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Rochdale 2018/19 part one: Lessons not learned
Written by fitzochris on Friday, 11th Jan 2019 15:31

May 2018

The summer of 2018 had no right to be as enjoyable as it was for supporters of Rochdale AFC. The England national football team equalling its best ever performance at an overseas tournament, allied with record-breaking temperatures, certainly brought jubilation to the town. However, had a single, pivotal moment of the domestic football season panned out differently, these would have been mere salves for an open wound.

The media quite rightly described Joe Thompson’s second-half winner over Charlton Athletic on the final day of the season − which completed Rochdale’s escape from relegation − as a fairy tale, the result allowing Dale to leapfrog derby rivals Oldham Athletic and instead condemn them to League Two. The added pixie dust came from the fact that Thompson, a local lad, had overcome cancer twice in three years.

But before getting into the euphoria and drama generated that afternoon, it’s important to grasp the context leading up to the focal match. The truth is, the 2017/18 season for Rochdale AFC, excluding two significant highlights, was a disappointment.

Penning that sentence is difficult.

As any supporter of the club for more than a decade would concur, following Rochdale was once to accept disappointment – to embrace it even. However, manager Keith Hill, over the past 10 years (a brief sabbatical aside), has created a culture of over performance and over achievement. Supporters have become greedy on such mana to the extent that anything that hints at a regression from such impeccability is met with frustration.

Having fallen just shy of the League One play-off positions in the two seasons previous, Rochdale found themselves 11 points from safety in February 2018 − a considerable reversal of fortunes. Outsiders would suggest this was Rochdale’s natural home when based on budget, average attendance and resources; that the ‘trophyless club’ had no business being anywhere above League Two; that Keith Hill had run out of rabbits to produce from his magic hat.

Rochdale supporters had their own theories − poor recruitment; a lack of leadership on the field; the concession of late goals; vulnerability to set pieces; and a baffling stubbornness with failing tactics, being chief among them.

Whatever the reasons, Rochdale started the season sluggishly and these lethargic performances brought no league victory until September 12th, seven games in, with three points being in similarly short supply thereafter. The club’s predicament by the turn of the year looked terminal as far as League One status was concerned.

One brief respite from the league gruel came in the guise of the FA Cup. Traditionally, Keith Hill already had a decent record in this competition as Rochdale manager, but he was about to surpass all previous achievements – personal and otherwise. Prior to 2018, the club’s best performance in the competition was reaching the fifth round, a 3-1 defeat at Wolves, in 2003, and a 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, in 1990. In 2018, the club would reach this stage again, but this time taking the might of Premier League Tottenham Hotspur to a Wembley replay.

It is ironic that, in an ocean of league forgetfulness, the Spurs tie at Spotland, Rochdale’s home stadium, will remain a treasured lifetime memory for supporters – and for good reason.

The route to this stage had been fairly routine against uninspiring opposition – Bromley 4-0; Slough 0-4; Doncaster 0-1; Millwall 2-2 (1-0) – so when Rochdale were drawn at home against a high-flying Premier League team there was a palpable excitement.

One issue that diminished the anticipation ever so slightly was the state of the Spotland pitch. It was a mess, a medieval battleground, a Monday-morning Glastonbury. The reasons offered for this were debated hard and long by supporters, but one thing was certain: Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was not happy about unleashing his charges on it.

The Argentine said in a press conference at the time: “I think the FA need to assess how the pitch is and then to take a decision about if it's good for the FA Cup, good for the players, good for the teams to play in this type of pitch, in that condition that I think doesn't help football.

“It’s about providing a safe place to play for the players. I think it's a big risk to play in a pitch like this – if the pictures I have seen give an accurate impression of the state of it. If it is like I saw in the pictures, I think you cannot play football on it. That is my point of view.”

Pochettino urged the FA to have another look at the pitch or find another venue. “Not because we are Tottenham, no, I think Rochdale cannot play football there, too,” he said. “And it's a massive risk for their players, too. Maybe the FA need to go in and try to take a very good decision for football – not only because we have need to go and play there. I am going to speak with the chairman today in the afternoon to try to find a solution with the club, to see what we can do.”

The pitch became a national talking point and Rochdale chief executive Russ Green took to the radio to vent his frustration at Pochettino’s derogatory comments and also those made by TalkSport presenter Jim White.

“You have been disrespectful to Rochdale Football Club because you called it a bowl of porridge,” he said in direct reference to White’s remarks. “People say it’s unplayable but the referee on Tuesday night [against Millwall] said: ‘I can’t believe that surface stood up to what it did — it was superb considering the conditions you’ve had there’. There was no fear of injury.

“We had 289 days of rain out of 364 last year. We’ve had to suffer exceptional circumstances.”

However, following the postponement of yet another league tie ahead of the Spurs game, Rochdale took the decision to relay the pitch completely at a rumoured cost of half a million pounds.

The new, lush green surface certainly seemed to please the Spurs manager, who said: “Now, when I see the pictures and videos of the pitch on the Rochdale website, I need to congratulate them because the effort was massive to get it in the best condition to play without risk. I apologise if someone took my words in the wrong way.”

The match had also been selected for live BBC coverage, bringing welcome exposure and income to Rochdale. The significance of the game was brought home upon entry to Spotland on the day of the game. Those supporters who sit in the Pearl Street stand, such as this author, had to pass under a makeshift TV studio on stilts. Looking up and one could see former England internationals Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas conducting their live preamble down the cameras to the watching world.

And what a show Rochdale put on for them. A performance followed that left anybody watching questioning just why Rochdale were dwelling in the ocean trench of League One.

Although Spurs elected to make changes to the side that had drawn with Juventus in the Champions League earlier that week, it was still a strong line-up. Rochdale, however, refused to show deference and, pleasingly, opted to play a pressing game rather than park the bus.

Tottenham seemed baffled and unable to cope with the notion that a team from the lower reaches of English football would attempt to play the game as intended. The deserved opening goal came just before half-time. Spurs’ Harry Winks lost the ball just over half-way, the midfielder tackled by Mark Kitching, who found Stephen Humphrys who quickly sent Andy Cannon down the other flank. Cannon’s low ball in was perfectly weighted and Rochdale captain Ian Henderson, unmarked, arrived to side-foot gloriously past Michel Vorm. It was a wonderfully crafted effort and a just reward for a first half that achieved more PR for the FA Cup than a multi-million pound advertising campaign ever could.

