When I saw Rochdale’s ground Spotland for the first time, it was quite a shock. After Hillsborough, it was a really big change.

Then I got even more of a shock with the training pitch. You got to it from the ground, walking through streets and down a hill, and you’d find it next to a cricket pitch and a lacrosse pitch.

Maybe if I’d seen the facilities first, I wouldn’t have left Sheffield Wednesday.

It was a big reality check, but in one way I quite liked being back at a club that was really down to earth, where you had to work really hard for your buck.

Steve Parkin, the Rochdale manager, must have wondered what on earth he’d bought after my debut, though.

It was at Darlington on January 31, 2004, and it was one of the worst performances of my whole career.

I was absolutely awful. Dreadful. Terrible.

I barely resembled a footballer that day.

I was trying too hard, literally working too much to try and impress. I gave the ball away all of the time. I couldn’t hold anything up, I couldn’t shoot properly. You name it.

Everyone must have been looking at me thinking, ‘Who’s this useless lump we’ve just bought?’

If that had been a home match, I wouldn’t have been able to show my face in town that night. The whole day was summed up by Fay’s dad breaking his wrist while watching in the crowd.

Someone had hit a shot and it was headed straight at my missus, so he’d put his arm out to protect her. Smack, it broke his wrist.

It definitely wasn’t one of my shots because, the way things had gone for me that day, it would have ended up sailing over the stands.

Luckily I played really well in my home debut a week later, a 3-0 win over Mansfield. I won a penalty and set up Paul Connor to score.

I immediately enjoyed playing at Spotland, and it reminded me of my time at Barrow a little earlier in my career.

The crowds weren’t massive but everyone who was there really wanted to be there, which created a great atmosphere.

They got behind us, and I think the fans appreciated all of the channel running I was doing for the team.

It felt great to be playing 90 minutes twice a week. The only problem was that I couldn’t seem to score my first goal for Rochdale.

It was playing on my mind a little bit, but from mid-March all of the focus was on a massive relegation battle at home against, of all teams, Carlisle.

The previous week I’d played really well when we got a draw at Huddersfield, who were in the top six. That was a massive confidence boost both for the team and for me.

I knew I’d played well against a good defence and had held my own, including in a little tear-up with the Huddersfield centre-half Efe Sodje, for which we both got booked.

So I felt good, and the week leading up to the game was the first time I’d really been in the spotlight and in the press: a Carlisle fan, rejected by the club, playing against them in a huge six-pointer at the foot of the table.

But that didn’t bother me. Steve Parkin pulled me in and told me to do what I do best, which was going out and enjoying my football.

It was basically a must-win match for Carlisle. If things had panned out differently then I’d probably have been in with the Carlisle fans that day, absolutely bricking it.

As it turned out, I sent the Carlisle fans home fuming, and I still get stick for that game to this day.

Why do I still get pelters? Well, the big problem was that in the 32nd minute I got put clean through by Willo Flood, their goalkeeper Matty Glennon came out, I dinked the ball over him, and as I’d gone over him there had been a minimal touch – but there was a touch – and the referee gave a penalty and sent off Glennon.

Our skipper Gary Jones stepped up and scored. 1-0.

All of the Carlisle fans were blaming me, saying I’d dived.

I could literally see my own friends giving me absolute dog’s abuse, screaming and shouting at me: “You’re a disgrace,” “You’re a cheat”, “You’re a traitor”…

That was the first time I really got nailed. I’d be stood on the sideline for a throw-in and I’d get abuse hurled at me from people I knew.

I had friends on the pitch playing for them, including Mark Boyd, who I’d played with in the Smiths Crisps tournament with Inglewood Junior School when we won that competition at Wembley all those years ago.

It was surreal.

I always thrived on getting stick from fans throughout my career, but it’s different when it’s fans of the team you support.

The sledging from the crowd didn’t affect me that day, but for once I didn’t enjoy it.

I knew the reality was that at some point I’d have to go out on the town in Carlisle and I’d get even more stick for that penalty.

My brother had got a ticket for the game at Spotland, and was in the Carlisle end.

It got to a point midway through the second half where he had to leave the ground because he would have ended up in a fight.

He wasn’t inclined to just sit back and hear my name being dragged through the mud, so he got out of there before he got in a scrap.

It probably didn’t help matters with their fans that in the second half I killed the game off with my first goal for Rochdale.

I got the ball from Shaun Smith, held off a defender and tucked the shot under the keeper.

It felt great, and Spotland was bouncing.

It was a huge win, and took us three points closer to safety, but Carlisle were 10 points adrift with nine to play.

It was a massive nail in the coffin for them, which was a shame, but it wasn’t my fault. It was also a lesson learned for them for not signing me when they’d had their chance.

I’m still blamed to this day for their relegation, but I always tell them I can’t be blamed for the other 24 matches they lost that season!

A Real Football Life, by Grant Holt with Dan Brigham, is published by Twocan and is available via