Can Rochdale avoid the drop?

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.

League Two: Buoyant Bantams bash Boro

THERE IS a little, cautious buzz in Stevenage at the moment; in January the club pulled off a momentous FA Cup giant-kill when they won 2-1 at Premier League Aston Villa and there is genuine hope the club can win promotion back to League One this season. They lost to Stoke City in round four, but even in defeat they had already added to the club’s impressive record in the competition.

There is certainly an air of expectation that is building by the week, mainly because before facing Bradford City, they had gone 12 games without defeat in League Two and had conceded just four goals in that time. They had lost just just three league games, at Salford (0-1), at Bradford (0-3) and at home to Northampton Town (2-3). Their previous home game had seen them beat league leaders Leyton Orient 3-0 in front of almost 7,000 people at their neat and functional Lamex Stadium. They followed that with a featureless 0-0 draw at Sutton United, old rivals from their non-league days.

Stevenage’s manager Steve Evans, is an intriguing character who cut his teeth in the United Counties League with Stamford, among other employers. He resembles a very rotund Tommy Docherty who like Evans, was a Glasgwegian and had a lengthy CV of clubs, and you cannot fault his enthusiasm or passion. Bradford City, who brought a healthy contingent of fans to the Lamex, are managed by former Manchester United striker and managerial journeyman Mark Hughes.

Bradford City were chasing a play-off spot, so the game at Stevenage was vital for maintaining their interest in the top seven. They are the best supported team in League Two with an average crowd of 17,400 which is higher than two teams in the Premier League (Brentford and Bournemouth) and half of the Championship. 

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Stevenage took the lead after 26 minutes with a header from former Oldham Athletic defender Carl Piergianni from a Jake Forster-Caskey corner. They remained comfortable until the early second half when Matt Derbyshire, recently signed from Indian club North East United, sent a fierce shot in off the crossbar past Icelandic keeper Jökull Andrésson, who joined Stevenage on loan from Coventry City in the same transfer window.

There was a shock for the home fans in the 56th minute when Dan Sweeney pulled Matt Platt’s shirt and the referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Andy Cook netted to put Bradford 2-1 ahead, enjoying the moment by teasing the home fans with cupped hands to his ears after receiving some abuse earlier from the locals. 

Bradford keeper Harry Lewis had to be at his best to stop the home team from taking control and on one occasion, he dragged a header from Josh March away from the net, sparking off protests that the ball had cross the line. It looked as though it was the right decision, but try telling the Stevenage faithful who were left calling for VAR at League Two level!

But they were soon level from another corner, this time Sweeney making amends for the penalty when he met another Forster-Caskey corner with a typically firm header.

Four minutes from time, Bradford scored again, Jamie Walker shooting wide of Andrésson after Cook had flicked the ball on. The celebrations were interrupted by a fan who ran on to try and get to the centre forward. Stevenage still had chances to level up, notably when Lewis touched a Luke Norris header onto the crossbar, but the home side couldn’t muster up an equaliser, despite a lengthy period of added time.

It was hard lines for Stevenage to lose the game at the death, very similar to their other home defeat against Northampton in October. Perhaps they have tampered with their team too much – four relatively new faces were used against Bradford and they may take a little time to settle. They shouldn’t dwell too much, though, they are still in a very good position and they have games in hand. But with three away trips in the next four games, the next few weeks will be vital. And, importantly, the new town still believes – there were 5,000 people at the Lamex for this riveting contest.