More drama was to follow, however.

Spurs seemed to take Rochdale a little more seriously in the second half and the impressive Brazilian Lucas Moura, making his debut, squared matters when he latched on to a Moussa Sissoko through ball, ramming his shot high beyond Josh Lillis and into the net.

Rochdale continued to battle and, fearing a replay, Pochettino finally introduced England internationals Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Their impact was telling. The former made the very most of contact from Rochdale defender Harrison McGahey in the box and the latter stepped up to convert one of his notoriously unstoppable penalties from the spot.

The feeling of injustice among the home support was profound. Thankfully, the players didn’t let their heads drop and, with seconds to go, the ball was swung into the Spurs penalty area one last time, falling at the feet of substitute Steven Davies. The veteran striker, who had been beleaguered by injury up to this point, took a touch that demonstrated why he had previously played at a much higher level, and finished with a laser-guided precision.

This author hadn’t heard as vociferous a roar from the Pearl Street stand since Ben Muirhead converted the penalty that sent Dale to Wembley for a League Two play-off final in 2008.

Lowly Rochdale had taken the mighty Tottenham to an FA Cup fifth-round replay. An incredible feat, of which manager Keith Hill was justifiably proud, while not losing sight of the club’s league situation.

He told the BBC after the game: “I've never had a moment like that.

"Wembley [Spurs’ temporary home] is a reward for the players' efforts. We've got that booster and momentum and they will be looking forward to it as will the supporters.

"It's Milton Keynes [MK Dons in League One] on Wednesday and that's the bread and butter."

And this was the hope. There was a collective swell of optimism that the performance during the Spurs draw would transfer to the league. The cup run, and the state of the pitch, had supplied Rochdale with a generous amount of games in hand on their relegation rivals and there were points to be made.

It wasn’t to be. The MK Dons game ended in a tepid goalless draw, which was followed by a single-goal defeat at Wigan. The cup replay against Spurs at Wembley ended in a crushing 6-1 loss and it seemed that natural order had been well and truly restored.

But, going forward, Rochdale would carve five wins from the remaining 15 league games, which was enough to provide them with a sniff of league survival on the final day of the season. Considering how far adrift the club had been in February, this in itself was a remarkable feat. It could have been even better had last-minute lapses in concentration not led to concessions, or key penalties not been missed.

As it stood, however, Rochdale occupied 21st position in League One, the fourth and final relegation spot. To avoid the drop, they had to better the result of Oldham, who sat one point better off in 20th. Ordinarily this scenario would be pressurised enough, but Rochdale were to host a strong Charlton side, who were looking to secure a play-off place, while Oldham were to travel to Northampton, a poor side who were all but relegated barring a mathematical miracle.

Once again the TV cameras descended on Spotland, but this time there was much less of a carnival atmosphere. This was no fairy tale FA Cup tie − it was the very real, gritty business of survival in the lower leagues.

And yet from such a scenario a fairy tale did emerge, as well as high drama. In all truth, the game against Charlton as a whole was a drab affair. With results going their way from very early on, the visiting Addicks gave the impression that they were content to sit in second gear and let Rochdale toil in finding a way to unpick their defence. The required breakthrough finally arrived on 69 minutes. Joe Thompson, a Rochdale-born-and-bred product of the youth academy, had been introduced to the action from the substitutes’ bench just two minutes earlier. He put an end to a session of penalty-box pinball by lashing a left-footed effort through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner.

"It just felt like slow motion," he would later tell the BBC. "I was in the box, had a bit of time, got it onto my left and then put my foot through it. I kept it low.”

Oldham were currently drawing at Northampton, so Rochdale absolutely had to make the scoreline stick. The home defence duly played its part for the remaining 20 minutes, but, in truth, Charlton manager Lee Bowyer didn’t appear to want his charges to overly exert themselves in pursuit of an equaliser with an all-but-guaranteed play-off semi-final just around the corner.

When the final whistle sounded, it didn’t bring the expected euphoria. The Oldham match had fallen a full 10 minutes behind schedule due to an injury. This led to a situation more dramatic than the entire preceding 90 minutes. A nervous hush fell over Spotland – the crowd, the staff, the players. The Sky TV cameras lapped up the drama by showing anxious eyes locked to mobile phone screens and Rochdale players hunched over TV monitors in the stadium tunnel. It all hinged on Northampton keeping Oldham out. Prayers were offered to the Football Gods. And then it came. The beautiful three-burst blast of a referee’s whistle 150 miles away ensured Rochdale would enjoy a fifth consecutive season in League One. Fans spilled onto the pitch as if a dam wall had burst. Players were congratulated and hoisted aloft. Celebrations continued well into the night. For the second time that season, a memory to be long cherished had been born.

Rochdale’s League One status had been saved by one of its own sons. That in itself is a story, but with Joe Thompson there is so much more. Footballers are often labelled as heroes, but usually only in clichéd terms. Here, however, hero isn’t a strong enough word.

Thompson, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013, was given the all clear in 2014. He is now in complete remission again after being diagnosed with cancer a second time in March 2017.

“You can say it's written in the stars, fate, destiny and there's been a lot of hard work I've had to do,” the 29-year-old told BBC Radio Manchester after the game.

“It's all come down to today and it's proven that it's been worth it. I never had it easy and it's something that my mum has instilled in me. You make the best out of a bad situation and play the cards you're dealt and you just make the best out of your hand.

“It's been a rollercoaster but today's a massive high, a massive, big moment for my family and I'm sure we'll celebrate and enjoy it.”

The euphoria of the day gave way to relief and the relief, in turn, made way for analysis. Supporters looked for assurances that the club would not endure another season of struggle in 2018/19.

Reflecting on the campaign, Keith Hill told the club’s website: “We haven’t scored enough goals this season and we’ve drawn too many games.

“As a manager, you try to make sure that you get the right balance [in terms of goals conceded and scored], and we haven’t. We’ve attacked and missed opportunities, we’ve made mistakes and have been narrowly beaten or drawn games, having taken the lead.

“There have been times when I’ve been upset at performances, been upset with results and individuals, but we’ve retained our composure and we’ve got the job done whereas other clubs haven’t.

