Gary James' third column looks at the potential plight of Rochdale AFC

These are not great days in the life of Rochdale AFC. The club sits at the foot of League Two, the fourth tier of English football, and there is a real possibility the club could be relegated out of the League for the first time since being admitted in 1921.

It’s all a far cry from when Rochdale became the first team from the region to play in the League Cup final. The competition was still in its infancy and the Fourth Division club reached the final in 1962 after defeating Blackburn, who were a top flight club, 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-final.

Whilst we’ve had some turbulent times in the last two years off the field, it’s looking likely that we will get relegated this season to the Conference

The final, like all the competition’s rounds that season, was played on a two-legged basis with the first leg at Spotland against Second Division Norwich City. Sadly, Dale conceded a shock goal after only three minutes. Fifteen minutes later another was conceded and the first leg ultimately ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Despite the defeat Rochdale opened the second leg in a determined fashion and for a while it looked as if they could score. There were prolonged periods of Dale dominance but they simply could not break the deadlock. The Daily Mirror commented: “Despite their seemingly hopeless position, Rochdale tried hard enough. And their inside trio, Ray Cairns, Louis Bimpson and Joe Richardson threatened.”

As the second half wore on it still felt as if Rochdale had a chance to at least score, but it wasn’t to be and Second Division Norwich scored the only goal in the 74th minute.

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Spotland Stadium, or Crown Oil Arena, the home of Rochdale AFC Image: Confidentials

For modern day Rochdale fans the exploits of sixty years ago are a reminder of a valiant attempt but not a part of everyday discussion. Dale fan and a member of the Only A Game podcast Greg Ingham says: “Not many fans talk about the cup final in 1962, perhaps the older generation do. It only really gets brought up when we get a name in the cup or go on a good cup run, apart from that I don't think it's celebrated as much. My Grandad Jim Pilling attended the final at Spotland, he supported the club from roughly 1930s to 2013.”

The prospects of reaching a League Cup final in the modern era are slim and there is a real fear at the moment that Rochdale, after over a century in the League, could be relegated. Greg: “We've been a traditional ‘Fourth Division’ club for a large majority of our history, but I think we'll have a culture shock if we go down.  We can't ignore that teams of our size and similar history like say Torquay United, Scunthorpe United and York City aren't at the business end of the division, which could indicate it’s not going to be easy.

“I've talked to Jimmy Driver, Matt Driver and Declan Evans, who co-host It’s Only A Game podcast with me. They go to watch Tranmere and they've told me how they absolutely had to get promoted the year they did or they would have stayed non-league for a while. I think it’s going to be tough personally for Dale, we need to figure out how to get results on a consistent basis which we can't do at the moment. Plenty of ‘they used to be in our division’ teams are hoping to get back into the EFL too.”

1962 Rochdale League Cup Final
The match day programme for Rochdale's 1962 League Cup Final game against Norwich City Image: Confidentials

When the season started Robbie Stockdale was the Rochdale manager and appeared to have the support and backing needed to push Dale forward after keeping the club in the League in 2022. Players were signed and it looked like there would be some stability. However, four League defeats at the start of the current season led to Stockdale being dismissed. At the time they were the only Football League team without a point.

Jim McNulty was put in temporary charge before Jim Bentley, the former Fylde and Morecambe manager, was appointed on 29 August. “You could argue it’s been difficult for Bentley, in some respects I can’t really name any League Two or Conference managers off the top of my head that were free at the time, who could inherit a squad of players on a very poor run of form and turn them into a winning formula,” says Greg Ingham. “Add in the fact Bentley had to wait until January to have the opportunity to get players in that he thought could make a difference… by that point a large chunk of games had already been played.”

Greg fears the worst: “Whilst we’ve had some turbulent times in the last two years off the field, it’s looking likely that we will get relegated this season to the Conference… I think the board have a few decisions to make in the upcoming months.”

1962 Rochdale Home League Cup Final Prog
The match day programme for Rochdale's 1962 League Cup Final game against Norwich City Image: Confidentials

As with Rashford at United and Foden at City, Greg hopes the future sees more of Rochdale’s youth players given opportunities. When we chatted the youth team were enjoying a ten game unbeaten run: “We haven’t distilled as many YTS (youth training scheme) players within our squad like past seasons, I think this has been a missed opportunity this season. I think incorporating more YTS players next season can only be a positive… as a fan base we root for the local lad a bit more.”

Supporting a football club, especially one that is struggling, takes dedication and as fans we live for those moments when our club does something positive, like reaching the League Cup final. Despite the present day gloom there have been many high points over the years for Rochdale fans to remember. Greg’s personal favourites are: “Witnessing promotion into League One under Keith Hill. The first promotion really meant something in terms of what was possible to a club who cut their cloth accordingly and what it meant to fans who had been going much longer than myself. I'd also say beating Leeds United in the FA Cup and drawing with Tottenham, Newcastle and taking Man Utd to penalties in cup competitions have been great experiences that I probably thought I'd never see. But I also enjoy the away days to different corners of the country. We've had some great away days to Kidderminster, York, Newport and many more.

“Looking to the future I hope we can enhance the profile of the club and its identity. We've lost a little bit of that in recent years one way or another.”

The season may prove to be the darkest yet for Dale, but hopefully the club’s dedicated supporters will get to see them move upwards again soon.

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