A journey into the unknown

Today, Rochdale AFC’s 102-year unbroken participation in the English Football League came to an ignominious end.

It’s a numb feeling, as the sharper pain was felt two games ago, when relegation itself was mathematically confirmed. Now the grief tourism of the media is over, and the soup has cooled, it is time to reflect.

While it would be easy to blame this season in isolation, the catalyst and subsequent road to this dark day can actually be traced quite readily back to 2017/2018, perhaps even further – and there are plenty of articles on this blog, and elsewhere, that chart this.

However, it is this season I will look at here, so join me, if you can bear it, as we embark on a journey into the National League…

On the field

After a dismal second half to the 2021/2022 season, where many supporters felt manager Robbie Stockdale had run his race, the Rochdale AFC Board of Directors opted to stick with their hand. This allowed Stockdale to embark on a busy summer of transfer activity and, at the time, though many may deny it now, the business actually looked good.

He brought in a much-needed first-choice goalkeeper in Richard O’Donnell, as well as the holding midfielder we had been screaming out for in Toumani Diagouraga; he added experience to the backline by bringing Ethan Ebanks-Landell back to the club, and he added a physical presence up front, too, in Devante Rodney. However, it was the addition of players to increase the capacity of Stockdale’s preferred back three that indicated we may have a problem, especially as midfield options looked less plentiful.

At the start of the previous season, Stockdale had set up his side to get the ball into the box as quickly as possible. His formation at the time did not impact that objective. Why the manager then decided to deviate away from this midway through is anyone’s guess. If Stockdale had shifted formations now and again, especially within games, he might have survived longer, but the commitment to that same structure, once the new season got under way, convinced supporters that things hadn’t changed… because they hadn’t!

Dale started the campaign like a train wreck. They looked a mile off the pace fitness wise, and tactically, too. The side lost all four of their opening League Two fixtures and the board, to their credit, at least acted swiftly in a bid to prevent further damage, removing both Stockdale and his assistant Jimmy Shan. Player/coach Jim McNulty was given a brief stab at leading the team, but couldn’t inspire the requisite change.

More worrying was the fact any new incumbent would now be saddled with a squad that was not put together on the cheap, with little room left in the budget for manoeuvre.

The search for a new manager threw up names such as David Artell, John Askey and Graham Coughlan, but the gig was offered only to one man, former Morecambe and AFC Fylde boss Jim Bentley.

It seemed, by way of two 3-3 draws, at Accrington and Carlisle, that the squad had quickly adapted to the new manager’s ideas. The latter game saw the introduction of loanee Scott Quigley, from Stockport, who made an immediate impact, linking especially well with Rodney, who was given the licence to move inside from a wider starting position.

League winners Leyton Orient proved a step above everyone this season, but it’s probably been forgotten that one of our own pivotal points came against them in the first home game under Bentley. Make no mistake, Dale deserved to be on the end of the 1-0 reverse, but Quigley’s last-minute penalty miss, which would have snatched a point, is underestimated in its importance. A point from this game would have lifted spirits even further, especially before the disappointing and comprehensive defeat at Northampton − an initial sign that, even under a new boss, this group of players would often fall short if things failed to go their way early.

Despite that, there was a run of eight games which saw 13 points collected, albeit without the injured Quigley for the latter half of these, following a bad decision to field him in a Papa John’s Trophy match.

Ian Henderson’s history making goal, and the feel-good tale associated with Rochdale-born Ethan Brierley’s assist, probably glossed over the fact that, even during this reasonable run, we still looked limited in terms of goals or even an attacking system to consistently put pressure on opponents. The good thing was, Dale were at least looking better at defending set-pieces. Only eight goals were conceded during what was the most successful period of the season to that point.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. A couple of narrow one-goal defeats started a pattern: the inability to put two halves of football together. It became a repetitive theme that was almost depressingly accepted by the Dale faithful. Even so, it was the 4-1 home defeat to a Harrogate side who were similarly positioned in the table that really set alarm bells ringing, as it was clear that, when we simply had to get results against our relegation rivals, it looked like we never would.

