The Iron Bar was packed, awaiting a final inspection on a pitch already rated probably fit. The Scunthorpe weather wasn't bad enough to take our opportunity away, although it did suck most of the pleasure out of the first half. A ferocious wind whipped a spray of rain right into the faces of the fans in the Donny Road end, and Sam Slocombe struggled to kick a wet ball any distance into it. Rochdale, with the wind behind them, pressed hard, and most of the goalmouth action was in front of us. Slocombe produced one breathtaking save and plenty of lesser ones, and twice Rochdale strikers let us off the hook with finishing that might charitably be blamed on the conditions.
With Chesterfield having the afternoon off and the teams below us making as little headway in their matches as us, a draw would be enough to send us top. A group of fans at the back of the terrace greeted kick-off with a chorus of "We are top of the league", reflecting the fact that we went top of the as-it-stands table as soon as the match was underway, but there wasn't much other celebration of that fact. Possibly the rain had dampened everyone's enthusiasm, or perhaps the game itself was too dispiriting.
Half-time was a welcome suspension of the struggle, as well as a brief hope of solving my financial worries with a 50-50 win and "Pole to Goal" with added entertainment thanks to the slippery pitch. But it couldn't bring any relief from the elements. I huddled against a pillar and hoped that having the wind behind us in the second half would help.
It didn't at first. There was one ridiculous moment when a ball from Sam Slocombe went straight through to Josh Lillis in the Rochdale goal, Lillis's kick out went straight to Slocombe, and Slocombe's second attempt found Lillis once more. Then the perfidious wind dropped, denying us the advantage it had given Rochdale, but allowing the quality of the football to improve. I realised that I was calmer than I've been at a Scunthorpe game for months, or even years. Perhaps we would only draw, or even lose, and other teams would overtake us. But it was such a relief to be worried about dropping out of the automatic promotion places rather than into the relegation zone.
Then the breakthrough came. Sam Winnall made a run and for once caught up with the ball without an irritating flag from the assistant referee. A couple of passes later, David Syers had a shooting chance in the middle. He struck it sweet and true, straight into the net, and the crowd finally found some energy. "We are top of the league." The drizzle sparkled like gemstones in the glow of the floodlights, and wet polyester become the most intoxicating perfume my senses could dream of. "We're top of the league, we're top of the le-ee-eague, we're Scun United, we're top of the league."
For a few minutes, we looked as if we belonged at the top of a much higher league, with crisp, confident passing that defied the weather. That didn't last, and Slocombe needed to produce another magnificent save to prevent what looked, from our vantage point at the far end, like a certain equaliser. Then Rochdale switched to their plan B: kick lumps out of us.
The referee had managed a performance typical for League 2, that is to say infuriating and inconsistent without doing anything to enrage anyone. But a messy fracas in the middle of the pitch showed how poor his grip on the game really was. Punches flew, marginally calmer players tried to haul teammates out of the scrum, and the Donny Road end bayed for red cards. The referee wandered around listening to various players, consulted with both his assistants, deliberated for far longer than necessary, and finally handed out a couple of yellows. A couple of minutes later, another scything tackle earned only a yellow. Then, the final straw: Deon Burton slipped in the penalty area under the attentions of two defenders and found himself in the book, apparently for diving.
Having someone we could violently boo enlivened the crowd, but my nerves were returning to their familiar stretched state. With Scunthorpe United, to be a goal up is to be at risk of disappointment, and I've seen too many dropped points lately from comfortable positions. We brought on Hakeeb Adelekun, already a crowd favourite, but he didn't manage to make an impact immediately. But it was one of his runs that a Rochdale player cut short by clipping his foot: because of his speed, it looked like a spectacular foul, and the referee reached for his notebook. He gave another yellow, but it was the second time he'd shown the yellow card to that particular Dale player, and our lust for red was finally satisfied. The player took his sweet time leaving the field, and there was a long delay while Christian Ribeiro received treatment and then limped off, before the match could get underway once more.
I just had time to hope we wouldn't let the ten men back into the game the way we did at Wycombe before Winnall made another run, this time ending with a shot of his own. The sort of powerful, confident strike you'd expect from the division's leading scorer, and evidence that his recent suspension hasn't harmed his form. All the same, I was pleased to see him celebrate the goal with his teammates rather than risking joining the fans again.
A minute or so later the MotM awards were announced. The sponsor had chosen Slocombe - a thoroughly deserved award for a couple of stunning saves that did as much as the strikers to get us the points. The fans voted for Syers - probably because voting closed before Winnall's strike. And Winnall gave further proof of the folly of closing voting early by scoring his second and our third a few moments later.
The fracas, and a couple of other incidents, resulted in five minutes of added time. With the extra man, and with Rochdale thoroughly demoralised, we looked the likelier team to score any late goals. I was hoping to see Burton score, having expressed the hope that a Jamaican, rather than the much talked-about Bulgarians and Romanians, could make headlines for us, but he was largely anonymous after his booking. A late hat-trick for Winnall would also have been enjoyable, but the players were happy to see out the game calmly.
A man in front of me was using the same smartphone app I sometimes use to time stoppage time, and the referee blew after five minutes and some ten seconds. I was heading for the Iron Bar before the whistle had died away, ready to stake out the best possible view of the league table. Sure enough, we were sitting at the very top. My dad took the almost unheard-of step of getting a round of drinks in, and started making plans to go to the next game. We must be doing well.