The fans who shaped a revolution

An upstairs room at the Cemetery Hotel formed the base of operations.

The Crescent pub in Salford is world-famous for being the venue where philosophers Karl Marx and Frederich Engels met to shape their Communist Manifesto ahead of it being published in 1848.

The upstairs room in Rochdale’s Cemetery Hotel may well one day become equally renowned within the borough it resides after it was used to form a very different kind of revolution. There, representatives of the Rochdale AFC Supporters’ Trust and other likeminded fans – which included solicitors, accountants, managing directors, teachers, journalists and retired police officers – pooled their resources, knowledge and sheer desire to ensure the long-term future of the club was safeguarded from a sale to a buyer lined up by the board of directors.

It’s not that there wasn’t a realisation from the group that investment was needed, more that the very future of the club had been decided by four men who held a combined shareholding of just 15%. The board planned, via an EGM, to ask existing shareholders to approve the issue of new shares to a volume that would allow the buyer to acquire a controlling stake in the club, while forfeiting their own right to purchase any for themselves.

Upstairs in the Cemetery Hotel, there was a genuine fear that the wider fanbase and shareholders might not grasp the gravitas of what the board was seeking to do. It was clear that the sale of the club to a party who was unwilling to be named at the EGM could not be allowed to happen, so a commitment was made to embark on a campaign of education and enlightenment. The objective was simple: save Rochdale Association Football Club.

Football’s modern history is littered with the carcasses of deceased clubs, or those who have had to call in the life-support of administration. You need look no further than just down the road and the fate that befell Bury when supporters passively accepted the handing over of their club. By the time a challenge was mounted, it was too late. Now, there is no suggestion that the buyer the RAFC board lined up had intentions anything like those of the party at Bury FC, but the risk was there nonetheless, and it had to be mitigated.

The group, having acquired a list of the club’s shareholders, embarked on a tireless door-to-door exercise that took them well beyond the town’s boundaries. There, they sought to outline the board’s proposals and simply ask if the shareholder agreed with them. If they didn’t, the Supporters’ Trust offered to act as a proxy for votes cast at the EGM. The support they received was overwhelming and, in conjunction with a plethora of former directors whose shareholdings remained significant, it was, ultimately, enough to force the board to withdraw the plans at the meeting itself.

Chairman of the Supporters’ Trust, Colin Cavanah, said at the time: “I am personally delighted that the club’s share proposals have been withdrawn this evening. Had they been approved, we’d have been giving authorisation to sell the club to a board consisting of people with a combined shareholding of less than 15% of the club. We are not averse to the club asking shareholders to approve the sale to a named individual or group, but it cannot be acceptable for shareholders being asked to approve a ‘blind’ sale.”

We are not averse to the club asking shareholders to approve the sale to a named individual or group, but it cannot be acceptable for shareholders being asked to approve a ‘blind’ sale.

Colin Cavanah, Rochdale Supporters’ Trust Chairman

But it wasn’t just the proposed sale of the club that was an issue for the collective group of supporters. The overall governance of the club had cause to come under scrutiny too. It was revealed at the club’s fans’ forum in March that the contract of first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy had been extended for a further year. The kicker here is that it was done so in November of 2020! The lack of formal announcement at the time, and subsequent revelations that not all board members were aware of the extension until later, quite rightly, caused mass consternation among the fan base. It was so completely unnecessary. Debating the merits of whether or not the manager deserved the extension aside, the primary issue was the secrecy surrounding it. If members of the board thought Barry-Murphy deserved it, it was felt they should have said so at the time, publicly.

Then there was the statement issued by US-based shareholders Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli, who had been invited to join the board of directors, accepted, and then performed an alarming U-turn. Their subsequent statement was as damning as it was disturbing, claiming their decision had been based upon “serious internal issues” at the club and their dissatisfaction at the club’s handling of those concerns.

This led to the Supporters’ Trust calling for an EGM of their own – and for the removal of two club directors, namely CEO David Bottomley and Graham Rawlinson. To ensure that any such boardroom changes were well-founded, the group of Cemetery Hotel-gathered supporters began to work forensically, gathering testimonies of those close to the situation and unearthing new, eye-opening facts along the way. They agreed to assemble at the upcoming EGM, each entitled to attend via a proxy vote gathered in advance, and ask pertinent questions of the directors, where they were joined by former director Trevor Butterworth and other members of the Rochdale old guard.

The upshot was a series of meetings the like of which hasn’t been seen for decades. Rochdale AFC shareholder meets usually see all proposals passed through on a show of hands with not one item of disquiet (well, perhaps the odd tough question), and with most eyes on the buffet. In fact, not since a certain Edward Lord OBE stepped up to oust Tommy Cannon in the late 1980s has there been such dramatic change at the club. Lord’s return on the night, strength of questioning and the irony of his involvement many years ago is worthy of note.

Ex-Chairman David Kilpatrick and former director Graham Morris, who famously saved Rochdale AFC from extinction in the 1980s, felt compelled to add their weight to this fresh supporter movement, too. They were familiar with several members of the group and had remained in constant contact with some for many months. Many meetings were had, social distancing observed, naturally, and a shadow board of directors was formed in just seven days, ready to replace any of those current members who may depart. This shadow board consisted of long-time Rochdale supporters who had the hours, wherewithal and inclination to dedicate themselves to the club.

As a result of this supporter-led movement, the club now has a new chairman in Simon Gauge, and two new directors – Jamie Sarsfield and Richard Knight – with more likely to be added in the coming months.

The feedback received by the Supporters’ Trust since the AGM/EGM has been overwhelmingly positive. One such receipt shared with me simply read: Thank you for giving me a voice in the room at the EGM. I trust the Trust to do what is right for the club.

There are many fables in football, most of which relate to events that have unfolded on the pitch. This one, however, will long be remembered and used as an example of what supporters can achieve at a club if they work together collectively. Rochdale is a town famous for founding the co-operative movement. Never has it felt more apparent since, than right here and right now.