The real-life tales of a football writer
Congratulations to Rochdale, who were promoted at the weekend.
I went to watch them play Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago. The 15 minute walk from Rochdale’s train station to the town centre is as bleak as the moors which edge the once prosperous mill town famed for being the birthplace of the co-operative movement.
Eventually though, the tacky shops, bars, garish signs and boarded up pubs gave way to a view of the splendid Victorian Gothic town hall.
Rochdale is much maligned, but after decades of despair, Rochdale AFC have come good and provided serious cheer for the town of 95,000 situated 10 miles north east of Manchester.
Their promotion is from League 2 - the old fourth division – a league they haven’t left since 1974.
Their promotion to the third level in 1969 remains the only one in their 103 year history. Don’t talk to older fans about the relegation season of 1973-74, when they won just twice in 46 matches.
Bigger names have slipped out of the league, but while Rochdale have finished 92nd out of 92 six times, they’ve managed to avoid such ignominy since relegation to non-league was introduced in 1987.
Since then, Rochdale have bobbed along prudently, usually avoiding the headlines and even earning a sort of status for spending more time in the league’s bottom division than any other club.
With average gates increasing to 3,000 this season, Spotland seldom sees queues before the turnstiles open, but the last three home games have attracted crowds of over 5,000.
The management pair, who arrived in 2006, are largely responsible. Manager Keith Hill dresses like the landlord of a Cotswold pub and he’s ably assisted by fellow Boltonian David Flitcroft.
The pair played for Rochdale in their younger years and have fashioned an entertaining side who play patient, attacking football and boast an unrivalled team spirit. They led the team to the League Two play-offs in each of the last two seasons and went several better this season. They also manage at a club with the best pre-match and half time play list in football.
It costs £19 for an adult ticket in the main stand and £14 to stand on the Sandy Lane terrace behind the goal at fully redeveloped 10,200 capacity Spotland. It’s a pleasing and functional ground, fit to host the likes of Southampton, Charlton Athletic or Leeds United next season.
The admission price is around the same as it costs to see AC Milan, but then the Milanese don’t get to see the two Chrises - Dale’s principal strikers Dagnall and O’Grady.
Speedy Liverpudlian Dagnall, 23, and the more powerful Nottingham born Grady, 24, are Dale’s own Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain, with over 20 goals each so far this season.
They are backed up by an experienced midfield including club stalwart and captain Gary Jones, who is closing in on 500 career games, While locally born defender Craig Dawson, 19, has been attracting the attention of bigger clubs since signing from Radcliffe Borough.
Dawson was absent in the game I saw against a well organised Bournemouth side who also look a very good side, and included the former Manchester City striker Lee Bradbury…playing at right back.
Now 34, the former £3 million record City signing once mocked as ‘Lee Badbuy’ is winding down his professional career at his 11th club.
A club who won’t be going up or down but also deserve credit are Altrincham from the Blue Square Premier. I saw them play Kidderminster last week in another entertaining game.
Debt-free Alty punch well above their weight in football’s fifth tier. They are currently 14th, a fine achievement given they are one of just four part-time teams in a league which includes two previous League Cup winners, Oxford United and Luton Town, plus 70s European regulars Wrexham. Not to mention York City, who knocked Manchester United out of the 1995 League Cup.
Such rivals enjoy crowds up to six times the Robins’ average gate of 1,152 and pay players up to £1,000 a week, while Alty’s mixture of taxi drivers, teachers and accountants take home £100-500. Those players recently travelled over 1,000 miles in one week for games against Ebbsfleet and AFC Wimbledon while keeping up the day jobs.
I should declare an interest. My grandfather Sam played for Altrincham after the war alongside former United players like George Vose, who returned from combat too old to feature in Sir Matt Busby’s plans.
Sam reckons games against rivals Northwich Victoria were more tense than Normandy battles, while Grandma was a 1940s non-league wag who enjoyed a once-a-season jolly to the spa town of Buxton on the club.
Long after life at United, the Bogota Bandit, Uncle Charlie, was Alty manager in the 1960s, while uncle Alan wore the red and white stripes in the 70s and uncle David was kit man for nine years until he took up the same role at Wigan Athletic last summer.
My brother Joz also enjoyed an mixed five months at Moss Lane in 2005 which started with a ban for “smacking a Scouse” opponent and finished with him scoring the penalty away at Nuneaton Borough which helped propel Altrincham back into non league’s highest division.
Manager Graham Heathcote is the central character at Altrincham. He joined the Robins as a player at 16 and earned £5.25 a week working at the Port of Manchester when one Altrincham director offered every player £1,000 if they could beat Everton in a 1975 FA Cup tie.
With a history of hard-working and wealthy directors like a pre-Manchester City Peter Swales and Noel White (later chairman at Liverpool), Alty were known as the Manchester United of non league football.
They forced a draw at Goodison and 35,530 showed for the reply at Old Trafford.
“Driving up the Chester Road to Old Trafford was like Wembley Way for us,” recalls Heathcote. “Thousands of United and City fans cheered us on. City played the next night and had a smaller crowd.”
Everton won the replay, but Heathcote later scored a penalty in front of the Kop in another cup tie against Liverpool, despite Alan Kennedy saying, ‘Bet you a fiver you don’t score.’
“He paid up in the players’ lounge,” smiles Altrincham’s manager. “And he sent me a card years later asking for his fiver back!”
The glory days were over when Heathcote took charge in 2002, with Altrincham fourth from bottom in the Unibond Premier. Gates of 450 and debts of £700,000 pushed the club to the brink of going under. Their most recent turnover was £625,000 and they were strong enough to withstand Setanta’s withdrawal last year.
“We’ve don’t owe a bean now,” Heathcote says proudly in his tiny office adjacent to the home dressing room.
“We live within our means, we’ve worked hard and are stable in this division. We’re a hard to beat team who haven’t spent a penny on transfer or signing on fees, but we’ve thrown ourselves into the local community. We pay for football coaching in 14 local schools and I take kids on ground tours. We now see Alty shirts around the town and we have a lot of kids at games.”
Staging United’s reserve games helps, as do the large away followings from former Football League clubs, while chairman Geoff Goodwin is integral to the success and another vital revenue stream.
His coach company have long provided travel to any visiting Australian cricket teams, the likes of Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath have become friends, happy to help out at fundraising dinners.
Bar Heathcote and one employee, everyone at the club is a volunteer, from the board to the people running Alty’s excellent website.
Still, there’s no pleasing some.
“A fan came up to me during a recent game and said: ‘Heathcote, you’re useless, clueless. You don’t know what you are doing and never have,” he explained. Never one to shirk a confrontation, Heathcote told him that he couldn’t have been more wrong.
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