Gradual overhaul pays dividends

12 April ~ Seven points clear of fourth place with just five games to go, even Rochdale manager Keith Hill has started to talk about promotion. For most of a remarkably successful season Hill has urged caution as his young squad competes with what he describes as the “money teams” in League Two. Now he reckons that two more wins will be enough. Getting one of those wins at Mansfield today won’t be easy. The Stags were on a terrible run when they lost 3-0 at Spotland on Boxing Day but they have only lost four of 19 games since and still have an outside chance of reaching the play-offs.

Dale’s form has been even better – just two league defeats since the high-profile FA Cup win over Leeds in January, although they travel on the back of two goalless draws which have seen the gap at the top close slightly.

It’s hard to look beyond Hill as the catalyst for Rochdale’s dramatic improvement. After returning to the club in January 2013 he led them out of trouble to a mid-table finish before undertaking a major overhaul of the squad in the summer. Hill’s success in his previous spell was achieved with a core group of experienced lower-league players but this time he brought in younger players on free transfers and Jack O’Connell, on loan from Blackburn. The gradual introduction of youngsters he inherited, such as Joe Bunney and, in particular, Jamie Allen, has also paid dividends.

Of the free signings, Scott Hogan was perhaps the most inspired. Hill was still manager at Spotland when Hogan, a trainee, was released in 2011. He returned in the summer after spells at several non-League clubs and such has been his impact – 19 goals so far – that he came close to leaving for Peterborough in January. Hill felt that Hogan’s form was affected by the transfer speculation, complaining about “people who are supposed to be advising him”. Two hat-tricks in five games from early February certainly supported the manager’s view that his striker was “playing happy” again once the transfer window had closed.

Hogan’s absence with a knee injury from early March didn’t seem to affect Dale too much. Hill’s trust in his replacements was rewarded with 12 points and 11 goals (shared between five different players) in the next five games. Yet the subsequent 0-0 draws against Fleetwood and York mean that Hogan, who looked good when coming on for the last half an hour against York, seems likely to return today.

In his first spell as manager it took Hill just three years, including two play-off defeats, to lead Rochdale to their first promotion in 36 years. They crawled over the line that season, with seven defeats in the last nine games. To be in a position to repeat the achievement in his first full season back in charge is arguably a greater achievement – especially if they avoid the nerve-wracking finish this time around. David Emanuel

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