A glance at Rochdale’s position in the League Two table, to the casual observer at least, would cause confusion when contrasted with the current mood among the fanbase.
The jubilation and optimism seem at complete odds with the team’s lowly position of 18th.
Yet, after a summer of off-the-field turmoil, where the very future and direction of the club was uncertain, for most of those supporters to be able to watch their team play again has been enough.
Following relegation from League One, with a host of unwanted records, this season was always going to be one of transition and an attempt at stability. A whole new management team, operating in the foreground of an attempted hostile takeover, has managed to deliver that so far. Last summer was about getting bodies into the club and then out on the pitch. They may not have been the management’s first choices, but needs must.
Robbie Stockdale, and his inconspicuous assistant Jimmy Shan, have managed to employ a system that has at least entertained, if not provided stellar results.
With that in mind, January, and the gaping maw of the transfer window, was always going to be key. While the club is still not free of the spectre of unwanted outside attention, it is at least operating under more certainty and less restraint. This has allowed Stockdale to make a more assured pass at making the squad his own.
The initial loss of forward Jake Beesley and midfielder Aaron Morley sent a ripple of concern through the fanbase, even though the money rumoured to have been recouped for the pair ranged between £500,000 and £800,000.
The concern was justified. Beesley, out of the shadow of Stephen Humphrys, had begun to show what he was capable of in the role of leading man. A mobile forward, tirelessly running the channels, had added goals to his game. Blackpool had clearly seen enough to think this could be transferred to Championship level. The club’s policy has always been to usher players on to better things, if the price is right, of course, and so Beesley now has that chance.
Morley was another blow. Finally, what supporters knew the talented midfielder was capable of, he had started to show. So often misused in the past, in Stockdale’s system, Morley was making things tick. The fact his transition to League One Bolton’s midfield has been both seamless, and coincided with an upturn in their form, is no coincidence.
So, with these players gone, and those Stockdale already knew he needed, he had to get to work fast. Targets had been monitored since August and their form tracked. The board had promised any funds received would be reinvested back into the playing squad.
Even prior to Beesley’s departure, the forward line was a code red. Two firm targets were identified, both at non-league level. The first was Darlington’s Luke Charman. A product of Newcastle United’s youth system, he had impressively held on at the club until the grand old age of 23 before being released. Two-footed and a good header of the ball, surprising to many, he failed to find a league club and instead pledged himself to the relatively local Quakers in the Northern Premier League. Nineteen goals in 33 appearances showed he was operating well below his level and Stockdale managed to persuade the striker that Rochdale would give him the platform to follow in the footsteps of Jake Beesley et al. The fact Charman turned down more financially lucrative offers elsewhere to tun out for Dale is also testament to a player who is career driven. The alleged £41,000 paid out by Rochdale to secure the player is a no-brainer, too. As Joe Royle used to famously say to his Oldham superior Ian Stott, “We’ll make money on this one, Mr Chairman.”
Supporters should not expect too much too soon from Charman, given he has made the step up from part-time training. While he scored an eye-catching hat-trick on his debut in the Central League Cup, his tongue was lolling as he was subbed on 76 minutes. He may need a little time to get reacquainted with the rigours of full-time football once again.
The second forward signed is, perhaps, the more interesting of the two. Tahvon Campbell, at the age of 25, has plenty of prior experience operating at League Two. It’s fair to say his record at this level previously, has not warmed any heather. However, this season at least, he has brutalised defences while playing for Woking in the National League and his highlight reel shows some real strength, determination and a willingness to shoot low and hard. Stockdale clearly sees something to work with here and, with 14 goals to his name already, just how he will slot into system will be intriguing to follow.
One of the biggest criticisms of Stockdale’s side this season has been the defence. Eoghan O’Connell aside, it has looked inconsistent and lacking in experience. Too many goals have been gifted to opposition sides.
This has been addressed with the capture of Paul Downing, on loan from Portsmouth. Already his experience and leadership alongside O’Connell has provided a steadied calm that has been too long absent.
And, of course, Stockdale’s defence utilises a wingback system. This, too, has been pleasingly reinforced. The might of Corey O’Keeffe, who put in an astronomical turn while on loan from Mansfield from August, has been secured permanently until the season’s end, while Max Clark, released from Fleetwood, steps in on the left to provide a more reliable option than the oft-unfit Aidy White.
There does seem to be a degree of short termism about the backline, however, with the potential for all of O’Keeffe, Downing, O’Connell and Jeriel Dorsett to move on at the season’s end. One can only assume Stockdale has that eventuality covered and is content with current arrangements as they stand.
The final piece of the jigsaw was that midfield spot. With Morely gone, Stephen Dooley and loanee George Broadbent have been valiantly trying to keep things moving in there, but Rochdale have been missing a box-to-box type for some time now. Enter another non-league solution in the guise of James Ball. Another signing in his mid-20s, Ball was acquired on deadline day from Solihull Moors, the previous home of Jake Beesley and a club that assistant manager Shan knows well. The figurative outpouring of grief towards Ball’s departure by all concerned at Solihull bodes well that Rochdale have landed a good ‘un.
Rumours have also been circulating that Rochdale had beaten their record fee paid for a player this window – that being the £150,000 paid to Stoke City for striker Paul Connor back in 2001. With the way deals are structured these days, however, I’m not sure that the record has been broken. Not yet, at any rate.
So, with the window now closed, Stockdale has found more pieces to fit his system. Importantly, these were the pieces the team needed and each has been considered over a period of time. In fact, it has probably been the most successful transfer window I can remember at the club. It has left supporters optimistic that the 18th spot Rochdale currently occupy in League Two will soon be left behind. While any talk of a late promotion push is probably fanciful for this season, there should be enough in the ranks to quash any fear of a relegation scrap. The blocks are in the place to be built on once again in the summer, and only then, truly, can the Stockdale reign be judged.
Rochdale AFC squad 2021/22
Jay Lynch (28)
Joel Coleman (26)
Brad Wade (21)
Aidy White (30) LB/LWB
Max Clark (26) LB/LWB
Corey O’Keeffe (23) RB/RWB
Matt Done (33) LB/LWB
Jimmy Keohane (31) LB/LWB/RB/RWB
Joe Dunne (20) LB
Max Taylor (21) CB
Sam Graham (21) CB
Jim McNulty (36) CB
Eoghan O’Connell (26) (C) CB
Jeriel Dorsett (19) (season-long loan from Reading) CB/LB
Paul Downing (30) (season-long loan from Portsmouth) CB
Aidy White (30) LW
Stephen Dooley (30) LW/RW/CM/CAM
Matt Done (33) LW/CAM
Alex Newby (26) RW
Jimmy Keohane (31) LW/RW/CDM/CM/CAM
Abraham Odoh (21) RW/LW/CAM
George Broadbent (21) (on loan from Sheffield United until season end) CM
Conor Grant (20) CM/CAM
Ethan Brierley (18) CM
James Ball (26) CM
Liam Kelly (26) CDM/CM/CAM
Matt Done (33) ST
Luke Charman (24) ST
Tahvon Campbell (25) ST
Danny Cashman (21) (season-long loan from Coventry) ST/IF
Josh Andrews (20) (season-long loan from Birmingham City) ST
Alex Newby (26) IF
Abraham Odoh (21) IF