For a good while, Rochdale AFC appeared, from the outside at least, to be as vulnerable as that poor goat tethered to the T-Rex paddock in Jurassic Park.
And, much like Dr Alan Grant and his car full of dino-bait, us supporters had looked on feeling somewhat helpless, waiting for some external force to perhaps come along and gobble us up.
That is until the Supporters’ Trust and other likeminded fans pooled their resources, knowledge and sheer desire to ensure the long-term future of the club was safeguarded from potential razor-sharp teeth, metaphorical or otherwise.
Following a tumultuous set of AGM/EGM meetings on June 1, there was an impression that, finally, the ‘top table’ realised supporters are the lifeblood of the football club and that their collective opinion matters and cannot be ignored. A proposed plan to issue shares to enable an outside party to acquire a controlling stake in the club was met with vehement opposition from shareholders, the vast majority of whom are lifelong fans who had rallied behind the hardworking resilience of the Supporters’ Trust.
What transpired was an acknowledgement that there was another way of doing things. A way that involved supporters who possess the necessary resources and expertise to effect change in a positive manner.
Graham Morris, a man who once donned an overcoat to save our great club, sought to do so again, albeit this time with a suggestion rather than via direct action. This has led to three long-time and well-known supporters joining the board of directors – Simon Gauge, Jamie Sarsfield and Richard Knight. Simon was good enough to afford me some of his time and share his future vision of a supporter-led Rochdale AFC.
What I got from him was an offer of hope where previously there was none, encouragement where there was discouragement, and a sense of, once again, “we’re in it together”.
“It is probably more a case that this moment has chosen me rather than me it,” Simon said, when I asked him why he had waited until now to get involved.
“I would have been quite happy buying my season ticket and continuing as a fan if the recent chain of events had not unfolded. The first factor is that I had retired from my career as an airline pilot and have been working on doing other sports projects locally, so I have the time and energy to give to the role. The second factor is that, like many other Rochdale fans, I wasn’t happy with what had gone on at the club over the past season, so, when the opportunity came along to get stuck in and hopefully change one or two things for the better, it was a challenge that I felt passionately about and could not turn down.”
Simon explained that the idea of joining the board was initially put to him by a close friend of his late father-in-law, Peter Stock.
“Trevor Butterworth got in touch,” he said. “He was not at all happy with the situation at the club and asked me if I would be prepared to talk to one or two people about it. That led me to talking to Graham Morris, somebody else I have known for a long time, and others, about formulating an alternative plan should the club’s proposals be voted down at the EGM.
“Graham had done all of the hard work and found another three local supporters and businessmen who were happy to commit to joining the board if required. This was essential because it would have left the shareholders with little credibility if they were to block the club’s proposals without any alternative plan on the table.”
But does Simon think local supporters with the wherewithal and business acumen is a better alternative to an outside investor?
“I can’t honestly say if this is preferable to the sale of the shares to a wealthy investor, as I have not seen the state of the present finances of the club,” he said. “However, I have been given an indication. We have a plan with the existing board members to stabilise the club, to try to get more directors onboard, especially those with the skillset to help us maximise revenue. I want to re-engage shareholders and supporters so that everyone has the opportunity to pull together and make this a successful, stable club that is the envy of the EFL.
“If we achieve all of that, and still cannot make the finances work, then we may have to accept defeat and find a wealthy investor. There are ways of doing this and, if this is a road that we were forced to go down, then it is important to be as open and honest as possible with the shareholders, giving them all the facts, so that they can make an informed choice about the direction of travel.”
Simon moved to the town from Bramhall 18 years ago, although his wife and her family all hail from Rochdale. He started watching games at RAFC from the off.
“It was only when I started bringing my youngest son about 10 years ago that we came week in week out though − we both loved it,” he said.
“I had taken him to a couple of Premier League games but he didn’t like the travelling, the large crowds, the noise and the fact that you are so far away from the pitch. We came to watch Rochdale and his passion for football was ignited − it is the game in its purest form and not ruined by money. He could stand by the tunnel and high-five and have photos with players as they finished their warm ups. You were close enough to the pitch to feel part of the action, you could hear the managers shouting instructions (which was not always a good thing). You get to know the people sat around you and it is a real social afternoon. I think recognising these strengths and building on them is the way forward in the future.”
Simon confirmed that, while there are no shares to purchase at the moment, all of the directors joining the board will put an initial investment into the club’s holding account.
“We plan to call an EGM to give the board the ability to create further shares that can then be issued,” he added.
“The first task is then to stop looking backwards at the well-documented problems of the past year, but learn the lessons from that, and start to look forward. It is important that the new board of directors earns the trust of the shareholders and supporters alike and I see that as a big part of my role.
“I have this vision of us being a model club that is the envy of the EFL, where fans, shareholders, staff and directors all come together as a central hub of the community. To achieve this, we need to engage fans to buy season tickets and casual fans to come more regularly, we need to recruit directors with skillsets to increase revenue for the club and we need to see if we can attract potential and existing shareholders to invest in the club. It is not going to be easy but it is the challenge that lies ahead.”
Simon described his relationship with his fellow directors as “very much in its infancy”.
“Although I have known one or two of my fellow directors previously, most I have only met in the past couple of weeks,” he said. “One thing I do know about them, though, is that they all are passionate supporters of the club and are determined to make it a success. They have all been successful in their own right and want to come together and pool their knowledge for the benefit of Rochdale Association Football Club. I am looking forward to further developing my relationship with all the new and existing directors at the club.”
On a personal level, Simon wants to see success on the pitch as well as off it.
“I would like us to become a sustainable football club, making a profit each year in the upper reaches of League One and dreaming of getting to the Championship,” he said.
“My personal view is that the board has, over a number of years, not been sufficient in number and needs to increase in size. By changing that, it gives the diversity of opinions and skills to really move the club forward. As for the day-to-day running of the club − there are staff to do that, but I would not take on the directorship unless I intended to take an active role in what is going on.
“I think the past year has been challenging for everyone. As a board, we will obviously look closely at the whole club’s structure, including off-field and on-field personnel. Personally, I was very encouraged by both the finish to the season and the quality of some of the signings that we have made. If we can add to them this summer, then hopefully our stay in League Two will only be a temporary one − and for the right reason.”
However, when considering the team’s performance over the course of the entire season, and off-field incidents such as the clandestine extending of Brian Barry-Murphy’s contract, Simon knows there is a lot to be done to restore the supporters’ trust in the football club.
“Words from me will not restore trust,” Simon said. “Actions by the whole club, the board of directors and all of the staff will. We are a community club and everyone involved in it has got to be open, honest and accessible. I can’t promise that we will get all of the decisions right, but what I can promise is that we will always act with integrity and with the right intentions.
“We have got to really understand the club and stabilise it financially to ensure we are around in the short term. Once that is done, we can set about seeing if it is possible to run the club profitably in the long term, which I would very much like to be a part of.
“It may be that we come to the decision in the short or long term that selling the club to an investor is indeed the best option − if it is, then we will go about this in the right way, ensuring shareholders and supporters are informed of how the investor wants to run the club, where the money is coming from and how they want to structure any purchase. It is then up to shareholders, many of whom are fans, to make that decision.”