“The players will generate and carry their own enthusiasm for a fresh start on zero points. The players have achieved a lot over the last four seasons, but it wasn’t the right feeling during pre-season and during the early stages – I could sense a little bit of complacency. It wasn’t as though the players were still on holiday, it was more like ‘this was hard work’ and in any walk of life if you’re overachieving constantly, it’s difficult to keep motivating yourself to do it, and I think there was a little bit of that.

“From a football perspective, it’s difficult because you don’t want to be in that situation again, but there are no guarantees. It will come down to players’ application, attitude and a collective endeavour to overachieve.

“Having spoken with all the players and having watched the way they celebrated our achievements, and the supporters as well because they were magnificent, then it’s like ‘we can’t tempt fate again so we’ve got to make sure that we have the overachieving mentality on the training pitch and in games’.”

So while Hill publicly backed his existing squad to improve, you couldn’t help but sense change was just around the corner.

PRE-SEASON 2018

There were no two ways about it, Keith Hill would have been nursing some emotional bruising at the close of the 2017/18 season.

The Rochdale manager had earned himself legendary status among the club’s supporters for what he had achieved over the past decade. His high stock, respected equally by the wider football community, was based on getting more than seemed possible from the playing staff of a club which operated on a shoestring budget when compared to the majority of outfits they are expected to compete against.

His honours list includes two promotions from League Two and consistent top-half finishes in League One. Avoiding relegation on the final day of the season following a campaign of struggle was a new experience for him at Spotland and one, you would imagine, his ego had to come to terms with. In fact, Rochdale’s only previous struggles in the past 10 years came about when Keith Hill wasn’t at the helm. His brief spell away from the club between 2011 and 2013 − when he tried his hand at managing in the Championship with Barnsley − saw Rochdale relegated from League One and fall to the bottom half of League Two before his return.

Hill’s job as Rochdale manager was never in any danger. There were a few dissenting voices during the 2017/18 season, but they were drowned out by the more pragmatic supporters, Chairman Chris Dunphy chief among them.

The poor season had, however, led to mass introspection with all connected at the club. It opened up a debate about just what was expected of Rochdale, a club that only ten years ago was reputed as the perennial prop of the basement division. Some supporters were happy that the town simply had a team to put out on the pitch, others were content with a team that was competitive and others felt promotion to the Championship was a real aspiration, despite Dale never before reaching such heights. Most fell somewhere in the middle, however.

Whatever Hill’s private aspirations for the 2018/19 season, winning more games was an obvious one. His first task was to deal with the eroding contracts of some of Rochdale’s more promising players, and to move on those who he felt could not help push the team forward.

Out-of-contract players Andy Cannon, Harrison McGahey, Matty Gillam and Joe Thompson were all offered new deals, while youth-team goalkeeper Brad Wade was offered his first professional contract.

Reece Brown, Niall Canavan, Steven Davies, Keith Keane and Mark Kitching, who were out of contract, were all released. Loan players Stephen Humphrys, Scott Wiseman, Bradden Inman, Billy Knott, Sam Hart and Alex Dobre returned to their parent clubs.

Hill was far from content to watch sand drain through an egg-timer while existing players pondered the contracts on the table. He embarked on a rapid recruitment drive that saw six new players arrive at Spotland before the end of June.

Defender James Finnerty was the first of these new faces. The 19-year-old Irishman signed a two-year-deal from Aston Villa, having been on the Birmingham club’s books since the age of 16.

Finnerty had made regular appearances for the Villans’ under-18s before moving up through the ranks into the under-23s. He had also been capped by Ireland at under-15, under-16, under-17, under-18 and under-19 level.

It seemed Hill’s reputation for developing young talent was a key factor in the Irishman’s move.

“As soon as I heard that Rochdale were interested, I knew it would be a great opportunity for me,” he told the club’s website.

“I’m well aware that the manager gives opportunities to young players, so it was a chance I didn’t want to turn down.

“I enjoyed my three years at Villa but I’m looking forward the fresh start and a new challenge. I’m delighted to get the deal done so early in the close season and I can’t wait to get started and to meet the lads when we return for pre-season.”

While Finnerty represented something of an unknown quantity, the same could not be said of Hill’s second summer signing.

David Perkins’ return to Spotland on a two-year deal was met with almost universal celebration from the Rochdale support – even though the experienced midfielder was now 35 years old. Hill’s logic looked sound. The previous season had seen his defence lack both leadership and protection from the midfield. Perkins, who had made almost 600 appearances during his career at this point, would provide a solution to both.

Hill had first lured Perkins to Rochdale in 2007, where he remained for a season and a half. His last game for the club was his most memorable. He scored a deflected 25-yard screamer to set Rochdale on their way to Wembley in the play-offs, but was then red-carded in the same match. Most believe had Perkins not been suspended for the Wembley final, Rochdale would have been promoted instead of Stockport County.

“I’m very pleased to be back,” he told the Rochdale AFC’s website. “The 10 years since I was last here has flown by, to be honest. It only seems like yesterday, so I’m very pleased to be back and I’m looking forward to the season ahead.

“Keith Hill has been top-drawer with me over the years. I played with him at Morecambe and came to work under him at Rochdale from there, and I also worked with him at Barnsley, so I know what he’s like and I’m really looking forward to working with him again.”

Twenty-six-year-old Northern Irish winger Stephen Dooley was the next player to take his place on Hill’s chessboard. Described in his homeland as a “pacey” and “tricky” wide player, he signed a two-year deal from Northern Irish Premiership side Coleraine, who he helped win the Irish Cup in 2018.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play over in the English system, and Rochdale looks like a brilliant club, so I’m delighted to finally get the deal done,” he told Rochdaleafc.co.uk on his arrival.

“I want to be one of those players that can excite the fans and get people off their seat. All I can really promise is work rate and that I’ll give it my all, and, hopefully, it’s enough to do well.”

Again looking at adding more versatility to the midfield and defence, Hill next brought Jordan (MJ) Williams back to Spotland. Williams put in a decent shift during a loan spell at Rochdale the previous season, before a knee injury saw that curtailed after just 14 appearances. It was enough of a stint to leave a positive impression on Hill, however, who moved quickly to sign the 22-year-old on a permanent two-year deal when his contract with Premier League side Liverpool expired.

“I feel as though I’ve got unfinished business here,” Williams told Rochdaleafc.co.uk.

