Rochdale reverse but Hill plans to climb

Rochdale 2 Chesterfield 3
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The Independent Football

Time was when two home defeats in a week would have barely warranted comment in the pubs and clubs close to Rochdale's Spotland ground. They are, after all, a club who have spent all bar five of the past 51 years in the bottom tier of the Football League. When they were last promoted – for the only time in their history – Richard Nixon had just been elected to the White House.

But expectations have grown higher lately. The current squad have reached the League Two play-offs twice in a row, and began yesterday's match second in the table, with a chance to claim top place for the first time.

A result that instead elevated Chesterfield to fourth place and allowed Dagenham & Redbridge to take over from Bournemouth in first therefore left the home crowd deflated, particularly after their midweek exit from the FA Cup at the hands of their now non-League first-round opponents, Luton.

It was a disappointment too, of course, for their manager, Keith Hill, who had seen his side recover from Jack Lester's first-half double strike with two goals of their own, from the striker Chris O'Grady and defender Craig Dawson soon after half-time. At 2-2, they looked the more likely winners, only for Dave Perkins to restore the lead for John Sheridan's team, defying the tendency for the manager of the month award to be a curse. Sheridan pipped Hill to claim that prize for October last week.

Yet it does not alter the fact of Rochdale's progress since Hill took charge in December 2006, nor temper the belief that they can go one better and win that first promotion since 1969, in doing so confirming the 40-year-old Hill's emergence as a young English manager with a bright future. Promoted from youth-team coach to succeed Steve Parkin, the former Blackburn Rovers defender attributes his success among other things to hard work and the lessons learned from Ray Harford, who was coach under Kenny Dalglish, as part of the Rovers side who won promotion to the Premier League in 1992.

"Ray paid a lot of attention to planning and organising and myself and David Flitcroft, my assistant, have worked from day one on a plan to succeed," Hill said.

"We share the same philosophy in that we want the team to play football of the kind we like to watch and we have built on that, along with recruiting the right kind of players. Although the club do not have a lot of debt we are not in a position to compete for players who are going to cost money, but we have found the colleges and local non-League scene to be an untapped source of talent." The 11 Rochdale players on the field at full-time had an average age of 22.

Hill had ambitions to be a manager even before he left Ewood Park for Plymouth in 1992, and began collecting coaching certificates at 27, while he was at Spotland as a player. But he wonders if his management career would have taken off had Rochdale not taken a chance on him.

"As a journeyman player, it can be hard to break in," he said. "But I don't resent seeing high-profile names walk straight into jobs. I've learned a lot myself in the last three years and I have the experience now to manage at a higher level. It is more satisfying too, probably, when you have earned success through your own hard work."