These quiet mid-January weeks used to be devoted to anticipation while we waited between rounds 3 and 4 of the FA Cup and if many will have you believe that matters Premier League and transfer window are the only ones worth thinking about as Burns Night approaches, quite a few of us still hark back to the old days. Not least Rochdale, who along with thoughts of the world’s greatest knockout competition, are also relishing a promotion battle in League 2. Here, Stuart Howard-Cofield, curator of the Grumpy Old Fan website and contributor to The Football Pink, runs the rule over ‘Dale – you can follow Stuart on twitter here.
A quiet revolution in the hills.
The town of Rochdale has not had much to shout about for a while. Built on the back of the textile business, the Pennine town was an important stopping point between the cotton industry of the West and the woollen industry of the East of England. As with that of every town which relied on such activity, Rochdale’s decline has not been pretty.
The main bragging rights have been that the town is the birthplace of the pioneers of the Co-operative movement, Gracie Fields and Lisa Stansfield. Not forgetting the fact/urban myth that Adolf Hitler was quite taken by the grandeur of the town’s spectacular town hall and hoped to help himself to parts of it once he had secured victory in the war.
Sadly, recent history has been more bleak and forbidding than the infamous weather around these parts (Daniel Defoe purportedly once made his way over the imposing hills of Blackstone Edge that lie a couple of miles to the east of Rochdale. According to his diary he trekked through “trackless drifts of snow.” It was August).
The once proud Lancashire town has gained notoriety and much negative press for a child grooming gang scandal that was uncovered recently, the high unemployment rate that has played a part in one area of the town being named the most deprived in the country for five years in a row and, like many others across the nation, it has not been immune to the seemingly irretrievable decline of the high street.
Once you hear that McDonalds have decided that they will no longer open their doors in your town centre, you realise the depth of the difficulties that the town faces.
Rochdale AFC have not had too much to brag about in their 106 year history, either. Sandwiched as they are between the fertile footballing lands of Manchester (City have traditionally counted on strong support in the area, a fact much derided by United fans) and Leeds, with Burnley not too far away, Rochdale have always played David to the Goliaths that surround them.
It took two failed play-off attempts but finally, after a 36 year tenancy, the club escaped from the bottom division for only the second time in 2010. Keith Hill’s feat of taking the perennial underdogs to the heady heights of League One didn’t go unnoticed. A year later, he equalled the club’s highest ever finish – ninth in the third tier – and secured himself an ill-fated move to Championship side Barnsley.
Both Hill and Rochdale found life tough without each other. Rochdale had already slipped back to their spiritual home in the basement of league football when Hill was sacked by Barnsley half way through his second season in Yorkshire.
It says much about the club’s history when, at the start of this 2013-14 season, as part of the Football League’s 150th anniversary celebrations, the Rochdale v Hartlepool United match was chosen as a highlighted fixture.
Neither club is quite old enough to have been around for the birth of the Football League, but thanks to a display of either startling under-performance or remarkable consistency (depending on your view), the two clubs have spent so long in “The Rochdale Division” that they were chosen as a celebratory fixture because they have met each other in the Football League more times than any other clubs.
A bigger cause for celebration amongst Dale fans in 2013, however, was the January return of the hero mastermind behind their 2010 promotion.
Former Accrington Stanley stalwart John Coleman had overseen a period at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 where the club won only 2 out of 10 games. This run of poor form resulted in a parting of ways – no doubt assisted by news that Keith Hill was newly available. He returned to Spotland in an emergency, until-the-end-of-the-season capacity. Naturally, his stay was extended.
So far this campaign, Rochdale have looked bright and full of energy. A comfortable opening day win on a gloriously sunny day against Hartlepool United, which included an extremely early contender for goal of the season from Scott Hogan, appeared to suggest that a promising season lay ahead. So far, that promise has not yet abated.
Aside from promotion in 2010, the brightest moments for Dale fans in recent times have been vicarious and bittersweet, taking pleasure in witnessing former players like Adam Le Fondre, Rickie Lambert, Grant Holt, Craig Dawson and Glenn Murray enjoying success further up the league.
Christmas 2013 saw Rochdale in fifth position, well-poised for an assault on the automatic play-off places in a hotly contested League Two. However, it is events in the Third Round of the FA Cup against Leeds United which will have supporters dreaming again.
A wonderful team performance saw Rochdale passing the ball with confidence that belied their league status, and harrying and pressing Leeds from start to finish. The high spot came in the 84th minute with Ian Henderson’s beautifully cushioned volley over Paddy Kenny which sealed the 2-0 victory.
Far from the distraction that some managers feel that the FA Cup is, Keith Hill told BBC Radio Manchester that “A good cup run can enthuse and reenergise players.” His side’s Third Round performance certainly displayed both enthusiasm and energy. If he can continue to instil the same desire in to his team for the remainder of the league season, promotion could be well within reach again.
Looking on the Bright Side, as per the title of an early Gracie Fields film, can be difficult to do at times for the people of Rochdale. The club motto is “Crede Signo” – “Believe in the Sign.” Keith Hill’s quiet revolution might just be a sign that Rochdale supporters can start to look on the bright side at last.