“I had interest from elsewhere, but, as soon as Keith Hill got on the phone to me, there was no other club that I wanted to go to.

“It’s a brilliant move for me – I know the Gaffer well and I know that he has wanted me since he found out that there could be a chance of me coming back here.

“I've overcome my injury and I’m ready to kick on now.”

With the defence and midfield now bolstered with youth and experience, Hill turned his attention to the frontline. The 2017/18 season had too often left the burden of goals on captain Ian Henderson, which was made even heavier when he was asked to play in a deeper role. Steven Davies had spent too long in the physio’s room to make a meaningful contribution and Calvin Andrew’s game was never about topping the scoring charts.

It’s the age-old conundrum for football managers, though. Twenty-goal-a-season strikers don’t grow on trees and, for a club with a shoestring budget such as Rochdale’s, they don’t come readily from anywhere else either.

So it was again towards experience that Hill leaned, bringing in forward Aaron Wilbraham from Bolton Wanderers. It’s rare this author finds a footballer his age these days, but 38-year-old Wilbraham ticked that box. With more than 550 career appearances to his name, he signed a one-year deal upon leaving Bolton, after netting the goal that kept the Trotters in the Championship at the end of the 2017/18 campaign.

While his age did raise some concern among the Rochdale support initially, his experience could not be denied. During a career stretching over 20-years, Wilbraham had played in all four divisions – Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two – and had scored in every one of them.

“Rochdale is a team that I feel like I’ve played against hundreds of times,” he told the club’s official website. “I’ve also got loads of friends who have played for the club, so I know a bit about it, and I’m looking forward to bringing my experience here and being part of the team.

“The manager has been a big factor in why I have joined here. After speaking to him and meeting with him, I just knew straight away what kind of guy he was, so it is good to link up with him.”

For his sixth signing, Hill turned to yet another familiar face. Bradden Inman had certainly impressed towards the end of his 47-game loan spell the previous season and there was a general expectation he would sign permanently from Peterborough in the summer. Yet that looked unlikely when Posh chairman Darragh MacAnthony took to social media platform Twitter from his home in the United States to suggest Rochdale were trying to sign Inman but the transfer-listed player wasn’t happy with the offer on the table.

It seems a week or two in the sunshine led to a period of reflection from the 26-year-old Australian, who returned to sign a one-year deal.

“After the last game of the season, I wasn’t sure where my future was going to be,” Inman told Rochdale’s website. “I went on holiday with a few of the boys and told them I wanted to come back.

“I like the way we play here, and I think the Gaffer gets the best out of me, so I’m really excited to be back.

“I’d also like to thank the fans for their support. It’s a good feeling knowing I’m welcome back at the club.”

To complement the new recruits, those players offered new deals began to sign, too. It was a positive sign for supporters, who were well used to their star performers being seduced by better offers elsewhere.

Teenage forward Matty Gillam was the first of the existing squad offered new deals to sign, his a two-year extension.

“I want to be in the gaffer’s future plans and I want to get in the team,” he said. “I want to be starting more games [on the pitch] than I’m starting on the bench.”

Brad Wade, too, accepted his first professional contract with the club.

The 18-year-old goalkeeper had been with the club since the age of 15, and was a key member of the Youth Team that secured the EFL Youth Alliance League North West title the previous season.

“I know the standards that are expected, so I know where I’ve got to be and what I need to do, and I’ve been working hard over the off-season to make sure I’m ready to go come pre-season.”

Joe Thompson, the hero of 2017/18, was the next to extend his stay at the club by a year.

“I’m over the moon to have signed a new deal,” he told Rochdaleafc.co.uk.

“I remember the Gaffer saying to me at the end of the season, ‘you’ve climbed to the mountain top, so I bet you want to enjoy the view’. And it’s like anything, you’ve got to take some time, evaluate and spend time with your family.

“I went away and I realised that I’m not done. I had opportunities to do other things, whether it be in media or in public speaking, but it’s every boy’s dream to play football, so why give it up?

“All I have ever done is football since I left school. I also feel that I’ve maybe not reached my potential yet, because I’ve always had the reigns on or being playing catch-up, so I’m excited for the future and I can’t wait to get back out there – I’m raring to go for pre-season.”

Harrison McGahey was one player who supporters feared would definitely leave during the summer. He was easily the stand-out defender during a difficult previous campaign. It was a red-letter day when the club announced he had a signed a new two-year deal.

“It was important to get the contract signed before we come back in for pre-season, so I can get going again,” he said.

“My time at Rochdale has been brilliant. I’ve learned a lot, and to play 100 games is quite a lot in only a two-year period, so I’m proud of that.”

Another player supporters were pleased to see stick around was academy-product Andy Cannon. The 22-year-old midfielder had demonstrated humpback form since his first-team breakthrough in 2014, but it was certainly on the up again during 2017/18 before a fractured cheekbone brought his season to a close.

“The club holds a special place in my heart because it has helped me become the player I am today,” he told Rochdaleafc.co.uk. “I’ve definitely learned a lot from the people here – the staff and the players. I’ve been here a few years now and I’ve enjoyed every season.”

So with his squad pretty much in place before a pre-season ball had even been kicked, it seemed Keith Hill’s best laid plans, for once, had come together unhindered. Positivity was abounding.

But this wouldn’t be Rochdale AFC if there wasn’t at least one chip in the woodwork.

News broke that club chief executive Russ Green had been charged with misconduct by the Football Association relating to his time as CEO at Hartlepool United.

It was alleged Green, along with colleagues David Buncall and Stephen Chandler, failed to comply with FA regulations and were accused of “misrepresenting the terms of contracts and payments made to agents” in the signings of players Paidraig Amond, Lewis Alessandra and Nicky Deverdics in June 2016.

While the alleged offence happened prior to Green’s time at Rochdale, the headlines weren’t shy in mentioning his current club and position. It was an embarrassing situation for the club’s public image, and Green himself, who was once named ‘Chief Executive Officer of the Year’ in the Football Club Business Awards. It was publicised that a three-man FA commission would decide the outcome and Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy was swift to issue a statement.

“Following today’s media reports regarding Chief Executive Russ Green, I would like to take this opportunity to offer my full and public support to Russ.

