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."

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering