A window of opportunity

Have Rochdale AFC done enough this January to ensure League One survival?

Kwadwo Baah agreed a pre-contract deal with Manchester City.

Last weekend, Rochdale AFC achieved something that has proven to be a rare commodity this season – three valuable league points.

It wasn’t attained during a high-scoring thriller either, as has been the trend in games involving Rochdale since the turn of the year, nor was it achieved by completely dominating weaker opposition. It was achieved, in fact, through the demonstration of gritty resilience.

The 2-1 win against Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Ground – Dale’s first victory in the league since December 15 – was vital, also, because the opposition is very much a direct rival in the battle to stay in League One.

But, while the win was extremely welcome, it did not disguise the fact that some issues were still in desperate need of being rectified in terms of squad depth. In fact, Rovers were very much the better side in the second half, Dale’s winner coming against the run of play.

In my last article, I laid out where I felt Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy (BBM) needed to address the first-team squad in order to help arrest the wealth of goals being conceded and thus give the club the best chance of pulling clear of the relegation zone around which it has been precariously hovering. As well as being makeshift on the pitch, our bench has also resembled a sparsely populated kindergarten. Not ideal.

At the time of writing that article, we had too many question marks or passengers in the squad. I identified that, while both Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are superb players, they are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. They have since continued to demonstrate both of those aspects. The issue was further exacerbated by a six-week injury to Eoghan O’Connell and the suspension of Jim McNulty following a ridiculous sending off for kicking out at an opponent. This left poor Haydon Roberts, young and on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, as the only fit and obvious centre half.

BBM clearly made rectifying this situation a priority in the January transfer window. Firstly, he managed to secure the loan signing of Luton Town’s Gabriel Osho for the remainder of the season. Osho had just returned from a brief spell on loan at Yeovil Town in National League and his manager, Nathan Jones, was keen to send him out again to get him games, albeit at a higher level. It’s fair to say that he has looked imperious. His no-nonsense, body-on-the-line display at Bristol Rovers was instrumental in Dale securing that first league win since mid-December. He is the type of player Rochdale have been screaming out for.

Conor Shaughnessy was BBM’s other target in this area and one he had to play a bit more of a waiting game with. The versatile Leeds United player had been told he was free to find another club and he wasn’t short of suitors. The Rochdale hierarchy did a good job of selling Dale to the 24-year-old by all accounts, and so he plumped for an 18-month deal at the Crown Oil Arena over moving elsewhere.

Shaughnessy certainly seems more of a typical BBM player than Osho. A silky ball player rather than an enforcer. He is a player I’m fortunate enough to have prior knowledge of too, having seen him play for Heart of Midlothian during a brief loan spell he had there in 2019. His versatility came to the fore at Tynecastle – being utilised in the centre of defence, at left back and even as a midfield anchor – during his 11-game spell. And, while a contact of mine who covers Hearts remarked: “For me, he lacked the necessary aggression to play in the Scottish top flight”, I certainly believe he possesses the technical prowess to thrive in League One. He was given a bounce game at Carlisle on Tuesday to get used Dale’s system, playing in front of the defence, before he is likely thrust into the first team proper against Charlton tomorrow. His versatility will help BBM counter injuries and suspensions in a number of defensive positions.

One area of the defence BBM failed to rectify during January, however, was the left back position – but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Tolaji Bola, brought in on loan from Arsenal at the beginning of the season, had not proved to be a success in the role and, as a result, BBM did not seek to extend this spell. BBM instead identified Blackpool’s Demetri Mitchell as a replacement and had hoped to land the former Man United player on loan from the Seasiders after he had fallen down the pecking order with Luke Garbutt and James Husband also on their books. Despite a pursuit that went deep into deadline day itself, it proved a fruitless chase – Blackpool just didn’t want to let him leave.

Eoghan O’Connell suffered a six-week injury.

With the transfer window closed, the only option now open to BBM before July is the free-agent market. Working with his head of recruitment Callum Jones, left-back targets were quickly identified and one has already been given a trial in the previously mentioned bounce game a Carlisle. Until this position is filled, however, the club must continue to make do with the unsatisfactory utilisation of either Matt Done or Jimmy Keohane.

