As I picked my way among the throng of fellow supporters, milling around the pop-up beer stall and inflatable penalty goals, it truly hit home what this football club means to me… to all of us.
The festival occasion Rochdale AFC had put on to mark its 100 unbroken years of Football League membership took on an extra resonance this Friday past. It wasn’t just a nod to a sentimental milestone, it was a nod to survival, against all odds. Never has this club been penalised for living beyond its means, nor has it ever sought to be more than the community-based hub it truly is. Yet, these past months, the fear of that being taken away from us has been all too real.
In a world of have and have nots, football has always been seen as an anomaly. At the top end of the spectrum, many clubs, let alone the players that pull on their shirts, have lost most of the roots which bound them to their communities. Lifelong fans can no longer afford the ticket prices to go to games.
And while some money slowly trickles through the system, the vast majority goes to the purchase of fake-Tudor mansions and super cars. Many of the highest achievers are bankrolled by sugar daddies and, for all intents and purposes, are insolvent.
This has never been an issue for Rochdale AFC, nor has the club ever sought to be part of that gang. It has always been an inclusive place, where aging supporters have easily been able to bring the next generation, hoping they will catch the bug (no, not that one!) and continue the legacy.
I fully understand why this notion would appeal to the football romantic, but not the hard-nosed businessman. We are perennial underdogs on the field and we revel in that. On the rare occasions we have punched above our weight, we have done so fairly and by sheer endeavour. We savour that too.
And yet, of late, we have become desirable, as a club, to people who share none of that affinity. There is no denying the club needs investment – what club doesn’t? But with the supporter-operated model we are so desperately trying to keep in place, that investment has to be achieved in the right way. An outsider looking to pump millions into the club will always be greeted with healthy suspicion because, at the end of the day, they are never going to make that money back, so why would they do it?
I’ll tell you this. If I woke up to discover I’d won the Euromillions – after paying for new vocal chords – I’d be right on the phone to chairman Simon Gauge exploring how I could help the club. If I did that, no one would bat an eyelid, as anyone who knows me, knows I’d do anything to help the club, as I’m sure we all would. It would be an altruistic act. I wouldn’t be looking for the money back. That’s an extreme example, of course, and Rochdale-supporting Euromillions winners are not currently queuing down Sandy Lane.
But, as the late David Clough’s generosity has proven, fans really can make a difference. A share issue is a much more realistic way of generating money for the club. It also gives supporters a piece of documentation that says they own a piece of their club. We don’t have to rely on the finance of an unknown element. We are now at the vanguard of providing a blueprint for how all lower league clubs could operate in a sustainable way that benefits the whole community.
There was palpable relief from both club and supporters when it was announced by the EFL last weekend that those behind Morton House Mgt and First Form Construction Limited had withdrawn their attempt to pass the EFL’s fit and proper tests. However, the saga is far from concluded. While the prospective investors say they now want to divest the shares they claim to have already purchased, which amounts to some 42% of the club, it is not clear how or when this will happen – or to whom. Vigilance is still required. And this is another way in which the supporters of our club have made a difference. In working to unearth and then promote the facts that have aided our plight, they have essentially helped ward off an unwanted takeover attempt. The Supporters’ Trust deserves huge credit here, but there are others, too, who will probably never receive the full recognition they deserve for their efforts, and that’s just the way they will want it. It wasn’t done out of vanity or for an ego boost, it was done, quite simply, for the love of the club.
On that note, while my primary concern will always be the safeguarding of Rochdale AFC, I am nothing if not fair. I reached out to Alex Jarvis, the man who has been fronting the share acquisition for Morton House, inviting a statement, a chance to answer the questions that have been raised by the diligence of supporters. None has been forthcoming.
Anyway, Friday past was not about fear or worry. It was a celebration of strength and durability. From the brilliant aesthetic created by programme editor Mark Wilbraham, to the team wearing the historic black-and-white-striped jerseys, it was a solid reminder of then, but in the now. Seeing heroes from my own youth and early adulthood as they joined in the celebrations – Shaun Reid, Kevin Townson, Lee McEvilly and Gary Jones – really hammered home how much this club has been part of my whole life.
And after the pessimism surrounding the relegation-football endured last season, Robbie Stockdale looks to have assembled a team that will excite the supporters and push for success in equal measure this season. I think the majority of us would simply settle for the former for the time being, safe in the knowledge we’ve got our club back.
Don’t forget, the Supporters’ Trust has launched a scheme where you can make a regular monthly donation that will be ringfenced in order to purchase further shares to help safeguard the future of the club.