Rattle and Hum

Two teams face up to each other on the pitch, ball in the centre circle, 22 players waiting for the referee to blow his whistle. They call this a match. The etymology of which, I assume, would stem from some kind of equal contest. Two teams providing a test for each other. The sad fact is, however, that Rochdale AFC have provided anything but for their opposition for far too long now.

We have become something of a lower league joke. A gimmie. A guaranteed three points and a jolly good time for travelling supporters.

The salad days of the Keith Hill era seem a distant memory, a dream even. Almost as if they never even happened, such is the dire day-to-day existence of the club’s loyal supporters in the here and now.

Both on the pitch and behind the scenes, the worry and doom and gloom is pervasive on messageboards and social media alike, sparking ready recollections of the Rochdale of old, the basement dwellers begging on favour from their peers for league re-election.

Fortunately, I came to support the club at the back end of those days, but have still endured the woes of the 1990s and early-to-mid noughties. Our younger supporters probably feel the current situation even more. Thanks to those Hill years, they’ve been spoiled.

Even without the shield of youth, I don’t, in all that time, recall feeling as low as I do now about the team I support.

The events of the past 18 months and beyond have been well-documented on this blog. Look back through my previous articles and it becomes fairly obvious that the decline on the field is directly correlated to the departure of chairman Chris Dunphy. His stepping down in December 2018 sparked a chain reaction both on and off the pitch that has led us from the heights of threatening the League One play-offs to the bottom end of League Two.

Chris Dunphy

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all milk and honey during the Dunphy era, which got under way in 2005, but there was always a feeling that the right man was at the helm and that he was ably backed by his fellow board members. Well, most of them. You always felt that if the proverbial ever hit the fan, he’d sort it out – because he’d sat on the board through those hard times in the 1980s. He was battle hardened and had the scars to use as experience. It’s a crying shame he felt he had no alternative but to step down when he did, as others in the boardroom sought to take the club in a different direction.

From 2018 to now, we have gone through a board that failed to act decisively enough for us to retain our League One status while almost selling the club to an unknown payroll company, to a board who saved us from that fate but who now seem to lack the experience to deal with on-field matters and a lack of cashflow. Well meaning, absolutely, but potentially no less damaging in the long term.

The current board, made up entirely of supporters of varying lengths of terrace service, deserve eternal credit for their actions in helping stave off the unwanted takeover – at both personal financial and emotional expense. That is not up for debate. It should be their defining legacy.

Sadly, with relegation to the National League as real a possibility as it has ever been, there is a danger this board’s legacy will instead become associated with ending a 100-year membership of the Football League. Something I really don’t want to see happen, for them or the club.

It’s true that the events of the attempted Morton House takeover focused minds to such an extent that what happened on the pitch became secondary. The consequence of this was an overreliance on a rookie first-team manager who was allowed to make too many mistakes unchecked when perhaps he needed a little hand holding from someone with experience. He didn’t get it as, quite bluntly, that experience isn’t there, so he instead saddled the club with players who are, quite bluntly again, not up to the task and on long-term contracts to boot.

The last time that relegation from League Two was anything like a real threat was in 2003/04. The board of that era, led by David Kilpatrick, acted decisively to replace the manager, Alan Buckley, with someone they trusted, Steve Parkin. Parkin, within his restricted means, did what was required.

Here is a little snapshot of the side that earned a point against Southend that effectively made our league status secure that season. There are limited players in that squad for sure, but look also at the pros and leaders in that number – those who would do a job and give blood for the cause. Those who would rally the more limited players. We simply don’t have any of them at the minute.

Yes, the board finally moved to replace Robbie Stockdale this season, and sought out experience at this level in Jim Bentley, but, after his initial dead cat bounce, the reality of the players he has been saddled with has become all too real. The finances, which we are constantly being told are dire, mean Bentley doesn’t have much room to make the squad his own either, making it very difficult to judge his effectiveness as a manager in his own right. He will bring players in this month for sure, but they won’t be his first choice, no matter what is said publicly.

It’s a popular opinion that the board should have removed Stockdale in the summer, thus preventing him from cementing his squad of workaday players. They didn’t, he did, and now here we are.