The subsequent cold snap meant we didn’t play again until Boxing Day, three weeks later, again against a fellow struggler in Hartlepool, again at home and again ending in a defeat that left supporters feeling the National League was a definite destination, even with half a season left.

The stats spoke for themselves. In the calendar year of 2022, Rochdale AFC had won just six league games at home. The overall stats didn’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.

A poor defensive display at Doncaster further darkened the mood, before a couple of draws against Barrow and Newport at least stopped another rot setting in. There then followed a switch to three central defenders, a move which saw similar positive results to those achieved by messrs Hill and Barry-Murphy when they utilised it in the past. With a returning Max Taylor on the right and Cameron John on the left, Dale produced a much tighter defensive display at Bradford, allowing the mercurial Henderson to notch twice at the other end and secure three surprising, but very welcome, points.

But then it started to unravel again. Taylor was inexplicably moved to the left to accommodate Sam Graham’s return − immediately sending a message to John that he wasn’t going to play much of a part going forward. The resultant defensive discomfort was duly capitalised upon by lowly Colchester and another relegation rival was given a helping hand up the ladder.

Of course, this game also saw the first appearance of loanee Jake Eastwood in goal, probably as much of a surprise to the player himself as it was to both supporters and Richard O’Donnell, who had responded well to a dip in form at the end of the year. If Eastwood hadn’t made a catastrophic mistake to hand the Essex side their winner, things might have been different, but he did and they weren’t. And so it began… the worst of times.

There’s an argument we never really recovered from that point. Eastwood being persevered with, when it was obvious the player himself was visibly uncomfortable with his own presence on the pitch, certainly didn’t make much sense as the defeats started to rack up.

The other transfer window dealings saw little immediate improvement in terms of results, but there was obvious quality in the form of free agent Danny Lloyd and Altrincham’s Toby Mullarkey, whose subsequent performances stood out.

The team seemed destined to retain the wing-back formation, with Odoh at least looking more comfortable in that role − and then Ethan Brierley returned to the side. His absence was much debated, from the trial at Sheffield United (who were under a transfer embargo), to the heartache of his collapsed move to Blackburn Rovers. He put these woes behind him and his eventual reintroduction resulted in a team that at least contained someone who possessed passing ability again.

A better performance and a point at Crewe, a really good win against Stevenage and a crazy 4-4 draw against a Charlie Austin-inspired Swindon all featured Brierley pulling the strings. It’s staggering that he ever failed to be chosen for a midfield that was so obviously lacking.

Still, even Brierley could not find the panacea. A defeat at Grimsby, allied with a habit of not turning draws into wins, meant the trip to Crawley saw us seven points adrift of safety. Too little, too late it seemed.

The awful result that followed not only as good as ended our chances of staying up, but also brought down the curtain on Jim Bentley’s spell as manager. Quite why the decision was made by the board at that point, and not earlier, will be debated for a long time, as there was little in the way of explanation that enhanced the supporters’ understanding.

After giving Jim McNulty a second spell in temporary charge, both board and supporters were rewarded by his first three results − two wins and a draw. However, some concerns among the fanbase were raised by eerily familiar tactics reappearing in the first half at Wimbledon. The Barry-Murphy days of knocking it about at the back, with centre halves stood next to the keeper at goal-kicks, raised an eyebrow or two.

Despite that, we did look much better in the opponent’s half − players such as Brierley, Lloyd and Odoh thrived when we went forward. Unfortunately, the next loss wasn’t that long in coming and, amidst a sea of pyrotechnics and police presence, we fell to what was probably the definitive season-ending defeat against a workmanlike Braford City.

The following draw against Tranmere was more significant, as it brought the first real example of the Spotland crowd finally losing patience.

And so it fell to our local rivals Stockport County to mathematically hammer the final nail into the coffin. In 2008, they were responsible for heartache at Wembley, beating us in that eventful promotion play-off final. Prior to that game, there was a genuine feeling of hope of what might be. This time, the pain felt a lot hollower to me. Probably because I had felt the result of it all season long.

