There is a feeling of relief, if not content, among Rochdale AFC supporters as the curtain comes down on the 2021/22 season.
The win against Newport today was a rare highlight in a poor campaign that thankfully did not see the club relegated and, thanks also to the current board of directors, means we still have a club to support at the end of it.
Make no mistake though, this has been Rochdale’s lowest league finish since 2006. Perhaps that statistic in itself shows how spoiled we supporters have been over the past 15 years or so, where finishing in the weeds of English football’s bottom division was commonplace for years prior.
Yet there has been an intimation of tolerance this time around that was missing in days of yore, due to well-publicised matters taking place off the field. I have covered those issues on this website for the past year or so, as has the national media. While these events do provide some mitigation for the on-field struggles of this season, they do not wholly absolve them. It is important, in fact, to separate the two. The predators lurking in the shadows have been keen to exploit any disenfranchise with team performance via social media to suit off-field agendas. It is vital therefore that supporters see protecting the football club, and what happens on the pitch, as two separate interests.
I, too, have to be fair in my appraisal. Last summer was tumultuous. With then manager Brian Barry-Murphy asking to be released from his contract and the attempted club takeover by Morton House, new manager Robbie Stockdale certainly had his work cut out.
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, was effectively functioning with one hand tied behind its back. 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.
Stockdale sought to move the team away from an aesthetically pleasing, passing-for-passing’s-sake approach and implement something that can equate more readily to triumph. His comment at his first fans’ forum, “The right pass at the right time”, summed this up.
He asked for patience on the fronts of recruitment and results. A very fair ask given the circumstances already mentioned. He also had to deal with a squad that had lost key players in Ollie Rathbone, Matt Lund and Stephen Humphrys – the propulsion and the shells of the howitzer.
He set about this task efficiently, bringing in no less than 10 players in a matter of weeks.
Stockdale also inherited some decent players too. Abraham Odoh, Alex Newby and Jake Beesley all began to complement each other to provide a nightmarish front three for defences to handle; Aaron Morley was being utilised correctly; Conor Grant continued to look like he could grow into the club’s next big asset; and the versatility of Jimmy Keohane would benefit any team.
Added to that, there was a clear emphasis from Stockdale on the team playing to its strengths. After a pre-season of 4-3-3, with the addition of the opening day defeat at Harrogate, we witnessed a change in approach tactically. The 3-4-3 may have been partly borne out of necessity, with COVID impacting the squad in the opening week, but it went on to be our familiar set-up and one which did seem to suit the players we had at that point.
After draws with Scunthorpe and Colchester, a very small minority pointed to the negative connotations of ‘five defenders’, only for a decent run of form to illustrate that was far from the case.
Of course, the risk was the side being outgunned in midfield if those five were pinned back or the wing-backs were too wide, and we need only look at the opening 15-20 minutes at Vale Park to see how that was a potential issue. However, the team and coaching staff demonstrated their awareness in the way they responded to this during the game, ensuring Morley and Dooley were less isolated, with the game then turning on its head.
Crucial to this was the way Corey O’Keeffe and Keohane were producing on either flank, in subtly different ways. The former became something a League Two Kyle Walker, with the ability to step inside, adding to the midfield ranks, while at the same time still contributing out wide. On the other side, Keohane stuck to his touchline more, offering a real outlet, often ending as high up the pitch as the forwards when we attacked. Identifying that the central two need some support also saw Newby and Odoh − principally seen as ‘wide men’ − stationed 10-15 yards further infield than you’d usually see a winger. This created the illusion of a four-man midfield at times, and that’s without O’Keeffe’s excursions into that area.
Newby seemed to be really getting to grips with the ‘in-to-go-out’ approach, as he drifted out when attacks required his presence to deliver quality crosses. Meanwhile, Odoh was tending to drift towards the ball with the aim to start runs from wherever he received it. In combination, it was quite unique to have two players in similar roles playing them totally differently.
The final addition appeared to be allowing Morley and Dooley to flourish when they could have been exposed, with the regular appearance of a central defender stepping forward, usually the one stationed on the left. In fact, Max Taylor on the right was the only one who rarely left his station as Eoghan O’Connell felt more than comfortable stepping in from his central role in the three. Jeriel Dorsett, despite a shaky start, looked to have potential and liked to channel his inner Jack O’Connell when joining attacks and swinging over crosses from the left-hand side.
Crucial to it all though, was the way Jake Beesley was progressing to the point that it seemed almost a positive Humphrys had left for Wigan. They are different types of striker and what Stockdale’s Dale needed were those Glenn Murray-esque qualities, where a centre forward can work across the opposition back line and occupy defenders all at once. That takes a certain level of ability and footballing know-how and it was obvious Beesley not only grasped that, but looked to learn the role more each and every game.
After 10 games playing in this fashion, Dale sat eighth in League Two, which was seen as progress ahead of schedule at that juncture.
But then the wheels came off somewhat. As Christmas lights began to twinkle as early as November, Dale did not. The side seemed to develop a knack for playing out draws – either ones where neither side looked like scoring in a million years or ones that required our side to claw back a deficit.