“I have known Russ for almost two decades and employed him at Rochdale Football Club due to his honesty and integrity, and because I knew that he would do an excellent job. Since his appointment in August 2016, he has had a hugely positive influence across the whole club. He is a valued member of staff and will play an influential part in the future of the club.

“The FA charges against him, which relate to a breach of FA Regulations and certainly not corruption as has been wrongly reported today, date back to before he was employed by Rochdale Football Club, and I have been fully aware of these ongoing proceedings from their inception.

“I have offered, and will continue to offer him, my personal support.

“We continue to await the outcome of the tribunal and will make a further statement at this time.”

As it transpired, Green went on to admit three breaches of Football Association rules relating to “incidents of misconduct in intermediary activity” and was consequently suspended from “all football-related activity” until 30 June 2019. He was also fined £10,000.

Again, Chris Dunphy was quick to issue a statement on behalf of Rochdale AFC.

“It is with regret that we find ourselves in this position, but it is important that we stress we are fully supporting Russ through this difficult time.

“Russ is currently appealing the decision.

“However, with the start of the season just over a month away, we must act quickly to put things in motion to ensure Russ’ role and responsibilities are covered for the period he is away from the club.

“As such, we can confirm that we have moved quickly to restructure internally to ensure continuity and the continued smooth operation of the club.

“To support the internal restructure of the club, we have in place the services of a consultant CEO with experience in this field, should those services be required.”

No further public comment followed on this issue for the remainder of pre-season and it clearly had an effect on Hill’s willingness to engage externally, as he conducted no interviews at all after his squad returned from its traditional week-long warm-weather training in Tenerife, not even on the club’s website. While never explicitly stated, it was clear he had no intention of being asked about Green until he was ready.

But while the administrative side of the club appeared challenging, things on the pitch looked to have kicked on nicely. Supporters got their first glimpse of Hill’s reconfigured side in a friendly at Stalybridge Celtic, with Dale running out comfortable 3-0 victors.

Hill deployed three centre backs against the Northern Premier League side, complemented by wing backs in a 3-2-3-1-1 formation, which he altered into a slightly more attacking shape in the second half. New recruits Perkins, MJ Williams, Finnerty, Inman and Wilbraham all got a run out and performed well enough to give not undue cause for optimism. Sixteen-year-old midfielder Daniel Adshead also showed a level of maturity well beyond his years, glimpses of which had been seen the season prior.

The next friendly on the road, punctuated by the Tenerife excursion, was at fallen ‘giants’ Stockport County. Once Rochdale’s conquerors in a 2008 League Two play-off final, the Edgeley Park side now occupied National League North.

Again, Hill opted to play three at the back, the only notable difference being midfielder Camps deployed as one of them. Hill had tried such squaring of circles before in a bid to give his players a perspective on how their team-mates are required to operate. As it transpired, a Joe Rafferty cross for Joe Thompson resulted in the game’s only goal, with Ian Henderson missing a penalty and Perkins’ imperious midfield display being the only other incidents of note.

A return to Spotland for a double header against more testing Championship opposition would make up the next stage of Rochdale’s pre-season programme. First up was the Nigel Adkins-managed Hull City.

It became clear now that Hill was intent on using a back three for the coming season and his line-up against Hull looked like perhaps being a favoured one, with the raft of substitutions from the previous two friendlies absent.

Pleasingly, Rochdale matched their lordlier opposition throughout, with the midfield looking much more assured thanks to Perkins’ inclusion, and the back three a lot less jittery with MJ Williams occupying the centre of it. However, it was left to wing back Joe Rafferty to settle things as the game reached its death throes. A sublime nutmeg of the Hull left back was followed by an inspirational curling effort that nestled in at the far post.

Before the next advertised game against Middlesbrough, Hill took his side to play in a closed-doors match against a Manchester United XI at Carrington. The game wasn’t publicised and most supporters only became aware that it had taken place when widespread media coverage broke the following day regarding 16-year-old Daniel Adshead.

“Daniel Adshead on brink of £1million Manchester United move after impressing in behind-closed-doors encounter,” The Mirror exclaimed. This was followed by: A United source said: “Adshead was man of the match and head and shoulders above everyone on the pitch. United had a depleted side because many of their regulars are on tour in America with Jose Mourinho and the first-team squad, but United's staff were hugely impressed with everything the lad did.”

Adshead’s ability was no secret to Rochdale fans. He already had the respect of his team-mates, too.

“He covered nearly 14km during both training sessions,” Ian Henderson said of Adshead's incredible efforts at the pre-season training camp in Tenerife. “When you put that into context, you normally cover between four and six in one training session. All of the lads are in and around that figure, but he has been the standout person.”

“You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know Dan's got a great future in the game,” Keith Hill had said during the previous campaign. “People forget he's only 16. He's making a lot of progress for someone still at school.”

There was a suspicion an agent was at work with regards to the burst of media coverage, with some supporters going as far as to suggest the friendly was arranged deliberately to put Adshead on United’s radar. Whatever the true motivation, Adshead was staying put… for now.

Dale secured their fourth victory of preseason a couple of days later, coming back from 2-0 down to beat Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough 3-2.

Once again, Perkins sat in front of a back three, allowing the wing backs to fulfil a much more attacking role. MJ Williams and Harrison McGahey impressed in defence and the week’s speculation clearly hadn’t affected Adshead either, who put in another cultivated performance from midfield, while Ian Henderson’s industry underlined his credentials as the fittest player in the team.

Despite this, it was Boro who took the lead against the run of play, and then extended it, showing a clinical approach Dale had thus far been lacking. It took a raft of substitutions from the away side to disrupt the flow of the game and the home side took full advantage. Dale got back on level terms thanks to a couple of crosses into the box – first Bradden Inman to Calvin Andrew and then Wilbraham to Inman. And, just as they did against Hull, Dale grabbed a late winner. Inman swinging in his second assist of the afternoon for Ollie Rathbone to steer home.

Seeing off two strongly fancied Championship sides in succession, with assured performances to boot, looked to have done wonders for the confidence of supporters and players alike. Another dominant display at League Two Tranmere, which led to a 3-1 victory, confirmed this the following weekend. The positivity was evidenced further when the club announced 2,610 season tickets had been snapped up, eclipsing the previous year’s total of 2,601 − a new club record!

