17 December ~ For Rochdale to be hosting Bournemouth in a League One fixture tomorrow is remarkable in itself, as neither club was really fancied for promotion from the bottom division last season. Bournemouth, still suffering a transfer embargo, had just managed to retain their league status despite a 17-point deduction. Rochdale had made the play-offs for two seasons in a row, but… well, after 35 years at the same level, nobody outside of the town expected promotion.
Yet here we are among the big boys, and not just making up the numbers. Bournemouth probably had the greater expectations, but it’s still a remarkable achievement to be sitting in the play-off places almost halfway through the season – not least after losing last season’s top scorer Brett Pitman to Bristol City in August and 12-goal Josh McQuoid to Millwall last month.
In each of the last three seasons 50 points have been sufficient to ensure survival in League One and, even during a dream start that included memorable victories over Southampton and Huddersfield, I think most Rochdale supporters were quietly counting towards that total. Three draws and two defeats since October have seen us dragged back down towards the relegation zone, but there’s been nothing wrong with the performances in those games. In such a tight division, a couple of wins during what is always called the “make-or-break” Christmas period would see Dale comfortably back in the top half of the table.
With the controversy over recent managerial dismissals in the Premier League – Mike Ashley decided that Chris Hughton didn’t have enough “managerial experience” for Newcastle, while Blackburn’s owners want someone “younger and more energetic” than Sam Allardyce – it’s interesting to note that Rochdale and Bournemouth have achieved their recent success under two of the most promising young managers in the country. Both Eddie Howe and Keith Hill are in their first managerial positions, at the clubs where they spent the majority of their playing careers, and both have demonstrated an ability to get the best out of a small squad with little opportunity to bring in new players.
Hill, with assistant manager Dave Flitcroft, has proved particularly adept in using the loan market to bolster his Rochdale squad – five of the team picked for the recent defeat at Peterborough were loan players. The fact that these included Craig Dawson, sold to West Brom in August on a loan-back deal, would appear to indicate general appreciation of Hill’s coaching methods. It seems inevitable that their success will lead to a bigger club tempting Hill and Flitcroft away; it’s difficult to imagine where Rochdale could find a replacement capable of maintaining their success, so we’ll enjoy it while it lasts. David Emanuel