Football: A life of drudgery and broken dreams fails to deter Rochdale's faithful fans

Olivia Blair on a miracle-free football outpost
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The Independent Online
WHETHER you are of a religious nature, or whether your religion is football, there is usually some serious business to attend to during Easter. The former will be celebrating one man's rise from the dead and his subsequent ascension into heaven; as for the latter, well, miracles are often called for, too.

In footballing terms, Easter is the time of the season when dreams come true or become nightmares. It is a time when fans are either in footballing heaven, or coming back down to earth with one almighty bump. In short, by the time Easter is over you have a pretty good idea whether you're up or whether you're down.

Except, that is, if you're a Rochdale fan. Because apart from 1969, when Rochdale suffered a severe case of vertigo in ascending to the old Third Division (where they stayed for five seasons), the club have never stepped off the lowest rung of the Football League ladder.

For those who need to ask the question: "Where's Rochdale? - as Coventry's manager, Noel Cantwell, did somewhat dismissively in 1970 before his First Division side were beaten 2-1 in a League Cup tie - a glance at a map will tell you that it lies deep in a footballing heartland that includes six Premiership clubs, not to mention another 20 (at least) from the various divisions of the Nationwide League.

In other words, the temptation to take your loyalties elsewhere is great, particularly when your team is the lowest placed of all the aforementioned (currently 20th in the Third Division) and playing like it, too.

But once a Rochdale fan, always a Rochdale fan, as Richard Wild will tell you. Wild has graduated from mascot and ball boy to club lottery and merchandising manager (he also ran the exceedingly good fanzine Exceedingly Good Pies with co-merchandising manager Francis Collins) and admits that being a Rochdale fan is "a difficult cross to bear".

Perhaps these long-suffering fans would do well to remember that - to paraphrase the philosopher Max Ehrmann - it is still a beautiful game despite all the drudgery and broken dreams. Because drudgery and broken dreams have been pretty much their lot since the club were first elected to the old Division Three (North) in 1921.

True, they will go down in history as the only Fourth Division side (to date) to have appeared in the final of a major competition (they lost to Norwich in the 1962 League Cup final), but as the League Cup in those days had even less clout and was a two-legged affair, a Wembley visit was not even on the itinerary.

Even Stenhousemuir, the only Scottish club afflicted by the same stay- put mentality (they required a Scottish Football League restructure to get them out of the bottom division, and have been sitting tenants in the Second Division ever since) have won a trophy: they beat Dundee United in last season's Scottish League Challenge Cup.

As their fans discovered, the first cup is always the sweetest. But Rochdale fans have known no such highs, nor even real lows; this season Doncaster laid claims to the Third Division relegation place very early on. So, Rochdale will "still be around next season", as Wild puts it, and in more ways than one; their shrewd commercial activities mean they have none of the financial worries that threaten some of their contemporaries.

The fact is that Rochdale run a "very prudent ship", as their chairman describes it, which will keep the club afloat, despite a lowly League position. Mind you, it has to be prudent considering they have an estimated weekly wage bill of pounds 13,000, the cheapest tickets (pounds 8) in the League and an average home gate of 1,400 (down from the 2,700 average three seasons ago), of which 400 are season tickets holders. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that gate receipts alone will not suffice.

Of course, on-the-field flair doesn't necessarily have to be sacrificed in favour of off-the-field affluence (as Spurs fans will argue). But when you're as precariously poised as Rochdale you have to cut your cloth accordingly. Hence the reason why highly rated 16-year-old keeper Stephen Bywater was sold to West Ham earlier this season, even if the fee was far less than the pounds 2m widely quoted. The reality is that Bywater will have to captain England while he's still a Hammer for Dale to reap a substantial reward, and as Wild says, "we all know the chances of that happening".

Bywater wasn't even a regular; his only appearance came in a 6-1 Auto Windscreens Shield thrashing at Carlisle. In fact, Dale's usual keeper, Neil Edwards, a pounds 25,000 signing from Stockport, has been one of the few plus points of a particularly forgettable season.

Still, most of those who witnessed it will still be there when next season kicks off, following Dale's ups and downs, should they be so lucky. Just like the legendary figure who was famous for considering football to be more important than life and death. Asked whether there was truth in the rumour he'd taken his wife to watch Rochdale on his wedding anniversary, Bill Shankly allegedly replied: "It was actually her birthday - I'd nivver have wed during the football season - and it wis nae Rochdale, it was Rochdale reserves."

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