By this stage of pre-season, various players were transitioning in and out of Hill’s match-day squads, but one player was conspicuous by his sustained absence − Stephen Dooley. Supporters had been keen to see the new “exciting” wide player in action, but Hill’s lack of media presence left them none the wiser. It later transpired Dooley had suffered a bruised bone. It was obvious nobody would be seeing him in competitive action for some time, given he had effectively missed all preparation to date.

Dale's final pre-season match, just four days before the new campaign got under way at Burton Albion, saw Keith Hill put out something of a second-string side at FC United of Manchester. The main talking point, however, was the inclusion in the starting line-up of trialist Christian Silenzi, son of former Nottingham Forest and Napoli striker Andre Silenzi. The excitement of seeing some continental flair in the ranks soon waned as Dale went 2-0 down and the Italian, who had been ineffectual, was hooked at half time never to be seen in Rochdale colours again.

Dale did battle back to win 4-2 against the non-league protest outfit, but it was clear the game was an inconvenience for Hill, confirmed when he later said he had planned to use the fixture for the youth team but had been unaware they would be touring the Netherlands at that time.

Still, it served as a decent run out and, as the dawn of the season approached, Hill was ebullient when he appeared to speak publicly for the first time in a month.

At a fans’ forum held at Spotland just two days before the Burton league opener, Hill, and club directors, answered questions from supporters in an open, honest and intuitive manner. Hill, especially, gave a wonderfully rare insight into the inner workings of his philosophy.

AUGUST 2018

It was the type of day that had been common throughout much of that English summer when 707 Rochdale supporters boarded cars, buses and trains to make their way south to East Staffordshire. The sun bore down mercilessly and the heat waves danced up from the surface of the M6 while expectant faces stared out over rolling fields punctuated by service stations and gantries.

Burton upon Trent was to be the destination of this sojourn, and the town’s team would provide Rochdale’s opening-day opposition. Freshly relegated from the Championship and managed by Nigel Clough, Burton Albion, in many ways, were a club Rochdale would very much like to emulate. A team that had risen from the non-league ranks to English football’s second tier without a ludicrously wealthy benefactor or risking the club’s financial infrastructure.

Unlike Rochdale, however, they had suffered a miserable pre-season, and, for those who put stock in such things, hopes were high that this might be reflected in their opening day performance. Albion were viewed, with respect of course, as a team with which Rochdale could at least compete.

Rochdale’s aspirations for the season needed to be set against a scale, nevertheless. Another club relegated from the Championship at the end of the previous campaign was Sunderland. They kicked off their League One campaign earlier that scorching Saturday, winning 2-1 against Charlton Athletic. There were 31,075 at the Stadium of Light to see it. By contrast, Rochdale’s average attendance the previous season had been 3,484. A reminder, then, that the division was made up of very incongruently resourced teams.

As the Dale fans sauntered into the sun-kissed stands of Burton’s Pirelli Stadium, the summer-long question as to what Hill’s starting XI would be was finally answered via the public address system: Lillis; Rafferty; McNulty, McGahey, MJ Williams; Done; Perkins, Camps; Wilbraham, Henderson, Inman.

Most were in agreement that it was strong, with decent options on the bench also. Yet there was still a tangible nervousness. This was the Pirelli Stadium after all, a venue that had brought Rochdale little joy over the years and not once three points. A true bogey ground.

Fears were allayed after a dominant, slick first-half display, which resulted in two goals inside the first half hour from Brad Inman. Some sublime interplay at the back led to a long, diagonal pass from MJ Williams, which was nodded across the box by Aaron Wilbraham, where Inman charged in to place the ball high past former Rochdale ’keeper Stephen Bywater. And, when it came, the second goal was just as much a team effort. Burton were caught in midfield during a sustained period of pressure, and the visitors capitalised ruthlessly, countering down the left flank where Ian Henderson, with the outside of his foot, bent a beautiful ball around the defence for Inman to calmly control and finish.

Unfortunately, Dale couldn’t sustain their first half approach after the break and so the second period became a much tenser affair, with the Brewers looking more dangerous and much more like a side used to playing at a higher level. Dale goalkeeper Josh Lillis was called into action regularly and the introduction of Ben Fox at half-time added a bit more impetus to Albion’s midfield. It was, in fact, Fox who threaded the key pass through for Lucas Akins, whose shot was denied by Lillis, only for the lurking Liam Boyce to slot home the rebound. Thankfully, Dale, very much indebted to their ’keeper, managed to repel all further sorties and hold on for the three points, a feat that took six months to achieve away from home the previous campaign.

There was much to learn about Rochdale’s summer progression from this first competitive outing. As during the previous season, a back three with Jim McNulty on the left still didn’t look effective when Rochdale were without possession. His failure to pull wing back Matt Done close enough to him left him too high in the second half, creating space which Burton exploited far too often. What had visibly improved from a defensive point of view, however, was the unit’s ability to pass to each other and out from the back, the move leading to the first goal being the best demonstration in point.

In midfield, as validated in pre-season, Perkins played the deep role, cleared up all around him and was constantly in the ear of his team-mates to ensure the side retained its shape. Further forward, however, the midfield looked weakened once Henderson dropped in there from attack. Inman was rightly taken off after running himself into the ground, but with both Cannon and Rathbone on the bench, it seemed an odd decision for Hill to ignore them. Henderson became anonymous once dropping back, yet had been his usual pest when up front, irritating defenders with his constant running.

Afterwards, Keith Hill, while visibly pleased with the outcome, was quick to note the momentous swing in Rochdale’s performance. “With respect to the way I want to play, I thought it was evident in the first half. The players accepted responsibility, but when we’re 2-0 up, we should be managing the game with the ball better than we did in the second half.

“The only disappointment I have from the second half is that we saw exactly the opposite to what I’ve expected and seen in pre-season, but that’s probably a test of the players’ nerve. As I’ve just explained to the players, if you play the way I expect you to play for 90 minutes, and you can, then if we had lost that game today having been 2-0 up, I still would have seen a lot of encouragement.

“I’m really pleased to come here and win on the first day of the season. It gives everybody a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of hope. You look at the supporters we had following us and there’s a little bit of a bounce from last season − there’s almost a promotion feeling. I’m working with a good squad of players, and I think everybody can see that, but it’s just one game.”