Four of these came back to back – against Leyton Orient, Walsall, Stevenage and Exeter – and were hotly followed by two defeats – against Hartlepool and Bristol Rovers. In isolation the defeats were poor enough, but following dropped points in earlier games they took on greater significance.
A miserable festive period saw the team’s league position fall to a lowly 18th. However, there had been some cause for Christmas cheer. One of Dale’s better performances came at home against Newport – a convincing 3-0 win – which gave real hope that Stockdale’s men could kick on from the slump. There then followed an enforced COVID break, however, that robbed the team of any momentum.
January, and the gaping maw of the transfer window, was always going to be key. While the club was still not free of the spectre of unwanted outside attention, it was, at least, operating under more certainty and less restraint. This 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 was given 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 was both seamless, and coincided with an upturn in their form, was 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 turn out for Dale is also testament to a player who is career driven.
The second forward signed was, perhaps, the more interesting of the two. Tahvon Campbell, at the age of 25, had plenty of prior experience operating at League Two. It’s fair to say his record here previously had not warmed any heather. However, this season at least, he had brutalised defences while playing for Woking in the National League and his highlight reel showed some real strength, determination and a willingness to shoot low and hard. Stockdale clearly saw something to work with there and, with 14 goals to his name already, made him a Dale player for a decent transfer fee.
One of the biggest criticisms of Stockdale’s side up until this point had been the defence. Eoghan O’Connell aside, it looked inconsistent and lacking in experience. Too many goals had been gifted to opposition sides.
This was addressed with the capture of Paul Downing, on loan from Portsmouth. Almost right away his experience and leadership alongside O’Connell provided a steadied calm that had been too long absent.
And, of course, Stockdale’s defence utilised a wingback system. This, too, was reinforced. The might of Corey O’Keeffe, who had put in an astronomical turn while on loan from Mansfield from August to December, was secured until the season’s end, while Max Clark, released from Fleetwood, stepped in on the left to provide a more reliable option than the oft-unfit Aidy White.
The final piece of the jigsaw was that midfield spot. With Morley gone, Stephen Dooley and loanee George Broadbent had been valiantly trying to keep things moving in there, but Rochdale had been missing a box-to-box type for some time. 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 Jimmy Shan knows well.
So, with the window closed, Stockdale had found more pieces to fit his system. Importantly, these were the pieces the team needed and each had been considered over a period of time. In fact, it had probably been the most successful transfer window I can remember at the club in terms of recruitment and financial backing. It left supporters optimistic that the 18th spot Rochdale occupied at that point would soon be left behind. While any talk of a late promotion push was fanciful, there was quite rightly a belief that the signings would be enough to quash any fear of a relegation scrap. Yet a relegation scrap is exactly what Rochdale got. In fact, for a good while, there was a genuine fear that back-to-back relegations were a distinct possibility.
Scunthorpe, adrift at the foot of the table, turned to former Rochdale great Keith Hill to save them and, while he couldn’t, both fellow strugglers Oldham and Carlisle made managerial changes that had a much more positive impact.
The Tranmere game in January, a 2-0 defeat, was like watching Dale start again from scratch and the poor form then played out over the next few months, to the point the team was still trying to gain the identity it had managed to find much more quickly at the start of the season.
Meanwhile, the football had become aimless and joyless. The squad seemed to be without pace, guile, heart, width, strength and, most of all, bottle. From the outside looking in, it seemed Stockdale had consolidated a losing mentality forged by Barry-Murphy – but in a lower division!
The gap between the Spotland outfit and the bottom two places narrowed with each passing week. All of the clubs in the bottom 10, bar Harrogate, swapped managers. There were some calls from the stands for Rochdale to do the same.
The board stood firm, no red button was pushed and Stockdale managed to eek out the required wins to keep the trapdoor at arm’s length – but without ever quite finding the consistency of performance to slake the thirst of those seeking confidence in the manager.
So, an 18th-place finish, comfortably away from relegation in the end, probably does represent the stability that was hoped for in the summer. However, there are still doubts among the support that Stockdale is the man to lead us to better times again, especially given this was one of the weaker League Twos of recent memory.
Perhaps the final home game, against Bristol Rovers, captured the season in miniature. A 3-1 lead squandered to end in a 4-3 defeat. Every time the away side got in behind our defence, they looked likely to score, adding an even greater pressure to anything we did at the other end. It says a lot that this writer, and other supporters, were not confident of a result even with a two-goal lead.
Stockdale has a big job to do this summer. He has now put his own foundations in place, while an expected exodus of out-of-contract players will offer even more manoeuvrability. Two things are an absolute must, however – he needs to get goals into the team and rid it of its soft underbelly by creating a physicality suited to the level the team is currently at.
The board of directors have said that reaching at the least the play-offs must be the aim next season and that there will be a budget to match those ambitions.
Stockdale is going to get another crack at achieving this, rumours that he is being courted by Hartlepool notwithstanding. Only then, I guess, can his reign be judged fairly. Let’s just hope we don’t waste another season to find out we were wrong.
All photos courtesy of Dan Youngs unless otherwise noted.
Rochdale AFC squad at the end of the 2021/22 season:
Jay Lynch (28)
Joel Coleman (26)
Brad Wade (21)
Jake Eastwood (25) (emergency loan from Sheffield United)
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