Football: Spotland delights in TV spotlight

Football: Third Division Rochdale tonight make an occasion out of first game to be televised live from their ground
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ARSENAL DO it a lot and it made them pounds 9.7m last season. Liverpool do it frequently, Ipswich do it when it's deemed attractive, and even Barnet have done it on occasions. Rochdale, however, have never done it. Not even the once.

This evening at Spotland all that is scheduled to change. When the club's Third Division game with Hull City is screened by Sky, The Dale will, at last, have had one of their matches shown live on television.

The club with the dubious distinction of an unbroken quarter-century in the Football League's bottom division, are suddenly discovering they have something to sing about after all. They appear to have averted the threat of relegation to the Conference for another season, their Auto Windscreens Shield victory at Stoke City has taken them to within three ties of Wembley, and today they will qualify for their first-ever "facilitation fee" for playing hosts to cameras that will transmit their performance live around the country.

As if that were not enough to bolster the terrace cred of their downtrodden supporters, Rochdale are also laying claim to the first football song. Forget all those choral howlers of the TV generations. The original match- day melody, it seems, was a certain "Pass, Shoot, Goal", circa 1931. Less amazing is the revelation this tribute to the heroic endeavours of "My home town" boys was sung by Rochdale's most famous daughter, Gracie Fields.

More recent music prodigies to emerge from this corner of Lancashire, the band Alive, are being asked to breathe new life into the rhythmic relic. Whether they can be persuaded this is a wise career move remains to be seen, but Rochdale are satisfied their find is authentic.

"I'm totally convinced this was the first football song," Richard Bott, the club's communications director, said. "We're contacting Alive and hopefully they'll be able to do a new version of it."

Rochdale is an unlikely source of social, economic or cultural riches, much less the sporting kind. However, take the not so well worn path down to the football club and you will uncover a veritable treasure trove of "did-you-knows?"

For instance: Did you know Rochdale had floodlights before Manchester United, Liverpool or Everton? Or that the fathers of two of England's World Cup winners played for the club, namely Charles Hurst and Alan Ball Snr. Another player there was Terry Owen, father of Michael.

This past week, Spotland has been the scene of frenetic prospecting for such 24-carat gems. Sky caused the rush when they decided to feature the fixture with Hull, thereby removing another club from the Football League shortlist of three - the others being Shrewsbury and Scarborough - of those clubs never granted 90 minutes of fame via live television.

The sense of occasion will be enhanced by second-half commentary on BBC Radio Five Live, and a programme put out from the ground by the Beeb's local station, GMR.

Not only will the exposure help to bring the club to the attention of a wider audience, but the facilitation fee will not go unappreciated. The Football League receives pounds 25m from Sky each season for the rights to televise 60 games from the First, Second and Third Divisions. The First Division clubs get the largest share (48 of the 60 games are from that level and facilitation fees vary from pounds 40,000 to pounds 20,000 per team per match) but the rewards are not insubstantial lower down.

Rochdale, as a Third Division home side, will receive pounds 30,000 for tonight, while Hull, as the visitors, will receive pounds 10,000. This might not seem much compared to Arsenal's yearly television income, but it can quickly mount if cup games are screened. The pounds 100,000 each side receives - regardless of division - for a televised Worthington Cup match can make the difference between a balanced budget and an extension on the overdraft.

Chris Hull, a spokesman for the Nationwide League, said the current television deals, even with apparent inequities between the highest levels and the less prominent, are hugely beneficial for the smaller clubs. "The current deal is better than any previously, and can be essential to assist our clubs in survival."

Hull added that television coverage, aside from purely financial reasons, is also good for promotional reasons. Contrary to popular belief, he said, televised matches can actually add to ticket sales - because the game is more widely advertised and given a sense of occasion - rather cause people to watch at home.

Rochdale plan to exploit the exposure and project the club in a light very different from their popular stereotype. They have distributed more than 2,000 tickets to schools in the town and are encouraging fans to generate a festive atmosphere with a display of imaginative banners.

They have even turned the old image of the no hope, dead-end club to their advantage, with a little help from John Gregory. The Aston Villa manager responded to Stan Collymore's latest emotional trauma by suggesting the pounds 20,000-a-week striker should look to the plight of a 29-year-old Rochdale player with three kids, a mortgage and three months on his contract for the true definition of stress.

Rochdale duly came up with Keith Hill, who has only two children, but otherwise fits the bill. And it takes him a year to earn what Collymore picks up in seven days.

"Every time somebody wants to make a point about clubs at the wrong end of the League Rochdale's name is thrown up and when Gregory mentioned us I thought `Here we go again'," Bott said. "But in fact, he's done us a favour. He's given us a bit of publicity.

"Getting the Sky cameras here is also good for the club. This is an opportunity to show what progress we have made at Rochdale, that we're not a run down club going nowhere. We've got two new stands and plenty to be positive about.

"We're encouraging the kids to come along and we're trying to get everybody into the spirit of the occasion."

Club officials and staff have also been doing everything humanly, and perhaps spiritually, possible to ensure the match goes ahead. Their home Auto Windscreens tie with Stoke was postponed four times and eventually switched to the Britannia Stadium.

Drainage problems, rather than overuse, were blamed, but Bolton Wanderers' midweek reserve game was judiciously removed from the schedule. Spotland is shared by the town's rugby league club, Hornets, and let out to Oldham rugby league club, as well as Bolton's second string footballers.

Such financial expediencies can mean the difference between survival and extinction when home gates of more than 2,000 cannot be guaranteed. Rochdale have invested pounds 3,000 for the hire of pitch covering and are confident they will defy the frost to put on their TV show and bank a fee that is the equivalent of Collymore's weekly pay packet.

"It'll be on all right," Bott said. "We'll make sure of that."

Derick Allsop is author of "Kicking in the Wind", which documents a year in the life of Rochdale FC.

ROCHDALE: TEN CLAIMS TO FAME

1 When Rochdale drew 0-0 at Gretna Green in the First Round of the FA Cup on November 16, 1991 it was the first time a Football League club had played an FA Cup tie in Scotland this century and was featured on BBC's Match of the Day. Rochdale won the replay 3-1.

2 Rochdale are the only Fourth Division club (as it then was) to reach and stage the Football League Cup final, losing to Norwich in 1962 over two legs.

3 They provided an FA Cup Wembley hero. Alan Taylor joined West Ham United from Rochdale, for pounds 40,000, just before Christmas in the 1974-75 season and scored both of their goals in the 2-0 win over Fulham in the final.

4 Two Merseyside managerial legends started coaching at Rochdale - Harry Catterick (Everton) and Joe Fagan (Liverpool). Former managers include: Bob Stokoe and Eddie Gray.

5 Famous sons who have played for or managed Rochdale include Danny Crerand and Mick Docherty. Famous brothers: Brian and Jimmy Greenhoff.

6 Among players who began their careers at Spotland are Geoff Thomas, John Pemberton and David Cross.

7 Stephen Bywater made history in June last year when he signed professional forms for West Ham on his 17th birthday. The England Youth international goalkeeper's transfer from Rochdale was for an initial pounds 300,000 building to a possible pounds 2m-plus, based on appearances.

8 Rochdale are the only Fourth Division club to have won an FA Cup tie at Anfield. In the first round, in 1989-90, they beat Marine, of the Northern Premier League, 1-0.

9 Rochdale may have been in the lowest division for 25 consecutive seasons but they have finished bottom only twice, and not since 1980. In those 25 seasons, 11 clubs have dropped out of the Football League.

10 Celebrity fans include Cyril Smith and Jimmy Cricket.

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