Manchester United fan Stephen Dooley relishing opportunity to strut his stuff at Old Trafford in Rochdale cup clash

He first fell for Manchester United during the Milk Cup, and tonight Stephen Dooley gets to realise a dream at the Theatre of Dreams when his Rochdale side take on the Red Devils. Neil Loughran caught up with the Portstewart wing wizard…

Winger Stephen Dooley has become a regular at Spotland since joining Rochdale from Coleraine in 2018

IT was as a wide-eyed six-year-old standing at the Ballymena Showgrounds that Stephen Dooley’s love affair with Manchester United began, the famous red jersey alone enough to pique the youngster’s interest.

“Back in the day you used to watch them at the Milk Cup… that’s actually how I started supporting them, watching the parade with my dad. I liked the kit, so I asked him ‘who are they?’

“He told me they’re one of the big teams, so I decided take a punt on them – even though dad’s an Arsenal fan. It turns out I made the right call...”

Dooley has made the pilgrimage to Old Trafford many times in the years between, yet never once did he imagine that he might one day grace the same stretch of grass where he watched Rooney, Ronaldo et al weave their magic.

Tonight, though, the Portstewart man will do just that when his Rochdale side run out at the Theatre of Dreams in the third round of the Carabao Cup.

“The draw is perfect,” he smiles.

“A load of us are United fans, it’s just up the road, it’s at Old Trafford… it should be a great occasion for the club no matter what and you just hope to be involved on the night.

“Growing up, it was a great time to be a United fan. Seeing somebody like Cristiano Ronaldo when he first burst on to the scene, there was just something so different about him… he was so fast, the step-overs were so quick, he was just so exciting.

“Then I got a bit older and started watching [Lionel] Messi play and I was like ‘Jesus…’ Those two are just different level. Players like that just make you love football.

“No-one about at the minute does what they do.”

As a jinking winger himself, it is no surprise that the former Coleraine, Derry City and Cork City ace would appreciate the extravagant gifts displayed with such stunning regularity by the world’s top two players.

Yet even Ronaldo and Messi might have had their work cut out getting around United’s new recruit Aaron Wan-Bissaka – known as ‘The Spider’ for the way his long legs hook the ball away from frustrated opponents.

That is the challenge facing Dooley tonight and, if given the chance, it is one he will relish.

“Because United are one of the biggest clubs in the world, they get a lot of stick when they don’t win every single game,” said the 27-year-old.

“A lot of stuff gets blown out of proportion, but when you look at players like [Marcus] Rashford, [Anthony] Martial, how are you supposed to stop those boys when they’re on form? They can do it all.

“The defence is starting to look really good again - how do you get past Wan-Bissaka? It’s almost impossible - he loves a tackle.”

Talk surrounding the game has swelled during recent days, especially in the wake of yet another disappointing result for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side as they fell to West Ham on Sunday.

But Dooley insists that, ever since the draw was made back on August 28, he has tried to put the glamour tie to the back of his mind.

“When it came out my friends were saying ‘wrap yourself in cotton wool’, and I’m telling them if I tried to wrap myself in cotton wool I’ll be dropped!

“You have to go into every game with that mindset. Nobody can afford to take it easy. It’s very competitive here – if you have one or two bad games in Ireland, you’re probably still on the starting team because you’re one of the main players.

“In England, if you have a couple of bad games there’s three or four other boys ready to go in front of you and you could be a while getting back in. It’s a very competitive environment, but that’s a good thing.

“You could have a great month and then a bad half and there’s boys ready to go.”

Last year Rochdale finished 16th in League One, and they currently occupy the same position after a decent start to the season was rudely interrupted by a 6-0 hammering at the hands of Peterborough 11 days ago.

Dooley gave them a 13th minute in the next outing, only to be pegged back by a last-gasp Lincoln City leveller, while last Saturday a last-gasp Ched Evans header condemned them to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Fleetwood Town.

Results may not be going their way at the minute but there have been times this season when Rochdale have showed exactly the kind of football they are capable of playing – never moreso than the 16-pass move which led to their second goal against Southend last month.

Dooley laughs at the string of tweets that followed, drawing comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side, but admit they have taken some tips from watching the former Barcelona midfielder’s side.

“It’s just the way we want to play.

“When you keep the ball, pass and move, things just open up sometimes, and that one just sort of flowed well. But I think that particular goal got the traction it did because it was Rochdale… people always associate teams in League One and League Two with back to front, four-four-two football, but that’s not always the case.

“The teams in this division are very fit, they can put on a high press and it can be very hard to play that way. It can be hard at times to stick to your guns and stick to the process, but you have to be brave and play with courage.

“We have a manager whose philosophy is to work hard to get the ball back, then play football and enjoy yourself and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Manchester United Aaron Wan-Bissaka, known as 'The Spider', could be Stephen Dooley's direct opponent at Old Trafford tonight. Picture by PA

That man is Brian Barry-Murphy, son of legendary Cork GAA dual star Jimmy.

Having watched him in action for Cork City, it was Barry-Murphy who first recommended Dooley to former Rochdale boss Keith Hill.

And while Barry-Murphy might be keeping a keen eye on the Rebels’ results from back home, Dooley also keeps up to date with the fortunes of Eoghan Rua, Coleraine.

The defending Derry champions saw their campaign ended by Magherafelt earlier this month, but Dooley has fond memories of pulling on the maroon and green jersey – and hopes he is able to do so again some time in the future.

“Soccer was always the main sport, I didn’t really play Gaelic until I was 14/15, but I absolutely loved it.

“I played a bit at minor, a few games for the seniors… I would’ve loved to play on but at that stage I was in the Coleraine first team and I had to choose. It wouldn’t have been fair to either to bounce in and out.

“But I’d love to go back and play Gaelic at some point. I still know a lot of the lads involved and every time I’m home I go and watch them if I get the chance. It’s an incredible community club.”

For now, though, he can finally allow himself to focus on the biggest night of his career to date, and the prospect of lining out at one of the world’s great sporting arenas.

“Obviously if they’re on their game it’ll be ridiculously tough, but we’ll give it a go.

“Just to be involved would be really special, but I don’t feel as though there’s no real pressure on us. You go there, you play as hard as you can, you try and get a result and see what happens.

“Moments like this don’t come along too often so you have to enjoy them.”

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