Ten-man Fleetwood Town defiantly roared back from the dead to clinch a deserved point against Rochdale at Highbury.
When Wes Burns trudged down the tunnel you would have been forgiven for thinking Fleetwood hadn’t a cat’s chance in hell of clawing their way back into this game.
But with 25 minutes remaining Uwe Rosler’s men came back from the dead.
They were buoyed on by a crowd incensed by the injustice of striker Burns’ red card – helped no end by a theatrical turn by Callum Camps, whose audition for the role of wounded soldier was cut short, miraculously, as soon as soon as a card appeared.
Trailing 2-1, Rosler’s side showed grit, fight and a top-six mentality as all 10 men upped their game to ensure Rochdale did not serve them with their third home league defeat in a row.
Town had Ash Hunter and Devante Cole to thank for the eequaliser. With Burns now out for three games, Hunter pounced to stake his claim for a starting spot with a precision cross from the right that fell in the gap between the defence and keeper. Cole bravely threw himself into the mix to ensure a point just six minutes from time.
Conor McAleny’s return was the big news on the team sheet, with Rosler making just one change to the side that beat Plymouth 2-1 last time out as Aiden O’Neill came in for George Glendon in the middle of the park.
Fleetwood dominated the opening 20 minutes, but despite their possession, pressing and some great work by Amari’i Bell and Cole on the left flank, they only managed to carve the visitors open the once.
The duo were at the heart of Town’s creativity in the opening stages, with Bell winning the ball back deep in Dale’s half and sending Cole free on the left. The forward whipped in a teasing cross but only Kyle Dempsey had made a run and the ball flashed to safety.
Camps stung Alex Cairns’ palms with an effort from distance and the keeper needed to come off his line to bat away a corner.
Town just had to bide their time and as the clock hit 20 Rosler’s men started to show their attacking prowess.
Dempsey found space on the edge of the box and chipped an intelligent ball up into the mix towards Cole, whose header flew onto the roof of the net.
Bell once again bombed forward to join the attack and the wing-back had a big shout for a penalty waved away as his cross from the left was chested out by MJ Williams in the box.
The crowd and Bell appealed for handball. The referee waved away the claim but Town struck from the subsequent corner.
O’Neill marked his return to the side by fizzing in a low corner that surprised the visitors and saw Joe Bunney kick out at fresh air.
And when the ball was blocked in the six-yard box, Ash Eastham was quickest to pounce and poke home in the 25th minute.
It was all Town as the half progressed, but with a slender 1-0 lead there was still hope for the visitors. And as the half-time whistle approached, they nearly found a way through.
Calvin Andrew found space inside the box but Town’s talismanic skipper Nathan Pond bravely got his head in the way to block a fierce strike.
There was still time for another Town attack, with Bell galloping down the left once again. He cut inside and homed in on the box only to be chopped down,though Dempsey’s subsequent set-piece was only nodded straight at the keeper by a now beardless Cian Bolger at the back stick.
Rochdale came back with a vengeance at the start of the second 45 as the game exploded and Highbury was transformed into a cauldron of noise – with many unrepeatable soundbites and roars angled towards the man in black.
Fleetwood had failed to clear a Dale attack, with Lewie Coyle making a poor header.
The ball eventually fell to Bradden Inman, who blasted through Leeds loanee Coyle’s legs and past Cairns just three minutes into the new half.
Dale soon took the lead as Bunney managed to get the better of Dempsey and whip a ball back into the mix, Ian Henderson nodding past Cairns in the 53rd minute.
Fleetwood should have had a penalty when substitute Ash Hunter looked to have been felled in the box by James McNulty.
John Brooks waved away the claim and the referee was to be at the centre of more controversy moments later.
Then came the game- changer, but instead of putting Town under the cosh, Burns’ red card reignited that fighting spark and saw the team transformed to battle back from injustice.
Video evidence shows the referee’s decision was harsh, but boss Rosler could not hide his disappointment in the post-match analysis that the forward had given the referee a decision to make with a challenge he had no need to make.
Late goals came in abundance for Town last term and that same resolve and never- say-die attitude was back.
Hunter had made an impact off the bench and it was his good work on the right wing that led to the equaliser. He broke on the right flank and whipped in a peach of a cross that Cole managed to squeeze home in the 84th minute.
That goal woke Rochdale up and they searched for a winner, though Cairns and company were on hand to thwart them and substitute Conor McAleny nearly marked his return from injury with a Town winner.
Food for thought for Rosler, and for the Highbury faithful evidence that Town’s fight and belief are back. Comebacks like this can be the platform to greater things.
Fleetwood: Cairns, Bolger, Pond (McAleny, 79), Eastham Coyle, Dempsey, O’Neill, Grant (Hunter, 59), Bell, Cole, Hiwula (Burns, 54). Subs not used: Neal, Burns, McAleny, Glendon, Hunter, Schwabl, Cargill.
Rochdale: Lillis, McNulty, McGahey, Andrew, Camps, Williams, Done (Williams, 69), Inman, Daniels (Rafferty, 45), Bunney, Henderson. Subs: Moore, Ntlhe, Slew, Rathbone, Davies.