The stats speak for themselves. In the calendar year of 2022, Rochdale AFC won just six league games at home. If you’re bleating about football finance, gate receipts at League Two level are the bread and butter. We already have quite an apathetic town when it comes to supporting this football club, so that kind of record isn’t going to help matters one jot. Many faithful supporters have now become so disillusioned that season ticket renewals will no doubt decline. If we actually get relegated, well…

The overall stats don’t look any better. We lost more league games in 2022 than in any year since 1978. We won 29.7% of the available points in 2022 − the lowest amount since 26.5% in 1986. We endured 15 away defeats in 2022 − only losing more once since 1983.

Quite simply, it isn’t good enough.

It’s often pointed out to me that I publicly supported the arrival of this board.

Yes, I did. I even helped them out where I could.

I welcomed their efforts in protecting the club from a takeover by an organisation whose credentials didn’t hold up to close scrutiny and also led to an EFL investigation. It was a turbulent time for so many people and the effect on individuals’ mental health cannot be overstated here.

However, I am loyal to the football club first and foremost, not individuals. Whatever and whomever I believe is acting in the best interests of the club has my utmost support. My mantra is that nobody is ever above scrutiny, though, no matter who they are or what position they are in.

I get the feeling that, as much as they deserve all the praise that has been heaped on them, the current board members don’t like the criticism they are now facing. Chairman Simon Gauge this week took to our local paper to air his views. He shed a lot of light on our current plight and a lot of it made sense.

However, there is a fans’ forum coming up in February and I hope supporters ask the questions of the board that they have been relaying to me in confidence. I certainly have some of my own questions after reading Simon’s interview. The board should welcome this. They led the ‘Up for Dale not for sale’ campaign, or at least constantly referenced it, and created a whole ideology about us being a fan-owned club. This was embraced by the supporters and received significant buy in.

Yet, in his recent interview, Simon said: “Everyone needs to be aware we cannot just run the club on the model we currently have because, unless we have a really good cup run or we sell two or three players or get other unexpected monies coming into the club, we lose quite a hefty chunk.”

Why wasn’t that made explicitly clear at the two AGMs in November? Surely the Trust, as significant shareholders, should have known this was a possibility to communicate to members at their AGM?

After the club AGM, there was no mention of requiring outside investment − to the point it specifically invites current shareholders and “all other supporters of the club who would like to become shareholders for the first time”.

Six weeks later, it’s this:

“It has become essential that we look for outside investment. Anybody putting in this level of investment may want to take a controlling stake in the club at some stage in the future and the board are open to exploring how to facilitate this, providing the investor guarantees the future sustainability of the club. Significant due diligence will be undertaken as part of this process, both internally, and via all relevant EFL processes.”

Why wasn’t it communicated that there would be a window where fans should indicate they want to buy shares? Why weren’t the Trust informed of such a timescale before the move away from being ‘fan owned’ if the uptake wasn’t good enough?

Was it always going to be, “well, we’ll give them six weeks and then look at outside investment and say ‘we cannot just run the club in the model we currently have’ “?

Also in the recent interview, Simon said: “[We] had to sell all of our assets – Jake Beesley, Stephen Humphrys, Ollie Rathbone, Aaron Morley – to get us out of that hole.”

If that’s the case, that we were in a “hole”, why did we immediately spend money on fees for three players (Luke Charman, Tahvon Campbell and James Ball)? How deep was the “hole” if we didn’t look for players who wouldn’t incur such additional fees, especially as we’ve already had to move one of them on, another is consistently injured and the other doesn’t seem to be of the standard required?

Luke Charman was moved on as quickly as he was signed (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

In short, I feel there is a real disconnect between the supporters and the club again, similar to that which existed during the previous regime. This has been brought about primarily by the woeful performances on the pitch, but also by those issues addressed above, in addition to countless questions about the general day-to-day running of the club and how efficiently this is being performed. The difference this time, of course, is that we know the people now in charge mean well. We know they have the club at heart, but that isn’t always enough to get results and pay the bills.

I, like every other supporter, don’t want to see my club relegated out of the Football League or, worse, run out of money and go to the wall. It’s time to tap into those who have the expertise. It’s time to welcome help from those with experience. It’s time for action. Football finance may be broken, but it always has been as far as we’ve been concerned. We’ve survived before and we need to do so again. There is an army of volunteers possessing a wide of array of skills and knowledge ready and willing to help. It’s time for the club to open its arms to them.

Sometimes the old ways are the best and supporters’ views should never be discounted as just rattle and hum.