At least the team ensured our last home game as a League Two side ended in victory. A commitment to attack and a high-energy display saw off ten-man Sutton United 4-1. Not much more could be gleaned from the display, however, given the visitors lacked any motivation themselves.

Today’s draw at Harrogate was nothing more than a footnote, an answer to a future quiz question, a chance to say goodbye to League football and the memories made, at least for me, since 1988.

Off the field

The high court claim between Morton House MGT and First Form Construction Limited, and Rochdale AFC and its board of directors, was settled on August 26, 2022.

The proceedings were dismissed with no further legal action being taken against either individuals or the Dale Trust.

Additionally, Morton House agreed to transfer its full shareholding of 212,895 shares to a consortium of seven individuals, who were all serving members of the club’s board of directors, for an undisclosed sum.

The club said that the transfer of these shares had received the required level of EFL approval and all seven members of the consortium had cleared Owners’ and Directors’ Test (OADT) previously, prior to their appointment on the board.

Following the transaction:

  • 43.3% of shares in RAFC were owned by the current serving board of directors which comprised eight statutory directors and three non-executive directors;
  • The Dale Trust continued to own 13.9% and was the largest individual shareholder of the club;
  • The remaining 42.8% of shares were owned by more than 500 different individual shareholding supporters of the club.

Chairman Simon Gauge said: “Having repaid the mortgage and secured the long-term future of the stadium in June 2022, my board of directors and I are pleased to have concluded just eight weeks later the transfer of the full beneficial shareholding of Morton House to a consortium of serving directors, with EFL permission and which will end all legal proceedings.

“Whilst an unwanted public hostile takeover attempt was unprecedented in the history of our club, the consortium of serving directors have stepped in and prevented a hostile takeover and then delivered a truly fan-owned and fan-led club.

“Operating on a national platform and as a local employer of over 130 people, whilst owning the largest sporting venue within the Rochdale borough which hosts community events every single day of the year, the hard work now really begins to get this club back up the Football League.

“Following events of 1 June 2021, where shareholders removed two directors from the board of the club, it was clear and obvious to all other shareholders and supporters that the breadth, depth and personal integrity of shareholders made any forced sale via a hidden and undesired hostile takeover a practical impossibility.

“With over 500 shareholders, the biggest of which is the Dale Trust, we have now delivered the first EFL club in the North of England which is fan-owned and fan-led and we can now focus on building the club back up so that it delivers on the pitch after this completely unwanted and unnecessary distraction over the last 14 months.

“There has been no personal gain from any of this board of directors who all work for free and who have committed their significant time and financial resources to protect the club’s independence for the benefit of the town. To everyone who has donated a penny in support of us, I say thank you and you have our promise that we continue to do everything we can off the field to give the club the best chances of succeeding on it.”

Just two months later, it was announced that former Rochdale AFC chief executive David Bottomley, Andrew Curran and Darrell Rose had been banned by the English Football League from operating as a ‘relevant person’ for two years, after failure to comply with EFL regulations following the acquisition of shares in the club by Morton House in July 2021.

The attempted takeover became subject to an EFL investigation in August 2021 as to whether “the club, any official, any relevant person(s) and/or any other persons involved complied with the requirements of the regulations in respect of the acquisition of shares in the club in July 2021”.

The EFL said at the time that: “It is alleged that Morton House MGT acquired control of the club, and a number of individuals became relevant persons without the prior consent of the EFL in accordance with the Owners’ and Directors’ Test.”

The EFL said an independent disciplinary commission had determined that Bottomley, Curran and Rose have been banned from operating as a relevant person for two years, while Faical Safouane had been handed an 18-month ban.

Rochdale AFC was also to be deducted six points, suspended for two years.

All parties, who were also required to meet the commission’s costs, pleaded guilty to the charges.

EFL CEO Trevor Birch said: “The updated Owners’ and Directors’ Test is a crucial element of the EFL’s regulatory responsibilities in the interests of all its member clubs, their supporters and everyone else involved or interested in football.

