IN THE DAYS when clubs at the bottom of the Football League had to seek re-election, Rochdale often had to rely on their old pals to maintain their status. Since automatic promotion and relegation began, Rochdale have not faced the ignominy of relegation to the National League, but if their present situation does not improve, a club with over 100 years of Football League heritage could find itself playing in the non-league game. Rochdale are currently bottom of League Two and six points from safety and they are five behind 23rd-placed Hartlepool United. There’s nine games to go, five of which are away from home for the “The Dale”.
Rochdale is a place that has given the world some very diverse characters; Cyril Smith, the giant MP, singer and actor Gracie Fields, pop singer Lisa Stansfield and Coronation Street legend Julie Goodyear, among others. Rochdale has a population of 108,000 and, according to the 2019 Multiple Deprivation Index, is the most deprived area in Greater Manchester. The town’s football club has invariably had a struggle to stay relevant in a region dominated by the two Manchester clubs.
The club has been looking for fresh financial impetus, but the current administration is keen to ensure they get the right type of investor. The experience of Bury is well known to regulars at the Crown Oil stadium (AKA Spotland). There was an attempt to mount a hostile takeover in 2022, but the club is now supporter-owned, with 43.3% of the club’s shares held by the board of directors and 550 small investors/fans who have a stake in Rochdale.
Clubs in the lower leagues were especially troubled by the pandemic. Most depend on a decent FA Cup run that earns them money or hope that regular sales of their best players can help balance the books. It’s a precarious model that has no guarantees and rarely gives the Rochdales of this world financial buffers. Their last financial statements revealed a £ 1.2 million loss (a swing of £ 2.6 million from 2019-20) for the covid-compromised 2020-21 season and turnover that has dropped from £ 6.9 million to £ 3.3 million. The wage bill almost absorbed all of their income. This was a relegation season from League One, where they had played since 2014-15, and since then, they have had a tough time.
With so many former Football League clubs or clubs with some form of FL history now playing in the National League (15 in 2022-23), getting back to League Two is no easy feat. In the last 10 years, only three clubs have won promotion in the first year after the drop: Bristol Rovers (2014-15), Cheltenham Town (2015-16) and Grimsby Town (2021-22). Some of the most recent relegated clubs have gone down with problems beyond just having a below-par team, such as Southend United, Oldham Athletic and Scunthorpe United. If a club is in decline and falls out of the League, it can be very difficult to get back.
But on the positive side, if the club remains intact and focused, National League football could act as the catalyst for renaissance. Just consider that Notts County’s last League Two season saw them average 7,357 at Meadow Lane, but their current gates are over 8,000. Similarly, Yeovil, who averaged 2,953 in 2019, are drawing over 5,000. Scunthorpe United and Oldham Athletic are also enjoying higher gates at the moment. In 2022-23, Rochdale’s attendances at Spotland are less than 3,000. A winning team could attract more fans.
Rochdale travel to Crawley, the team they have to catch, on March 25, a real six-pointer that they really have to win. They then travel to AFC Wimbledon on April 1 and over Easter, have play-off chasing Bradford City at home and Mansfield Town away. They used to say titles, promotion and relegations were decided over Easter – by mid-April, Rochdale could well know the fate of their season.