The midfield overall had also been suffering a similar issue to that of the defence in that there is not so much a dearth of quality but of availability and depth. Jimmy Ryan is probably chief culprit here, through no fault of his own, I’m sure. BBM moved quickly to create an extra option by taking advantage of the availability of Sheffield Wednesday’s Conor Grant on a permanent deal. My knowledge of Grant prior to being tipped off about his journey across the Pennines was nil. However, BBM has since publicly spoken very highly of the Republic of Ireland Under-19 international midfielder, and a contact of mine described him thus: “He’s very good at set pieces, long-range efforts, through balls and arriving late in the box.” It remains to be seen if he will play any part in the game against Charlton tomorrow, but he looks a promising prospect.

The one area of Dale’s system that currently deserves more reward than the club’s current league position is attack. Stevie Humphrys has proven a quality acquisition and I say with confidence that I regard him as one of the best strikers in League One. With he and Jake Beesley on the pitch together, they have caused some real damage to opposition teams and are part of an attacking force that has seen Dale bang in 28 goals since December alone. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, ably assisted by 18-year-old Kwadwo Baah and midfield hitman Matt Lund.

However, with Beesley twice now succumbing to on-field misfortune on the injury front, BBM sought to bring in an addition here, too. Young Blackburn Rovers striker Jack Vale. This was pulled out of the hat late on deadline day – in fact BBM had to wait for Vale to finish an U23 match (in which he scored) before the deal could be concluded. Again, like Grant, this is a signing who lacks first-team experience but brings promise and provides options.

In order for the board to back BBM the way they did this window, as they did in the summer, current players had to be moved on – either to free up wages, generate a fee or, ideally, both. While this did indeed happen, it transpired that the two players departing were not those that were perhaps expected.

Fabio Tavares was the biggest surprise here. After failing to agree a new contract with Dale, he was sold to Coventry City on transfer deadline day. I think it’s fair to say that Tavares had been no more than a peripheral player in BBM’s plans (crucial winner against Fleetwood notwithstanding), so to achieve a fee for him has to go down as a tremendous result.

The other player to leave (who actually hasn’t left!) is Kwadwo Baah. The rapid, tricky, athletic teenager, who only signed his first pro contract in 2019, has had a visible impact this season – troubling tiring defenders, firing in absolute rockets and landing himself December’s Goal of the Month award into the bargain. It’s no surprise football clubs further up the pyramid started to take note.

Baah has made an impact in the Rochdale first team.

His journey to Rochdale was an unusual one too. Like so many youngsters thrust into professional football academies, it can be a case of too much too soon – and so it proved with young Baah. Released from Crystal Palace, but still keen to stay in the game, he was enrolled in the Kinetic Academy, the London-based football programme for talented young players who have lost their way.

It was here the dazzling forward was spotted by football agent Darryl La Victoire. “He just stood out a mile, y’know?” he told me. “I could tell he could easily cut it in the professional game. I took him on and started to get him trials at all the big London clubs. He could have easily gone on to sign for any of them, but then Rochdale got in touch. The manager, Brian Barry-Murphy, said to me, ‘If he comes to Rochdale, he won’t be in our under 18s, he will be with me, in the first team’. That was enough for me and Kwadwo. We knew this was the best decision for his development.”

And so it has proved. Despite much speculation, which included the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich being linked to the teenager, it was only Manchester City who submitted a concrete offer to Dale. With Baah’s contract due to expire in the summer anyway, the true riches that matched his potential were never realistically going to realised. However, rather than risk competing with other high-profile clubs for his signature in the summer, City opted to pay a fee to Rochdale to land Baah now, on a pre-contract deal. The initial bid was actually knocked back by the Dale board, who would have been due compensation regardless, but a deal was eventually struck with both club and player, which includes future sell-on clauses, and Baah will leave Rochdale for the Premier League giants in July.

The interesting thing here is that Manchester City have been very quiet about all of this, to the point that I hear there is genuine displeasure around the Etihad at the deal having been made public. As I write, the deal still hasn’t been confirmed officially by either club.

So, there we have it. Once again, the board and BBM have acquired the tools necessary, left-back aside, to ensure Rochdale AFC has the best chance of staying in the division. If the horrendous home form, which currently sits at one win in 16 games, can be turned around, there is every chance this can happen.

The first chance to do this is tomorrow against Charlton Athletic. Fingers crossed.