“The breaches in this case were serious as they deprived the EFL of the ability to carry out the necessary investigations into the identity of the proposed new owners, their proposed business plans, and the ultimate source and sufficiency of funding necessary to support those plans.

“These sanctions serve as an appropriate reminder to clubs, their officials and potential owners that disregarding those requirements can lead to significant consequences as this case has proved.”

In a statement released by the club, Gauge said: “We welcome the EFL’s conclusions after a very long and exceptionally detailed investigation into an opaque and unwanted hostile takeover attempt in July 2021 of Rochdale Association Football Club by Morton House and which has been found to have breached EFL rules.

“A club can only ever act through its directors, employees or other agents. Their acts and omissions are also the club’s acts and omissions, hence the club’s guilty plea. The governance of the club during the period leading up to the removal of directors at an EGM on 1 June 2021 was not of a suitable standard for an EFL member club.

“We are pleased the regulator has acted fully and decisively against the role of the club and four individuals to send a strong message throughout football. We hope the EFL continue to prevent individuals that do not meet the EFL threshold for an OADT and who are unable to prove the source and sufficiency of their funding, like Morton House, away from the game we all love.

“As chairman, I have recruited a new larger board of committed people with different skills and experiences and comprising a mixture of eight serving directors, including Supporters Trust representation and three non-executive directors to ensure the governance model of the club is secure and on the right footing.”

There was a celebratory feeling in the wake of these developments. A collective feeling that a huge millstone had been lifted off the shoulders of everybody connected to the football club.

It wasn’t to last.

Gauge issued a statement in December that made for bleak reading. He said the club continued to operate in very difficult financial circumstances and, without one-off events such as player sales, cup runs, or other windfalls, was likely to make a loss in the region of £1.2m in the financial year to June 2023.

He revealed the share issue of the previous year raised around £0.8m. Following an EGM the previous month, the board had further increased the club’s total shares to 1,350,000 by adding an additional 450,000, which, Gauge estimated, would raise £1.06m if all sold.

Despite the shares being on offer for only a month, there then followed what seemed to be a controversial shift from the fan-owned model that had previously been preached.

“Supporters have purchased around 5% of the new shares at the present time, and the club of course welcomes these purchases,” Gauge said. “However, the overall uptake has been low. The Board of Directors is now looking outside of the existing shareholder and fanbase for an investor/s to acquire the remaining unsold shares.”

In an interview given to me by Gauge when he first became chairman, he alluded to this being a possibility should his preferred model not work. More tellingly, though, it seemed to be Gauge’s first major indication that he and his fellow board members may now be prepared to step aside.

“It has become essential that we look for outside investment,” he said. “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.”

A further twist was to emerge on April 22 when former chairman Chris Dunphy issued a sensational, controversial even, statement on his Facebook page not ten minutes after Dale’s relegation to the National League was confirmed by defeat at Stockport County.

He announced that he had emailed the current Board of Directors offering to take over the running of the football club and purchase new shares to inject capital into the club.

Dunphy had stepped down as chairman in 2018, leaving the board also, and later sold his shares in the club to US business duo Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli, managers of an investment group NYK Capital Management LLC, and the men behind the smarterscout system.

The club itself issued a statement in response, saying it was pleased to confirm that it had openly engaged with Dunphy and had laid out all protocols that he, and any other potential investor, must follow. The club said a further statement would be given no later than May 10 (this coming Wednesday).

The club then issued a further statement providing a comprehensive update on the remaining available shares.

At the EGM in November 2022, shareholders approved lifting the available number of shares of the club to 1,350,000 and, following that approval, it was revealed that individuals including board members Simon Gauge and Richard Knight, had purchased further shares.

Therefore, 974,730 shares had been issued to nearly 600 different shareholders worldwide, the club said.

In addition, the club said 375,270 shares (27.8%) remained available and “may be allotted by the Board of Directors at not less than £2.35 per share which would inject a further £0.8m of investment into the club”.

The club also confirmed it was in talks with several other interested investors, all of whom had signed NDAs.

