6 March ~ Many of us have spent our recent Saturday afternoons sat in sub-zero temperatures watching clubs that are either characterised as unfashionable or teetering on the brink of financial disaster – or both. For that reason the top of League Two makes encouraging reading. Leaders by eight points are Rochdale. Behind them are Bournemouth and back in fifth spot are Rotherham, two clubs that provide hope for teams who struggle to pay the bills.
In 2007-08 both suffered a ten-point penalty for going into administration (or being under a CVA) then started the next season with 17-point deductions for failing to meet the Football League's insolvency rules. Nevertheless both retained their league status, Bournemouth by a narrow margin, and are now managed by former players are pressing for promotion. It would be hard to say that either club had been guilty of “living the dream” in the way that teams at the top end try to glamourise financial failure.
Rochdale achieved their only promotion in 1968-69 (with Bob Stokoe as manager) and have never been further than the fifth round of the FA Cup (which has been reached twice, 1990 and 2003). Their biggest claim to fame is to be the only team from the fourth tier to reach a League Cup final – a defeat to Norwich City over two legs in 1961-62.
The club have come close to promotion on a few occasions, but they will be hoping that this year doesn’t follow a familiar pattern set in the last two seasons of early promise followed by play off disappointment. Defeat to local rivals Stockport County in the 2007-08 final was particularly hard to take. Despite being well placed throughout this season, there’s a strong sense of realism about manager Keith Hill’s approach. As recently as early February he was telling fans “there’s no pressure, we’ve guaranteed our league safety for another season, which was our main priority”.
After a defeat to bitter local rivals Bury at the start of February, Dale fans were thinking “here we go again”, but with the exception of an away defeat to Bradford, the team are back on track – a point emphasised by a recent 4-0 victory over Rotherham. They face a difficult set of fixtures in April, however, with three of their seven games away to teams currently in the top seven.
The success this year has been built on resolute defending – there have been 12 clean sheets ¬– and the scoring of Chris Dagnall and Chris O’Grady who have shared 35 goals between them. O’Grady struck form after failing to score for neighbours Oldham Athletic and facing the indignity of being loaned out to three different clubs last season, with his 39 games producing just two goals.
In one way the recent history of the three clubs is told by their grounds. For Bournemouth there was a brief spell playing at Dorchester while a new stadium, complete with title sponsors, was built. Rotherham remain homeless, a dispute with their landlord forcing them out of Millmoor, their home for 100 years, and into the Don Valley in Sheffield. Fittingly, Rochdale have a neat and unpretentious ground on the edge of the town, which they share with local rugby league team Rochdale Hornets. It is a perfect home for a club who will, if there is any justice in football, shake itself free of the unfashionable tag with promotion in May. Brian Simpson