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
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The Independent Football

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."