnelly who came back to haunt his former club as he doubled Rochdale’s advantage on the hour mark after remaining an irritation for Fleetwood’s defence throughout.
The 24-year-old breezed through the centre of the park in an impressive solo effort and pulled the trigger as he bore down on Scott Davies.
Town’s ‘keeper managed to intervene and slow the pace of his shot somewhat, but a hungry Donnelly beat both Davies and Ryan Edwards to the loose ball and blasted it into the top corner as it trickled towards goal.
Jamille Matt, who had averaged one goal per game in Town’s last three matches, won a penalty on 78 minutes after he was barged off the ball by Michael Rose.
It came 10 minutes after the striker had looked to have been hauled down in the box but referee Tony Bates declined to award the hosts a spot-kick in that instance, much to the fury of both Matt and the onlooking Memorial Stand.
Nevertheless, Rose’s subsequent foul gave Mangan, who replaced Paul McKenna at half-time for his longest period of play since returning from injury, the chance to score his first goal for almost five months.
But Dale ‘keeper Josh Lillis guessed correctly and dived to his right to deflect the ball clear and deny a devastated Mangan to claim his first penalty save of the season.
It went from bad to worse three minutes later for Fleetwood as Pond was dismissed for the first time since January 2011.
After picking up an initial booking five minutes previously, referee Bates was forced to consult with his assistant after Bobby Grant’s foul on Pond looked to have prompted angry words from the defender.
Following the discussion, Bates produced a second yellow card for Pond to effectively end any hope of a Town comeback.
Dale had taken the lead for the first time in their last eight away fixtures, courtesy of Henderson’s second goal in as many games after a well-worked counter-attack early on.
Leading goalscorer Grant played an accurate through ball to the feet of Donnelly, who found himself with enough space in the box to feed the rapidly-approaching Henderson to his left.
And the Colchester loanee made no mistake as he side-footed the ball past Davies into the bottom-right corner after only eight minutes.
The visitors wrapped up a comfortable victory with 60 seconds left to play after Kennedy blasted home from a right-sided position 10 yards out.
In truth, Fleetwood had struggled to get a decent hold on the game and were outperformed by their opponents.
Junior Brown’s fierce and furious 25-yard 34th-minute strike was the closest Town came to finding the net for the majority of the game.
But the winger’s assault on goal was desperately pushed clear by a flailing Lillis as the Cod Army were brought to their feet.
This was one of few first-half Fleetwood tests for Lillis, with Jamie McGuire’s 18-yard saved strike after 23 minutes another rare chance of note taken by the hosts.
Dale had enjoyed more ventures into enemy territory from the beginning, as a swift spell of early pressure had culminated in an effort from Donnelly, which was palmed away well by Davies.
Fleetwood’s first real threat on goal had arrived on 16 minutes, when Brown’s header from Alan Goodall’s free-kick was captured on the edge of the crossbar by Lillis.
Gareth Evans showed endeavour in midfield and boisterously stole possession from Rafferty ten minutes later to push forward but his wayward shot was subsequently cleared, a move which perhaps summed up Town’s overall performance.
Both he and Brown tried to threaten down each flank but left-back Rose in particular did a good job of denying them entry into the final third.
At the other end, Hill’s side displayed some pacey attacking football as Kennedy’s first-time shot from Ashley Grimes’ set-up was kept out by Davies on the half-hour mark.
Grimes should have done better with a goalscoring opportunity presented to him four minutes later but spurned a shot from close range after Grant was able to control and distribute a deflected Dale attack.
And Grant himself threatened six minutes before the interval but Davies held firm and denied the striker’s low shot with his feet.
Mangan made his presence known after his introduction by firing a low free-kick at the Rochdale wall after 56 minutes, with Cavanagh earning a yellow card for fouling his former team-mate.
But Dale had started the second half with intent as Donnelly charged menacingly down the right-hand side two minutes in, only for his angled strike to be deflected behind by a team-mate.
Edwards then denied two consecutive Grant attempts at finding a yellow shirt in the area before picking up the first booking of the game for bringing down Donnelly near the halfway line.
Evans made way for Ryan Crowther on the 53rd minute as Town boss Graham Alexander looked for a route back into the game but his side found themselves two goals down only seven minutes later.
Donnelly then kept up the pressure and almost had a second 15 minutes after finding the net but Davies dived dramatically to keep out his volley from the edge of the area.
Mangan’s penalty miss and Pond’s red card put pay to any hopes of a Town revival, while in contrast, Donnelly left to a standing ovation from the away fans with the net still rippling after Kennedy’s goal.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Cod Army as their side’s three-game unbeaten run came to an abrupt and disheartening end.