Perhaps one of the more unfair accusations levelled at Rochdale AFC over the dismissal of Robbie Stockdale as manager is that it was done too quickly.
The notion he was sacked after just four games of a new season is a fallacy, however. In truth, he was dismissed after not just a continuation of poor form from the season prior, but a worsening of it.
There is a legitimate argument that the board of directors should have acted at the end of the 2021/22 season and thus not allowed him the summer to overhaul the squad (and budget) with players of his choosing. Yet, had they done that, they may have faced criticism from other quarters. Such is the lot of a football director – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But after four straight league defeats into the new campaign, with his charges old and new looking disjointed and, worse, disinterested, supporter pressure mounted to a crescendo the board simply could not ignore any longer. On August 18, along with his assistant Jimmy Shan, Stockdale was given his jotters.
While history will probably recall him among the pantheon of Rochdale’s more unsuccessful managers – just 16 victories in 59 games in charge – Stockdale’s time at Dale was not an unmitigated disaster.
It’s easy to forget, while wrapped in the quilt of disappointment, that he arrived amidst the backdrop of a hostile takeover, so his recruitment was initially limited. Despite this, he did okay, bringing in decent players such as Corey O’Keeffe while getting the best out of players we already had, such as Aaron Morley and Jake Beesley, both of whom went on to land big January moves.
Tactically, Stockdale started out with a 4-3-3 but switched to more of a 3-4-3 after we lost the opening game of 21/22 at Harrogate, which was effective enough to see us to eighth in League Two after 10 games. The risk was always that, if the wing backs were pinned back, however, we effectively had five at the back and just two in midfield, but, for the most part, it was effective. People still fixate on the formation rather than what players were being asked to do within it. It was this that Stockdale changed. It still mystifies me as to why he deviated away from what he was asking players to do in those first 10 games, as that is what seemed to impact on the commitment to get the ball into the box quickly and effectively.
In fact, one of the first things Stockdale told supporters was that he thought along the lines of not being concerned with how many passes his side completed, but rather whether or not it was going to get them into dangerous areas. What changed?
If anything, he probably overanalysed things for a long time and God only knows what Sammy Lee was doing in his much-publicised advisory role.
If Stockdale had shifted the focus of his players, especially within games, he’d probably still be here, but the commitment to that structure once the 2022/23 season got under way made people think things hadn’t changed… because they hadn’t!
The other thing that had persisted, and it has dogged us for a good while now, is our inability to defend set pieces. Zonal marking probably plays a large part in this, but, honestly, it is soul destroying the amount of goals we’ve gifted the opposition from these circumstances.
So now it’s over to Jim Bentley to rescue the situation and, more pertinently, our much-cherished Football League status. The former Morecambe and AFC Fylde boss was probably not the first name on any Dale supporter’s lips when considering Stockdale’s replacement but, a combination of outlandish demands and improved offers from current employers, showed Bentley in a more committed light when compared to other possible candidates, and so he was the one offered the job. What was most important, however, was that the board wasn’t seduced by a rookie’s PowerPoint presentation and that a manager who already knew his way around League Two was appointed. Whatever people’s view on Bentley, he definitely fits that category.
In the three games witnessed under his charge so far, he clearly believes in the team being more direct. This approach requires a good No.9 and Bentley addressed that immediately by bringing in Scott Quigley on loan from Stockport County. His only move in the transfer market to date.
His impact was instantaneous as he battered a Carlisle backline for 70 minutes at Brunton Park and grabbed himself two debut goals. It was only those cited set-piece follies that cost us three points on the day.
However, as good as Quigley was against Carlisle, he was poor against league leaders Leyton Orient on Tuesday night. Yes, he was up against a better defensive unit, which seemed to anticipate every ball, but we are going to need a lot more of his debutant performance if we are to get out of the mess we are in. Less said about his saved penalty the better.
Attack is not our main problem, though. It is the midfield. This was truly highlighted against Orient on Tuesday. Trying to shoehorn Ian Henderson into a role Connor Malley or James Ball would be more suited to, will doubtlessly still be playing on Bentley’s mind.
And as for Ball, he is now becoming a liability anywhere but within 30 yards of the opposition goal. If anything, there’s more of an argument to play him up front. He is not the central midfielder we thought we were getting in January.
Against Orient, Bentley looked to have his men get behind the ball when the opposition were in possession in the Rochdale half. He referred to it as “setting traps”. However, we lacked the quality to deliver the final ball on any counter and so Orient rode out the opening stages before going on to pull the strings themselves. The way Paul Smyth enjoyed the freedom of the pitch only served to remind us of the type of player we ourselves were missing. It’s that lack of quality that is concerning. A good few players’ radars were off on Tuesday night and, again, this must be playing on Bentley’s mind. He has inherited somebody else’s players and has to wait until the New Year to do anything about that.
However, he needs to shift Rayhaan Tulloch and Femi Seriki back to their parent clubs soonest if they aren’t going to start games – certainly in the latter’s case. Seriki was starting to adapt to the right-back role, and just needs to learn when not to run with the ball. The versatile Jimmy Keohane never looks as good at right-back as he does left-back for some reason.
Every so often, over the years, there’s been a need to simplify things for a few games – when Keith Hill took over in 06/07 being the best example. So, for now, we need to invoke the inner Mike Bassett, play Abraham Odoh and Tyrese Sinclair wide, Malley and Toumani Diagouraga in midfield, and Devante Rodney and Quigley up top. You’d think Bentley is exactly the type of manager to recognise this.
Maybe Rochdale will be playing four, four, fucking two against Northampton tomorrow. Then again, maybe not.
It was to much relief that the board of directors issued a statement to say the legal action brought against them and the Supporters’ Trust has been settled.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 18 months, you’ll be well aware of the fact the club was subject to a hostile takeover from Morton House MGT and First Form Construction Limited, which then brought High Court action against those attempting to fend off this move.
With an agreement to purchase shares back from Morton House now also reached, it is hoped that what has been a nightmare period for directors and supporters alike is now at an end.
The fundraising effort of the Trust also needs a nod here, because, even though the High Court action has been settled, the legal team representing it had been working tirelessly up until that point – and still needed to be paid. So, thank you to all who contributed in whatever way you could. You have all played a part in the club remaining owned by the people who make it tick. Yourselves.
We now need to continue to help the board of directors do what is right for the football club going forward. We’ve seen enough naivety, stubbornness, hubris and pocket-lining apathy to last a lifetime.
On that score, we are still waiting for the EFL to announce its findings after announcing in March that it had brought charges against several individuals concerning the events that led to the Morton House hostile takeover.