Walking out alongside Rochdale skipper Ian Henderson as mascot wasn’t something lifelong Dale fan Ethan Brierley was ever likely to pass up.
In November 2014, a starstruck 10-year-old Brierley prepared to join Henderson as he led the side into battle. Last month, it was almost written in the stars when the Rochdale Academy graduate set up his childhood hero’s record-breaking goal to make Henderson the Club’s all-time leading marksman.
Brierley once stepped out onto the pitch with his childhood hero and now, he’s sharing the turf with him.
“I was so excited,” he remembered, casting his mind back to that day. “He was the captain and even though some mascots walk out with the captain, they asked if I’d like to walk out with anyone else, but I definitely only wanted to walk out with Hendo [Henderson].
“I was mascot a couple of times, but I walked out with Hendo twice. It was the game against Oldham which we ended up losing, but it was still a great day. I remember going into the changing rooms feeling dead nervous before the game, seeing all the players, and walking out with Hendo felt mad at the time.”
Fast forward eight years and the teenage midfielder was named on the bench as Rochdale hosted Salford City in Sky Bet League Two on a Tuesday evening.
With 10 minutes left on the watch and either side yet to find a breakthrough, the introduction of Brierley in the second period proved crucial.
Surging into the opposition half, the 18-year-old lifted his head up and spotted Henderson in the final third, lifting the ball up field which was met by the head of the forward who glanced it beyond the Ammies keeper.
“When Ethan was coming on, I joked with Theo Vassell the centre-back of Salford, who I know really well, that Ethan has every pass in his arsenal per se,” he explained. “I knew if there was one player on the football pitch that could deliver a pass to pick out one of my runs, it would have been Ethan.
“Fortunately enough, his execution of pass was exceptional and he delivered an incredible pass that lead to the goal that broke the record.”
He turned to his teammate. “I’ve not said it to you yet, have I?” he questioned “Thank you!”
“No worries!” Brierley laughed in response.
Henderson bested former Dale man Reg Jenkins’ total of 129 strikes – a record which had been in place since February 1973.
As the full-time whistle sounded and Dale claimed three crucial points, with Henderson’s only goal of the game the difference in a 1-0 victory over the Ammies, his teammates, including Brierley, formed a guard of honour for the 37-year-old who completed a perfectly executed knee slide in front of the home fans.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, considering the record has been in place for such a long time,” Henderson, who broke into tears post-match as his emotions overcame him, said. “It was an overwhelming feeling to become the all-time goalscorer for Rochdale. It was a little bit of a surreal moment. “It was a magical evening for everyone associated with Rochdale as a Football Club and Rochdale as a town.
“I had an overwhelming feeling; I didn’t know whether to be happy or to cry. I had a little word with myself to say, ‘remember this moment, be in the moment, take it all in and accept it for what it is.’”
For Henderson, the goal came against one of his former Clubs, Salford. Having already found the back of the net against his ex-employers in a 2-2 draw in the Group Stage of the Papa Johns Trophy, he notched his historic goal against them four weeks later.
“There’s an interesting story behind this,” he continued. “When I parted company with Salford at the end of last season, Chris Casper, the Sporting Director, and Gary Neville said, ‘please don’t score against us next year.’ I ended up scoring against them prior to that in a cup game and then again in the league.”
It was the stuff of fairy tales for Brierley, too, who has fond memories of watching Henderson pull on a Dale shirt during his first spell at the Club between 2013 and 2020.
One of his standout memories of the forward was watching him score against Tottenham Hotspur at Spotland to force a replay in the FA Cup in February 2018, which gave Brierley – whose wardrobe is populated with Henderson’s name and number – to watch his team play at Wembley Stadium for the first time.
“I could’ve only have dreamt of this,” he exhaled. “If someone had said to me a few years ago, ‘you’ll set up Ian Henderson’s record goal,’ I’d have just laughed. For everything he’s done for the Club, he deserves that moment. To make it happen was an unbelievable feeling. I can’t believe it’s happened. I’m over the moon.
“I’ve watched him all my life. He’s always been the person I’ve looked up to and loved going watching on a Saturday. I’ve got a couple of his match worn shirts at home and a couple of shirts with ‘Henderson’ and ‘40’ on the back.”
The moment was beyond the wildest dreams of both Brierley and Henderson, with the latter acknowledging that he could never have hoped the boy who stood nervously before him with a grin plastered on his face all those years ago.
“In a nutshell, no, you don’t expect that,” Henderson admitted. “You hope you inspire people to go on and become professional footballers because that’s an extra incentive. I’ve now got one next to me that’s been inspired and paving a way for himself in the game right now.
“It seems like we’ve got two ends of the spectrum sat right here. We’ve got a young lad that is incredibly humble and works tirelessly, and with the right guidance and mentorship, I believe he’s going to have a fantastic career. Myself, I’m sat here in the twilights of my footballing career elapsing 700 games, the record goalscorer for Rochdale and closing in on 200 goals.”
In the summer, Brierley, who was nominated for the League Two LFE Apprentice of the Year last term, had no hesitations in penning a new deal with his hometown team to extend his love affair with Dale, adding a further year to his contract to take the deal until 2024.
“I still class myself as a fan now,” he smiled. “I’m practically just a fan playing with the players I’ve always supported.
“I joined when I was about seven. I was training Tuesday-Thursday every week in the Academy and then I used to come and watch Rochdale on the Saturday, then I’d have a game for the Academy on the Sunday.
💫 What dreams are made of! 👏#EFL | @officiallydale https://t.co/E8eN9t0dNA— Sky Bet League Two (@SkyBetLeagueTwo) November 10, 2022
“One time when I was around 15 and it was the school holidays, I was up training with the youth team, and I was one of the youngest at that point but I got a text during the training session saying that the first-team wanted me to train. I got a lift down to the first-team training ground and it was the first time I’d meet them all properly, never mind training with them.”
Age is just a number for Henderson, who’s showing no signs of slowing down in his second spell at Spotland, but his focus now shifts to the future of the Club, and he sees Brierley playing a significant part in that.
“I’ve said to Ethan from that initial meeting when he was 14 or 15 years old, I look back over messages that I’ve sent to him over the last two or three years where we’ve communicated with one-another and it’s all about recognition and support and just being there to support him along his journey.
“An important component to me personally is a hunger and a desire to still want to play football and score goals. If you mix that with a relatively young squad and being around people like Ethan, you can’t help but bring your game up to help them but to help yourself.
“For myself, it’s great but I’m looking towards the next generation now to fly the flag and build longevity."