Up the Dale

I RANG up Keith Hill last July when I was doing a bit of freelancing for the Rochdale Observer. The way he spoke at the time, you would never have guessed that Rochdale were about to end their 36-year stay in what is now League Two.

Hill’s concerns then were about Rochdale’s budget, and the pressures of trying to live up to expectations after two consecutive runs to the play-offs. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if he was trying to play down those expectations. If he was, it was a smart move.

“I don’t think we are competing on a level playing field with some of the teams in this division when it comes to spending,” he said to me last July.

“That means we need to over-achieve. We’ve got to punch above our weight on an individual and a collective basis.”

Mission accomplished. After a couple of hiccups, Dale beat Northampton 1-0 yesterday to secure their first promotion since 1969. The fourth tier of English football will have to do without them next season.

It has been an remarkable achievement. When Hill was appointed caretaker-manager at Spotland on December 17, 2006, the club were third from bottom of League Two, outside the relegation zone only on goal difference. He was their 19th manager since their relegation to Division Four in May 1974. The odds were stacked against him being any more successful than the previous 18.

The first time I went to see Hill’s Dale in action was against MK Dons in late January 2007, around three weeks after he had been given the job on a permanent basis. Despite a couple of good early results, Dale had slipped into the relegation zone. MK Dons, on the other hand, were fighting for promotion. Anyone looking at the league table would have expected an easy away win.

It was an extraordinary afternoon, and the first indication I got that Hill might just have been on to something at Spotland. Dale were 3-0 up inside 15 minutes, and deserved to be. Their football was exceptional. They tore the Dons defence to shreds, and ended up winning 5-0.

A great run over the second half of the season not only took Dale clear of relegation, it almost propelled them into the play-offs. In the end, they fell five points short.

Falling just short would become a familiar story over the next two seasons. Hill had put together a side capable of challenging at the right end of the table. The problem was, they couldn’t finish the job.

They made the play-offs in 2008, secured their first-ever trip to Wembley with a memorable penalty shoot-out victory over Darlington, but then lost to Stockport in the final.

Last season, they really should have gone up automatically, but fell apart on the home straight and lost in the play-off semi-finals to Gillingham.

At the start of this season, Hill stated that finances were tight, adding that he would need to bring through players from the youth-team to bulk up the squad. Money was spent to bring in striker Chris O’Grady from Oldham, but not a lot.

In the meantime, last season’s top scorer Adam Le Fondre was sold to Rotherham. Dale started well, and continued to play attractive football. But when I spoke to Hill again in late October, he expressed concerns about having to sell more players mid-season to balance the books.

We spoke just after Dale had been drawn away to Luton in the first round of the FA Cup. Even though Dale were one division higher, Hill suggested that Luton’s superior budget made them favourites, before discussing the financial implications of a good cup run.

“We haven’t had a cup run since I’ve been here – and the money that you can earn from one does have a big impact,” he said to me.

“Two seasons ago, I had to sell Glenn Murray to Brighton in the January after we had been knocked out of the cup. If we had managed to hang to him, who knows what we would have achieved that season?”

Hill was right to be cautious. Luton beat Dale in a replay. In January, young striker Will Buckley was sold to Watford. Hill was not happy.

But his side managed to maintain their promotion challenge, partly because the youngsters came good. Kallum Higginbotham, one of the youth-team players Hill had talked of blooding at the start of the season, chipped in with an astonishing long-range chip to seal a victory at Accrington. Craig Dawson, a teenage defender who was working in a warehouse when Hill signed him from non-league Radcliffe Borough, proved more than able to step up to League Two.

The experienced pros did their bit too, with veteran captain Gary Jones driving them on from midfield, and O’Grady and Dagnall banging in the goals.

Then, just as promotion beckoned, another stumble. Dale lost three out of four matches, crashing 5-0 at Torquay and then losing at home to doomed Darlington.

Was this the start of a third promotion near-miss? It seemed unlikely. They were surely too far ahead of the play-off places to throw this one away.

So it proved. O’Grady’s goal secured a 1-0 win over Northampton, and gave Rochdale only the second promotion in their history.

Hill was thrilled, not least because he feels that other clubs in League Two have been able to spend beyond their means while he has stuck to a budget to keep Dale out of financial trouble.

The Dale manager had a very public pop at Bournemouth earlier in the season over the way they have managed themselves through administration. Yesterday, he couldn’t resist a dig at Notts County, also promoted from League Two.

Although County chairman Ray Trew has worked hard to untangle the financial mess left by the Munto Finance saga (and there is no suggestion that he has done anything wrong), the manner in which the club were able to assemble such a strong squad at the start of the season has angered many of their rivals in the division.

And asked on Radio Five Live yesterday if Dale could still catch Notts County, Hill replied: “Well if we don’t, the taxman will!”

Enjoy your promotion, Keith.

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