As I type my side Gillingham have just won back to back games for the first time in two years. It was also the first time that they had won away from home all season. This sudden upturn in form, is thanks largely to some long overdue investment from new American owners. It has seen Gillingham move off the bottom of the football league, they now sit 23rd in League Two. The team replacing them at the bottom of the league are Rochdale. JC, from the new vinyl villain, is a big Rochdale fan and he has been kind enough to offer up a guest contribution on the team this week. So grab yourself a coffee, get comfy because this is epic – here’s JC.
I’ll begin with a huge apology for the fact that this piece is far too long and self-indulgent. But I couldn’t do it justice otherwise.
Growing up in Glasgow, I had absolutely no reason to develop a soft-spot for Rochdale AFC, or ‘Dale’ as I’ll call them from now on. The fact that I did led to a great deal of serendipity in my later life.
1973. I’d be 10 years old. For the past four years, my dad had been taking me to watch Celtic. They were our local team. In fact, I was born in a hospital less than half-a-mile from the stadium. Celtic in the late 60s/early 70s was an extraordinarily great side who seemed to win just about every week. I loved it. But at the same time, there was something in my brain that suggested I should look out for a team that wasn’t so successful. Dale fitted the bill perfectly.
In 1973/74, they were in the old Third Division in England and they ended it, not just rooted in 24th and last place, but miles away from ever being secure from relegation. The record shows they won just 2 games out of 46. Until a few months ago, I had no idea just how bad the season was until I read a book called ‘The Longest Winter’ by Mark Hodkinson, a writer and columnist for many years across numerous UK broadsheet newspapers, in which he tells the in-depth story of ‘A Season with England’s Worst Ever Football Team.’ It’s a brilliant read, as much a social history of the decline of the mill town on the outskirts of Manchester as it is about a particular football season.
Dale went down to the 4th Division. They stayed there for the next 36 seasons, the longest any team has ever been in the bottom division of the Football League, and with there now being automatic relegation to non-league level, it’s a record unlikely ever to be broken.
I revelled in the fact that my English team was so bad. Not once did they ever look like getting promoted and more often than not, they had to seek re-election from the chairmen of their fellow clubs to avoid the fates that had visited Bradford Park Avenue (1970), Barrow (1972), Workington (1977) and Southport (1978). It truly was grim up north.
Now to the serendipity.
In 1981, I went to University where I befriended a fellow student on my course called Ronnie Coyle. I knew of him as he was also a footballer who was on the books of Celtic and had played for their reserve team at the age of 17. He actually tried to deny he and the footballer were the same person but I wasn’t to be fooled. We quickly became best friends, albeit Ronnie dropped out at the end of 1st Year to go full-time at Celtic and try and break into the first team.
He never quite made it, although he played two matches for the first team and captained the reserves to a number of league and cup wins. In 1987, he decided to leave Celtic and was transferred to Middlesbrough for £25,000. He couldn’t break up the centre-half partnership at the club which consisted of club legend Tony Mowbray and future England star Gary Pallister. After a few months, Ronnie accepted an offer to move to Rochdale where he was installed as club captain. I couldn’t have been happier!
He was only there for a year. He wanted to come back to Scotland and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Joan, who was now making a career for herself in the lucrative world of medical sales. He signed for Raith Rovers in January 1988, and within a couple of years, I had given up entirely on Celtic and went to watch the Rovers every single week – something I’m still doing 35 years after he signed.
In November 1994, I went on a long-planned holiday to Antigua with my wife. Little did I know when the booking was made that the holiday would come to clash with Raith Rovers, who were then a team in the second tier of Scottish football, making it to the League Cup Final where they would play Celtic. I tried my best to change the holiday, but it was too expensive to do so, and there was no way I could simply cancel it.
These were the days before mobile phones, the internet and fast information about football games being played thousands of miles away. I took to the Antiguan beach on Sunday 27 November 1994 in my Rovers shirt. I got speaking to a fellow holiday maker called Ian and explained what was happening. The only way I could find out how the game was going was to either call back to the UK from the hotel room (far too expensive) or walk about half-a-mile to the nearest bar with a public phone.
