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.

The fear stalking the corridors of Goodison

EVERTON’s defeat at Anfield was a reminder that Sean Dyche and his team have a considerable amount of work to do to avoid relegation this season. They are in a precarious position, but as the victory against  Arsenal showed, they are capable of producing something better. But against Liverpool, a team that has struggled to live up to the standards set by Jürgen Klopp, Everton fans were sent a message.

Should they suffer relegation, it will only be the third drop through the trapdoor in their long history; the last time they went down was in 1951, when both Everton and Sheffield Wednesday were victims of the goal average system. This method must have caused all sorts of problems on the final day of a season as flat-capped terrace dwellers scribbled their calculations on the back of cigarette packets. Thank heavens for Mr Casio’s calculator and the development of goal difference.

Only Arsenal have been relegated less, their only demotion coming in 1913 when they were a South London club from Woolwich. Liverpool have gone down three times, the most recent being in 1954 before the days of Bill Shankly and the rebirth of the club.

Relegation for such a big club would be a major shock in English football, as it was when Manchester United fell into Division Two in 1974, just six years after winning the European Cup. It was actually a blessing in disguise, for United had been in something of a freefall on and off the pitch and needed to wipe away the shabby conclusion of the George Best era. United went back a better team and regained their place among the top clubs. Chelsea went down a year later, spiralling into financial chaos and by 1975-76, had lost around 20,000 fans at home games since 1971. Tottenham and West Ham followed in the mid-to-late1970s. Manchester City’s relegation in 1983, which seems a once-in-a-lifetime event now, was a dramatic event, decided by a late goal and celebrated in true dad-dancing style by David Pleat. 

As football has changed, the financial rewards of the Premier League have cushioned the likes of the big six and others from struggling for any length of time. There’s also the rise of billionaire owners that have propelled clubs to a new level – Newcastle United are the latest. It has become unlikely for a Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham to fall into the relegation zone and stay there. 

And if they do, the elite clubs generally have the power to climb out of the hole in a year or two. Manchester United went straight back up in 1975, Chelsea took two years (although it was a false dawn as their finances got worse and they were relegated again in 1979) and Tottenham eased their way back in a single, goal-happy season. Now, the parachute payments give the relegated clubs some advantages and they can mount a recovery campaign, hence Burnley are ploughing away in 2022-23 at the top of the Championship. 

Although Everton are just outside the “bulge bracket” of clubs, possible relegation need not be the end of the world because they are certainly strong enough to return immediately. When a club does suffer a setback, it is vital the management does not allow things to fall apart. Sometimes, a club on a downward spiral starts to splinter when relegation comes – there have been a number of calamitous double relegations that have been difficult to overcome.

Three clubs have had a notable number of relegations: Grimsby Town have gone down 17 times in their Football League history, Bolton Wanderers 16 and Doncaster Rovers 15. Of the current Premier League, Leicester City have been relegated 12 times, Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers 11.

The financial impact of relegation is what really drives the fear of clubs in the Premier. The broadcasting money, the commercial potential and the huge crowds have created a way of life for the clubs that they cannot contemplate losing. Even though a successful promotion bid will maintain public interest and possibly increase crowds at some clubs, the economic consequences are very clear. With Everton in the process of a new stadium project, avoiding relegation will be doubly important if they are to avoid the threat of a financial crisis. The times may be very different, but Chelsea’s collapse in the mid-1970s was a combination of macro-economics, financial decline, an under-performing team, and the debt incurred by a stadium rebuild. There is a lesson to be had there.