Hill climbs mountains to lift Dale from mediocrity

After just their second promotion in 103 years, Rochdale face the new League One season for once full of hope, writes Chris McGrath

Brown lung, they called it. Caused by poor ventilation in the cotton mills, it killed hundreds of Rochdale men and women.

Even in its days as an Empire's loom, this was a downtrodden, asphyxiating town. A century ago, it was the most polluted in the country. True, its exigencies also disclosed the resilience of the human spirit. The Co-operative movement, for instance, was founded here. Nowadays, however, much of the town has a wretched, derelict aspect, and some of the most deprived wards in the land.

For a long time, as though submitting to some malignant destiny, it had no more convenient metaphor than its football club. Rochdale contrived one promotion in 102 years, to the old Third Division in 1969. They were only relegated once, going back down in 1974. A byword, in short, for mediocrity in English football. Rochdale hold League records for the fewest wins in a season, just two in 1973-74; for the lowest post-war attendance, mustering 450 to see Cambridge's visit in 1973; and for most goals conceded, no fewer than 135 in 1931-32.

With all this in mind, what has happened in barely three-and-a-half years since Keith Hill became manager seems a downright miracle. Suddenly the club has climbed out of the slough, as though up into the clean air of the surrounding moors. Rochdale dominated League Two for much of last season, and survived a nervous wobble in April to secure promotion at last. They did it in style, too, keeping the ball on the ground, attacking with energy and width.

By mid-season, however, gates at Spotland were still averaging only around 3,000. Many in these parts cannot afford any kind of indulgence, but there was also a suspicion that for some it was almost too good to be true – as though they could not quite contemplate being wrenched from their discomfort zone. "It's difficult to change people's perception, about what you're trying to achieve," Hill acknowledged at the time. "They've been so disappointed, year in, year out. There have been false dawns before. I can understand supporters being wary. But previous history has nothing to do with me. It bears no relevance. I have felt no pressure, with respect to the club's history."

He played at Rochdale five years himself, having already peaked as a central defender by helping Blackburn into the Premier League in 1992. Certainly he seems an unlikely messiah, this craggy, thick-set bloke, seated across the desk in a cramped, breezeblock office under the stands. His old managers and team-mates are bewildered by what he has done. "Every single one would suggest I was the last person they would ever have expected to become a manager," he says. "I was pretty much a live-for-the-day type. Nobody ever took me too seriously. But when I started taking my [coaching] badges, at 27, I began to realise I had never fulfilled my potential. And I did start to sympathise with managers who probably did try to show me the right way, and hadn't got through."

By the same token, he found it hard to conceive how he might break into management. "I was never a big name," he admits. "I was a journeyman. If I hadn't been with the youth team here, I wouldn't ever have had the opportunity." When the chance came, Rochdale were in a familiar pickle. Hill and his cherished lieutenant, David Flitcroft, were unabashed. "I think we were pretty naïve. We thought we could beat the world. But I suppose that turned out to be our biggest strength. We're very positive people, myself and Flicker. When we took over, we were third from bottom. But we didn't even look down – we only ever looked up, at the teams we could catch."

By the end of the season they had climbed to ninth, and they reached the play-offs in both the next campaigns. Right at the beginning, Hill had been emboldened by a call from a former team-mate, Chris Sulley, then director of football at Bolton. "He congratulated me, wished me every success, but also reminded me that you're only ever three games away from the sack," Hill remembers. "So he said ultimately you have to enjoy the experience. And that's what I decided to do – to set down a template that suits me, and the way I want the game played, rather than going with percentage football. If I was going to fail, I wanted to be able to look in the mirror, and know I'd done it the way it should be done."

Sure enough, there is a large mirror fixed to the door of his office. Everyone who enters is duly challenged to look at himself anew. The profile Hill himself is most obviously acquiring is that of a man who will some day be given a chance by a bigger club. Should that happen, of course, inveterate Spotland pessimists may yet be justified in their morbidity.

Hill candidly accepts that the project has finite scope. "There is a fear that possibly we can't keep re-creating the success," he shrugs. "We've limited resources. I'm not a magician, I'm a football manager. We live within our means. The chairman is 100 per cent realistic with respect to retaining players, retaining myself, retaining David Flitcroft. He knows what a good job we've done. I'm ambitious. I want to manage as high as I possibly can. First and foremost, I want to do that with Rochdale."

The big time unmistakably beckons Craig Dawson, a local lad recruited 18 months ago from Radcliffe Borough. Still only 20, the centre-half scored 11 goals last season and was booked just once. Middlesbrough have led his suitors this summer, and Dawson recently handed in a second transfer request, but Hill insists that he will not be permitted to leave until the money is right. "I have a close relationship with Craig Dawson and, for as long as our valuation is not met, I know he's only going to keep improving," he explains. "In my opinion, he will be a Premier League player before the end of the season. It's not a question of standing in his way. It will be Middlesbrough's loss when he signs for another club that meets our valuation."

In the meantime, Hill praises Dawson for "outstanding professionalism" in his approach to training. And it is easy to imagine the camaraderie and buzz created by the club's breakthrough. This week, moreover, Hill repatriated Anthony Elding, a former Stockport and Leeds striker who has been playing in Hungary, on a two-year deal.

Dawson could be the best thing to come out of this town since Gracie Fields. He will not be here for long, plainly; and his mentor will not be here for ever either. Regardless of their future, what they have done to the past represents a heroic footballing emancipation – a true breath of fresh air.

"The players are really excited," Hill says. "We've had a very good pre-season. We did lose players during the summer, but those we've retained and recruited give us the opportunity to be successful in League One. The supporters and chairman can decide what it means to be successful. But I'm not going to aim simply at finishing fifth from bottom. It's exciting that fairytales can still happen in football. Look what Scunthorpe have done, or Blackpool. We've over-achieved, definitely. We don't have the resources of teams like Huddersfield or Southampton. But we have no fear, either."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015