Ian kindly agreed to come to the bar where we spent a late morning/early afternoon with me calling my mum back in Glasgow every 20 minutes or so to ask for progress. Rovers, in a huge surprise, won the cup beating Celtic on penalties after a 2-2 draw in a game when we scored a very late equaliser. Ian helped me through that day, getting quietly drunk with me before heading back to the beach where our wives were wondering why we had been gone so long. My singing from a few hundred yards away night just have given the game away.
Ian was from Rochdale and a regular on the terraces at Spotland Stadium. He remembered my pal Ronnie from his short spell with the club. It was kind of surreal.
Ronnie, sadly, passed away in 2011 at the age of 46 from leukaemia. I was one of the coffin-bearers and read a eulogy at the service. I still miss him every day. Ian is still a very good friend, and indeed I was his best man when he re-married in his late 60s a few years ago; his first wife Iris, who I had of course met in Antigua, had died very suddenly a from an aneurysm in 2016.
So that’s why I’ve so much fondness for Rochdale AFC and why I asked SWC if I could get the honour of contributing to this great series. Again, I’ll offer apologies that it’s such a long read.
Musically, Rochdale is best known as home to Gracie Fields, the best-selling singer of the late 1920s and 30s who also made a name for herself as an actress. A little-known fact is that she was born as Gracie Stanfield. Which brings us nicely to the second-best known singer to come out of Rochdale.
Lisa Stansfield – All Around The World (1989, Arista Records, Taken from ‘Affection’)
A #1 hit in 1989. Lisa Stansfield had first came to a wider attention as lead vocalist on this club classic
Coldcut – People Hold On (1989, Tommy Boy Records, Taken from ‘What’s That Noise’)
In a career that was still going as recently as 2018 in terms of new material, Lisa is reckoned to have sold over 20 million albums.
If you go to the neighbouring town of Middleton, (which forms part of what is known administratively as Greater Rochdale), you’ll find it has been home to some indie bands over the years– The Chameleons, Courteeners and Mock Turtles. More importantly, it was where the frontman of this lot was brought up.
The Wedding Present – Brassneck (1989, RCA Records, Taken from ‘Bizarro’)
Yup. David Gedge was born in West Yorkshire but his family moved to Middleton when he was a kid (so he qualifies under the BRMC South Devon Clause – SWC). I’m sure as a teenager that he roamed the streets of Rochdale looking for things to do, and I’m willing to bet he found his way to Kenion Street.
You see, there’s a blue plaque attached to a building on Kenion Street, Rochdale. It informs passers-by that it is the site of the former Cargo Studios, which opened in 1978. Hundreds of bands passed through its doors over the years, including just about every act to emerge out of Manchester, Liverpool and the wider north-west in the late 70s through to when it closed in 2001, by which time it was known as Suite 16 and was owned by Peter Hook, who happened to play on probably the most famous track ever recorded at Cargo:-
Joy Division – Atmosphere (1980, Sordide Sentimental Records, Taken from ‘Licht und Blindheit’)
For the new music aspect of Rochdale, the best I can offer up is this
The Sprats – Let’s Sail (2022, Unknown Label, Single)
The indie band have been described as potentially the next big thing to come out of Manchester, but two of the members come from Rochdale and two come from nearby Burnley.
Oh, and back to the football to round things off.
Dale finally got out of the bottom division in 2010 after 36 years. It had, during that time, changed its name from Division 4, to the Third Division and then to League Two, but all the while being the fourth-tier of the English League. The most surprising thing was that Dale got out by winning promotion to League One and not through relegation to the National League. Dale lasted two years in League One before relegation in 2012 but somehow kept things together to win a promotion back up in 2014. The stay in League One this time around lasted until 2021, which was unheard of.
It’s been a real struggle over the past two seasons, much of it caused by boardroom shenanigans and what proved in the end to be a successful effort to fight off a hostile takeover where much needed cash for the playing squad was diverted to pay legal costs as it all ended up in court.
The team got off to a shocking start this season, failing to win any of their first nine games, but began to pick up a bit of form once October came round. But just as hope seemed to spring eternal, the onset of 2023 has seen Dale fall back to the foot of the table and slipping out of touch with the sides above them. It will be a very sad day if they do go down to the National League (5th tier of English football) given that they have been a constant in the Football League since they first joined in 1921. History shows that clubs the size of Rochdale never find it easy to make their way back, and therefore, I have every right to be worried.