It seemed this statement was enough to force Dunphy into an equally public withdrawal of his offer. He said in another Facebook statement:

“Now that the shareholding has been published, it is perfectly understandable that the board would be reluctant to walk away without some sort of recompense.

“Unfortunately, I have to tell you, that I am unable to personally invest the amount of money required, and, as I cannot ask my associates to do what I am not prepared to do, I have no option but to withdraw.”

The future

For the club? Who knows? It’s a first for all of us, this National League lark. We get one season of parachute money from the EFL and then we’re on our own. Many a team similar to us has failed to apply the brakes and careened over the precipice, deeper into the bowels of English football’s pyramid.

The Board of Directors have commissioned football consultancy service MRKT Insights to conduct a thorough review of football operations at the club. A report was due prior to the conclusion of the season. This will hopefully help everyone understand their roles that bit better and hopefully lead to the considered appointment of a first-team manager who suits both the club and the level we will be playing at.

During the season, I lamented, somewhat over emotionally, that the club needed to be ripped up and started from scratch. This seems like an attempt to do that.

The search for investment partners also continues, we are told, with members of the board regularly meeting interested parties and several NDAs already being signed.

On that score, former chairman Chris Dunphy’s “offer” to “take control and invest in the club” seems to have been a false dawn. As an individual, his reasons for wanting to get involved are obvious and beyond any doubt. However, his “offer” absolutely had to make good on the promises laid out in his statement, to the satisfaction of both shareholders and the EFL (of which we remain a member until June 30). He obviously felt he couldn’t achieve this. I still think he would have a lot to offer our club, but collaboration would have to be at the forefront of any future involvement.

For me though, it is the end of the road. I plan to retire this blog. In my opinion, I have nothing left to offer, other than one final interview with a National League expert that I have already committed to, as I know next to nothing about what awaits us myself. What started life as a fan-news lockdown project, and then became a tool with which to battle an unwanted takeover, has outlived its usefulness. Applying my journalism training to something I love has certainly been an experience and not always a good one.

My journalism − applied to the club in a voluntary way − has allowed me to get more of an insight than most (I’m grateful and resentful of this in equal measure). I’ve striven to maintain my integrity and ask the questions that matter. It’s got me alienated at times, bollocked and even seen attempts at my public humiliation. Regardless, I’ve always called it as I’ve seen it. I did this to give supporters a better understanding above anything else. It’s what I would want from my local media.

I thought this would lead to better times. It’s why I made the effort. We saw off an unwanted takeover and got ourselves a boardroom made up of supporters who have done nothing but give. That seemed a massive positive. Somehow, in all of this, we have actually reached the nadir.

The journalist in me is now very conflicted with the supporter in me. I think it’s impossible for me to be both and retain that essential objectivity. Just writing this final blog entry has hammered home to me what we have lost as a club through relegation from the EFL. It hurts deeply. Therefore, I now want to go back to watching games for the experience of that alone – and there will be lots of new places to visit in the National League. I just want to enjoy football again, if such a thing is possible with Dale. Public pessimism and arguments have taken their toll and I’ve had enough.

Right now, there are fractures among the fan base regarding where we are as a club and what the board and others are proposing to do about it. The board is not above criticism, but the abuse certain members have had to face is unforgivable. Personally, I will be eternally grateful for the time, effort and, most importantly, finance, the board committed to preventing the club being sold off, and subsequent money put in thereafter. I take absolutely no pleasure from our current on-field plight, which saddens me greatly, and it will always be preferable to the alternative, but the way we do things does have to change. I think everybody realises that. The Dale Trust has held three positive meetings with its many members and gleaned a wealth of feedback and ideas for the future. This will hopefully be taken on board by the club itself.

I want to thank any supporter who took the time to read this blog or my social media output. I hope, at some point or more, it has proved useful to you. Even if it hasn’t, that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re all Dale, we all have our views, and I remain hopeful that things will work out for the best, because that’s all I have left.

Now, which is the quickest way to Dorking…?