The buzz of achieving three points away from home right off the bat would last all week with the supporters, but Hill was quick to arrange a behind-closed-doors game before the next league match came around – the second-half slump at Burton clearly rankling. This midweek test would come from League Two Macclesfield Town and it ended in a 5-2 defeat (Kgosi Ntlhe scoring Dale’s two goals), something the Silkmen took great glee in plastering all over their website.

“Behind closed doors should mean exactly that,” said a gruff Keith Hill. “It was a useful training exercise and nothing more.”

***

The regularity with which Rochdale have entertained Peterborough United as a first home fixture over recent years had become something of a running joke, yet the chance to build on the three points earned at Burton was anything but when they arrived at Spotland the following Saturday.

A club made famous by the vociferous Barry Fry over the years, Posh had established a new reputation for taking on players from the non-league and selling them on at tremendous profit. In between doing so, they have achieved varying degrees of success on the pitch at League Two, League One and Championship level. Previous battles against Rochdale have been equally varied − from the time-wasting tactics used under Darren Ferguson, to the more pedestrian approach of Grant McCann, Dale had both conquered and fallen foul of this side from Cambridgeshire in unpredictable fashion in recent times.

Now managed by Steve Evans, himself an outspoken chap not unlike the legendary Barry Fry, it was very clear that Peterborough, backed by chairman Darragh MacAnthony, had heavily invested in a team with promotion to the Championship as its only objective for the coming campaign. With frontline options such as Ivan Toney, Matt Godden and Jason Cummings to choose from, it was clear ahead of kick-off that this would be a sterner test than that provided by Burton seven days earlier.

And yet things started well enough for Dale. Delaney came back into the back three to ease the McNulty issue of the previous game, but the line-up was otherwise unchanged. The home side processed confidently and were keeping possession with neat and tidy play. A lung-busting run from David Perkins fed Henderson out on the right who teed up Inman and his header was just over the bar. This positive play was finally rewarded when Rafferty burst into the box and appeared to be upended by Colin Daniel. A second look suggests Rafferty when down a little too easily, but the referee was swift in awarding the penalty and, despite theatrics on the goaline from the giant Aaron Chapman, Ian Henderson rolled home the spotkick confidently, something he hadn’t done too often from 12 yards the previous campaign.

But that’s where the joy ended for the home supporters. Peterborough boss Evans had done his homework and set up his team to sit, win possession in key areas and then pounce. Three first-half goals followed which showed Rochdale’s vulnerability from set pieces was still no fallacy. The mesmerising Siriki Dembele was the architect on each occasion, his delightful balls from the left causing no end of grief. First to the unmarked Jason Cummings on the back post, giving the Scot the easiest of headers; then a looped cross was cushioned back across goal for another Scot, Mark O’Hara, to bullet home; before Dembele decided to have a go himself, driving a free kick directly at goal, with Lillis only able to parry, and Matt Godden on hand to stab home the rebound.

The second half also perhaps served to highlight an area where Rochdale hadn’t satisfactorily strengthened in the summer. The previous season’s top scorer, Henderson, was being used either too deep or too wide, leaving Wilbraham toiling against a Peterborough defence who had him well marshalled. Calvin Andrew was introduced later on, but is too similar a player to Wilbraham. This lack of cutting edge resulted in Rochdale’s superior possession counting for naught. Posh merely had to stick to their gameplan. Their fourth and final goal highlighted this perfectly. The impressive O’Hara took advantage of some clumsy footwork by MJ Williams in midfield, the loose ball then falling back to him from team-mate Ivan Toney, himself pressured by Delaney, and O’Hara was left free to dance up the field unopposed and roll the ball past Lillis.

After the euphoria of Burton this was a startling wake-up call − and in a game where Rochdale didn’t actually play too badly. They were simply destroyed by a disciplined, effective side, which possessed the required cutting edge.

Hill was philosophical afterwards.

“There’s always disappointment in defeat but I’m reasonably happy with the performance,” he said. “I go back to when I was a player and a manager once said ‘while we’re playing all the football, they’re scoring all the goals’.

“Ultimately, we forgot about one key component of any match, which is defending – there were individual mistakes. If you give those opportunities to Peterborough’s wealthy strikers and attacking midfielders, then you’ll get punished. We can’t be as compassionate or as charitable as we were today.

“With respect to the way I want to play with the ball and regains, then certain parts of the play were better today than they were at Burton Albion, but the overall the 90 minutes was awash with individual defensive mistakes, and that’s what cost us.

“But instead of getting emotionally angry about it, you’ve got to assess and evaluate, and you’ve got realise that it’s only game two. As I said last week, there’s plenty for us to work on, which shouldn’t kill our confidence.”

***

There is nothing like a cup competition to distract from the league, or so goes the cliché, and Rochdale only had to wait three days for a chance to get the Peterborough result out of the system, via a trip to Grimsby Town in the Carabao Cup.

This author isn’t one to put much stock into past records, believing that it is only current form, tactics and personnel that influence the outcome of any given game, but, with that said, Rochdale’s most recent run against the Mariners was too impressive not to mention. The two sides hadn’t played each other for eight years, but of the eight games played between 2006 and 2010, Rochdale had drawn just one and won the rest.

Grimsby Town, at this period residing in League Two, had started their season in a similar vein to their visitors – one victory and one defeat.

“It’s a game we want to win,” said Hill prior to the match. “There’s no luxury for me of prioritising a tournament or the league − they’re all equally as important to this football club.

“It does give an opportunity to rotate players, but the way we play doesn’t change, so those players, if given an opportunity, have to try and replicate the way that we’ve been doing things. I’ve got no problem relying on the squad.

“But do I really need to make those changes with everybody fit? I’m not too sure. We’re in the early stages of the season, so I’ve been reflecting on the possibilities, and we’ll see what happens.”

And see the Rochdale supporters did. The climate around Blundell Park, on the coast of north-east Lincolnshire, was hospitably mild for a change and this wasn’t the only thing to warm the mood. Hill had indeed rung the changes for this tie, meaning a chance was afforded to see how other members of the squad would fit into the system in a competitive environment.

Kgosi Ntlhe was brought in for Matt Done at left wing-back and Jim McNulty replaced MJ Williams at the heart of the back three; Ollie Rathbone and Andy Cannon came into the midfield and Calvin Andrew replaced Aaron Wilbraham up front.

