Up Hill, Up 'Dale - You Can Keep Your Eddie Howe...
Controversy Week on The Seventy Two comes to a close with something that really isn’t that controversial. Jamie Cutteridge is carving out a reputation as an edgy blogger with some incendiary opinions, but let’s not try to shape this piece of writing into something it’s not. This is a wonderful appreciation of a quite brilliant football manager – enjoy.
It is very much in vogue to appreciate Eddie Howe. In many ways, he has become the ‘1984’ or ‘Generic Radiohead record’ of league football, the figure everyone claims to appreciate (and rightly so) but that not every one has actually taken their own time to discover. Well, I would like to humbly throw another name into the mix, a man who’s done something similar but just in a far less glamorous location. Ladies and gentlemen, Rochdale’s Keith Hill – the Arcade Fire to Howe’s Radiohead, the ‘Watchmen’ to Howe’s ‘1984’. Potent, similar, yet far less heralded.
To begin with, I do not want to under-estimate the job that Howe did at Bournemouth, taking a club on a budget smaller than Wayne Rooney’s vocabulary and not only getting them promoted but into a position to challenge in the league above straight away is no mean feat. But in reality, this is nothing new for Bournemouth, a club at home at this level in the midst of the fluctuation that one expects between divisions. Extenuating circumstances have made the job significantly more challenging, but Howe’s performance was more an example of triumph through adversity than epoch-defining brilliance.
Compare this to Keith Hill – a nothing manager with limited experience taking over arguably the least successful club in English League history. All this with Rochdale staring down the barrel of relegation from the league system. In little over four years, the club has been transformed from top to bottom, where league performances that fly in the face of established history are combined with the new professionalism off the pitch.
For context, let us reflect on Rochdale briefly. A club that, despite being ever-present in the league since 1921, had only a five-year spell outside the bottom division between 1969 and 1974. In reality, despite higher pretension, the raison d’etre of the ‘Dale had been ensuring their stay in League Two continued free from fear of relegation.
Hill’s first season in charge saw him take over with ‘Dale 22nd in League Two in mid-December. By the end of the season, he led them to a position where they finished a solitary place away from the playoffs. In the next year, he achieved a top six spot and, after a memorable penalty shoot-out win over Darlington in the play-off semi final, Hill took Dale to the brink of promotion, losing out to Stockport County at Wembley.
This was followed by another play-off defeat, this time at the semi-final stage. Many fans feared that Hill had lost momentum and perhaps the ‘once in the generation’ chance had gone. However, Hill (and trusty assistant and Dale legend Dave Flitcroft, sweetly dubbed ‘Hillcroft’ in the manner of all good A-list couples) continued his mantra of ‘No Fear’ and this phrase aptly describes the current period in the club’s history. The 2009/10 season is one left marked in the mind of every ‘Dale fan for eternity.
A blistering first three-quarters of the season saw the Spotland club leading the way in League Two ahead of moneybags Notts County and local rivals Bury. Hill had created a team solid at the back (with one the of the classiest central defenders you’re likely to see in League Two – Craig Dawson) but with flair and verve going forward, spearheaded by Chrises Dagnall and O’Grady and backed up by astute loan signings. Soon, Rochdale were enjoying a massive lead at the top of the table, backed up by an incredible goal difference courtesy of a style of play rarely seen at that level of the game, one that would not be out of place amongst the upper echelons and entertainers of world football (admittedly of a lower standard!)
Perhaps O’Grady, more than anyone else, is an example of the successes of the Hillcroft regime. A player floundering at a club was given a chance to rebuild his career under a management duo taking a risk, and one that ultimately paid off as O’Grady has transformed into a player with focus, and one causing problems in League One. O’Grady is far from a one-off – look at the current Rochdale side in which players such as Nicky Adams, Jason Kennedy and Scott Wiseman have been improved by Keith Hill. Players leaving the club rarely have a negative word to say about the management, and many cite Hill as the reason for their career being turned around.
Forgive the confused athletic metaphor but, whilst ‘Dale ultimately limped rather than ran over the line last season, it was a hurdle nonetheless cleared and one that saw them out of League Two to the disbelief of fans who perhaps had settled for a life of quiet mediocrity. Tales of the promotion season are etched in ‘Dale folklore with amazing games and goals from start to finish. This was not the end-game for Hill, however, and his motivation and desire to succeed has led to an even more extraordinary season this term.
It takes a lot to beat a season like that, but the way Hill has adapted his side to League One has been a joy to behold. After a slow start, the team slowly gained belief and their style of play surprised some bigger names early doors this season. Perhaps the greatest moment yet under Hillcroft came at St Mary’s, where Dale recorded a 2-0 victory over Southampton, the heavy pre-season favourites for promotion. This was far from a one-off and October saw the club in prime play-off position.
However, a run of one win in three months led to many wondering if Hill and ‘Dale had been found out at this level, leading to the expected nervous look over their shoulder. Perhaps Hill’s greatest achievement came at this juncture as he transformed his team and put together a wonderful run of results, beating heavyweight sides such as Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton along the way. This superb recent record means they currently sit well within reach of a play-off place. Rochdale. In sight of the League One play-offs. Just a good end to the season off the Championship. Rochdale. Unbelievable, Jeff.
This isn’t Bournemouth existing within their pre-conceived footballing sphere, this is Rochdale destroying all notions of their place in the footballing world. A club whose average attendance is lower than many League Two clubs, operating on the second smallest budget in the division. Only Dagenham and Redbridge manage on less and they are at the other end of the table, and still exceeding expectations.
As if ‘Dale’s progress on the pitch was not enough, Hill has entirely changed the mentality, running and professionalism of the club, its training and outlook on the game. Rochdale were a club meandering, going nowhere and happy to survive. Hill has overseen a transformation into a club that will continue to strive to achieve, improve and develop with or without him. Obviously there is no acid test for this whilst he is at the club. Howe’s departure from the south coast has showed, after initial stability following his exit, how difficult that transition can be. Bournemouth are now feeling the Howe hangover. But despite this un-quantifiable nature of change, one can observe the practicalities of the club to see change. ‘No Fear’ exists both on and off the pitch.
Hill has no real transfer budget – the majority of the money received for Craig Dawson from West Bromwich Albion was mainly ploughed into the club to keep it going. Dawson himself reflects Hill’s ability to both spot and develop a player. Having been picked up from Radcliffe Borough less than two years ago, he could be playing in the Premier League by August.
So what next for Hill? In reality, the limitations of Rochdale’s location and budget mean that Hill will inevitably move on to a bigger stage a la Howe, but his mark will remain at Spotland for years to come. A man whose legacy has transformed the Football League’s traditional no-hopers, turning no-hope to no-fear, and a man that, despite what most people might tell you, is the best young manager in the country.