And yet the result of this tinkering served up a display startlingly similar to the previous Saturday – lots of possession, playing neatly through the lines, but no cutting edge. It was the home side who came closest to scoring, too, with the Dale defence once more looking unsure of deliveries into the box. Josh Lillis also got the pulse racing as he was caught in possession by Jordan Cook only to be bailed out by his defence. Jake Hessenthaler next beat Harrison McGahey on the left-hand side, cutting in from the byline to find a dangerous position, but McNulty cut out his distribution and put it behind. Elliot Whitehouse headed against the post from the resulting corner, before Mariners captain John Welsh struck a volley wide.

The warning signs were there.

Thankfully Rochdale’s midfield took the initiative where the forwards had failed. As half-time approached, McGahey clipped a lovely ball between Danny Collins and Paul Dixon for Ollie Rathbone to race on to. The former Manchester United youngster then lifted the ball around the Grimsby goalkeeper from a tight angle to put Dale in the lead.

After the break, Rochdale seemed much more comfortable and Rathbone, making the most of his first-team place, wrapped things up when he instinctively zapped the ball into the bottom corner from 22 yards. Both he and Andy Cannon had enjoyed an excellent recall.

Speaking after the match, Keith Hill was naturally pleased that his side had progressed to the second round of the League Cup, but was quick to highlight Dale’s lack of cutting edge up front.

“I’m happy that Rathbone got two goals but you want your strikers to score,” he said. “You want them to get into good, goal-scoring positions. They have got to be ruthless in front of goal, especially with the number of chances we are creating. We’re giving defences time to get organised and goalkeepers the chance to get set – we have to be more clinical, no question.”

And in true Keith Hill fashion, no sooner had he finished berating his forwards, he goes and signs… a goalkeeper. Yes, the very next day the club announced the loan signing of 21-year-old stopper Magnus Norman from Premier League Fulham. A very leftfield move.

“He’s different to the goalkeepers that we’ve got at this football club in that he’s 6ft 3, so he already fills the goal,” Hill told the club’s website.

“It’s important that he puts pressure on the goalkeepers we’ve got. I feel as though there hasn’t been enough pressure on Josh [Lillis], and that’s why I’ve brought him in. He has come to be competitive and I hope that it gives a competitive, keen rivalry for all the goalkeepers.”

Capped by England under-18s, Norman joined Fulham in June 2006, aged just nine, and had represented the Whites at every academy age group. However, he had yet to taste league football…

***

Buoyed by the League Cup victory over Grimsby, a result that led Rochdale to be paired with Middlesbrough in the second round, it was from the north-east coast of England to the north-west for the next match. Fleetwood Town, a well-financed former non-league club, was to provide the stage in the pursuit of further League One points.

Joey Barton, still a player of some notoriety just the season previous, had decided to hang up his boots and take his first stab at management with the Cod Army. On paper at any rate, he looked to have recruited well over the summer, too. Jason Holt on a season-long loan from Rangers was a stand-out capture.

Ahead of facing Rochdale, Fleetwood had won one and lost one of their opening pair of league games under Barton, before claiming a penalty shootout victory over Crewe Alexandra in the Carabao Cup during the week.

Once again, however, the needle fell into a familiar groove and it was Rochdale who looked the more assured in the opening stages, with Fleetwood struggling to handle the passing rhythm and tempo set by their visitors. Both Kgosi Ntlhe and Ollie Rathbone had retained their place following the midweek victory, and looked worthy of it, but, if we’re talking patterns, the inevitable naturally happened on 29 minutes, with Fleetwood scoring against the run of play.

Dale were caught in possession too high up the pitch on the right and the impressive Ash Hunter made the most the mistake to cut inside and send a low ball into the area. A panic-stricken Stephen Delaney could only dive and head back towards his own goal where the alert Paddy Madden was only too happy to turn the gift beyond Josh Lillis.

Dale stuck at their game plan after the half-time break and it paid off when Rathbone showed great vision to put Henderson through. Craig Morgan opted for a left-arm-to-the-face as a way of halting the Rochdale captain and, unfortunately for him, he did it in the 18-yard box. Henderson was only too happy to further bury his penalty hoodoo of the previous campaign by converting his second spot-kick of the season.

It was here that Keith Hill proceeded to baffle onlookers with a series of tactical reshuffles. Andy Cannon, unlucky not to start after his performance in midweek, possessed plenty of experience at right back. Yet, while he warmed the bench, Hill opted to switch Rathbone, a creative outlet through the middle thus far, to this side of the pitch.

The former Man United trainee was no match for Ash Hunter on this flank and, just six minutes after equalising, Dale were behind again. Hunter left Rathbone tied in knots, fired in a shot from the edge of the box that Lillis could only parry and Ched Evans was perfectly positioned to put in the rebound from close range.

Hill’s next manoeuvre in a bid to contain Hunter was to opt for a back four, with Harrison McGahey moving out to the right and, while this worked to some degree, it did leave the side looking a little disjointed and unsure of each other.

That said, it was here that Fleetwood decided to ease off the gas, almost playing with a back five, and employing some of the most pathetic time-wasting tactics this author has ever seen. This merely served to accrue five minutes of stoppage time during which Dale threw everything forward. Frustratingly, that cutting edge was still lacking, with a series of telling balls into dangerous positions falling to no one, until it was left to Henderson to do what captain’s do best and lead by example. The ball fell to him inside the area on the left (in what looked to be a marginally offside position, it has to be said) and he slammed an effort high into the net on the half-volley with virtually the last kick of the game. The equalising goal also put him level with former Rochdale great Steve Whitehall – 92 successful strikes in 259 appearances for the club, compared to Whitehall’s 292 appearances.

“I thought in the first-half we huffed and puffed,” said Hill after the game.

“We played some nice, possession-based football, but ultimately it’s about scoring goals. They get one opportunity, and it’s a bit naïve what we’re doing defensively.

“A lot of what we’re working on and what we’re doing is more than acceptable, but for us to be a successful side, that means winning games. We have to make better individual decisions and that’s what I’m looking for from this group.

“[The equaliser] shows there’s a great spirit amongst the players, but we need to be better than just spirit, because I don’t believe this squad of players should be in the position that we were in last season.

“If we’d lost that game it still wouldn’t be broke and need 100% fixing. It just needs a bit of glue. Somebody to bring what we’re trying to do, and everything we did in pre-season, together.”







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