League Two 2009/10 review – Rochdale, Notts County and Bournemouth’s scrap for promotion and the moral high ground

Even during Keith Hill’s finest hour, the Rochdale manager couldn’t resist taking a swipe.

As Dale celebrated sealing their first promotion since 1969 by defeating Northampton in mid-April, Hill looked ahead to his side’s up-coming Tuesday night visit to title rivals Notts County – which represented their last realistic chance to overturn the Magpies leadership – and declared, “If we can’t catch them, I’m sure the tax man will.”

The Meadow Lane club’s own promotion celebrations had been somewhat tempered by their Board having to fight back against critics’ claiming County had cheated their way to promotion, and Hill received an angry reception from Magpies fans during his team’s subsequent 1-0 loss. But as County attempted to defer the blame for signing players on wages they couldn’t afford onto the previous Munto Finance regime, Hill had a point.

Rochdale’s promotion was more than just the triumph of a small club finally experiencing their day in the sun; Chairman Chris Dunphy and Hill believe it was an achievement for doing things properly. League Two has long being a home to basket case clubs on the brink of financial ruin, often playing up to the nation’s media to attract sympathy about the unbalanced nature of English football. But for clubs who are more prudent in managing budgets and paying the bills, such tales of woe are becoming increasingly wearisome.

For Rochdale there is some gleeful irony in swapping divisions with neighbours Stockport this summer. In Hill’s first full season in charge at Spotland the two clubs reached the League Two play off final, with Stockport triumphing at Wembley. Less than 12 months later, Stockport entered administration after over-stretching themselves financially in recent years. Given that over-stretching had led to promotion at Dale’s expense, the perceived injustice was easy to understand.

Not that Dunphy and Hill are alone in feeling angry. Earlier in the season Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance, who’s club get by on the smallest gates in the division, talked about the unlevel playing field which sees others overspend to the detriment of the Cheshire club’s chances. “Last year, in August, Darlington came here and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, turns out they couldn’t either.” he told the BBC’s Football League Show. “And this year Notts County came here first game of the season with Sven and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, clearly they couldn’t either.

“Until the game sorts that out then it’s not going to have any integrity. I think it’s very important we play on a level playing field and some sides just don’t, and we find that disappointing.”

Though no League Two club has gone into administration this season, the emergence of other clubs from difficult times to enjoy some success has left others feeling bitter. While the media has heaped praise on the rebirth of Bournemouth, Rotherham and Accrington, Dunphy and Hill kept up their indignation which had previously led to them calling for clubs who go into administration to booted out the Football League.

Rotherham may have lost their stadium and failed to pay all their creditors during three consecutive seasons of points deductions, but this campaign put financial problems behind them and spent relatively big. This included signing Dale’s star striker Adam le Fondre for an undisclosed fee. Hill’s thoughts on this matter were kept private, but ahead of a trip to Bournemouth last October he hit out at the South-coast club over how unfair he felt it would be if they were promoted. The attack failed to spur on Bournemouth, who lost the game 4-0, though ultimately they did finish above Rochdale.

Meanwhile Accrington faced a winding up order last autumn and had to rely on their local community to donate money into collection buckets. Two months after that crisis was averted, relegation-bound Grimsby reportedly had a six-figure transfer bid for Stanley’s top scorer Michael Symes turned down. It’s hoped the nine-year-old girl who emptied her savings into a bucket to help Accrington last autumn understands the reasoning of “faint play off hopes”.

But while Notts County have pulled back from the brink of administration earlier this year, the wolves may still be at the door. Rumours of having to soon go into administration keep cropping up, and at best County will surely need to ship out their high earners who will still command a wage bill too large for League One. Tough times may lie ahead; Sven’s ‘project’ was yesterday’s dream.

And though Rochdale – who themselves may not be whiter than white – ultimately triumphed alongside in-debt County and Bournemouth, in time others who did not gain promotion this season may eventually look back on Nott’s triumph and begin to feel aggrieved, should the Magpies go on to enter administration.

Dale have shown that more conservative principles of balancing the books and slowly building can eventually succeed; but for more to be encouraged to follow their lead, there must be greater deterrents from taking shortcuts and gambling on success.

Mortality

Twenty five years ago I was a twenty one year old heading into town to drink and enjoy City’s championship season. A few hours later I was being dragged over the stand wall by the hood of my coat in a frantic scramble to stay alive.

The twenty fifth anniversary of the Valley Parade fire was always going to be different. For those of us who have become accustomed to the communal commemorations, when bereaved families, civic dignitaries, footballers and supporters stand in an informal huddle, the huge covered stand, packed with invited guests, was a culture shock. It could have become a metaphor for the day – the twenty fifth anniversary overshadowing the tragedy. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded and the event managed to strike the right balance between civic occasion and communal commemoration.

As 11am approached a sea of silent and still faces looked on from Centenary Square. The only movement came from the lenses of the media. Perpetual motion. Hunting for tears. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was passion and energy personified. He roused the crowd and even managed to crack a joke. As always we half-heartedly sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, which, despite the links to the fund raising efforts, is still Liverpool’s song. However, Abide With Me was blasted out with some gusto; perhaps at last we have found a song suitable for the anniversary? Something for the club to ponder for the last match of next season. The one thing I would change from the commemoration would be a speaker talking briefly about what the disaster meant for the supporters and people of Bradford. As someone commented, ‘there was a lot of God’.

Our small, but much loved, memorial, given to us by the people of Hamm, was surrounded by a sea of flowers. Many of the families paused to touch the names of their loved ones, briefly closing the space between the living and the dead. The dignitaries placed the official wreaths and then jerkily nodded their heads to show their respect. A police officer saluted. If the official wreath laying has an air of the Cenotaph about it, the flood of ordinary people, dressed in everything from formal suits to ill fitting jeans, always has a slightly chaotic, but solemn air. The emotion is raw, despite the lengthening years.

The official ceremony done, the Square became a place of meetings. Hands shaken and quiet words exchanged. It’s not long before the football fan in us is spotting Chris Kamara, John Hawley, Stuart McCall, et al. It was pleasing to see the current team in attendance, many of whom would not have even been born when the fire engulfed Valley Parade. Among the crowd was Julian Rhodes, as ever shunning the limelight, happier chatting with the friends and fans alike. This year the numbers attending the memorial precluded the usual teas and biscuits in the Town Hall. Instead a large marquee had been set up where Council staff handed out warming cups of tea and coffee. A number of Bradford’s re-elected, and newly elected, MPs had swapped the political intrigues of London for the anniversary. The Liberal-Democrat David Ward, newly elected to Bradford East, had every excuse not to be in Bradford, yet there he was, though he did have en eye on the Town Hall clock as he was booked on the 12.30 train back to Westminster and the coalition negotiations. The Labour duo Gerry Sutcliffe and Marsha Singh seemed, understandably, to be in no great rush to return to the capital.

At ten to three a much smaller gathering stood at the junction of Hamm Strasse and Manningham Lane. There the Lord Mayor’s of Bradford and Hamm rededicated the road Hamm Strasse. It was named in recognition of the support our German twin town gave us in our hour of need. Previously, the reason for the naming was carried on two small signs on the railings. It was decided that the twenty fifth anniversary was a great opportunity to rededicate the road and reinforce the links between Bradford and Hamm. There has been some misunderstanding about the stone marker, indeed one fan asked me why Lincoln’s civic crest wasn’t on the marker? The answer is fairly simple, the stone is not designed to be another memorial to the victims of the fire, it is there as a reminder of the links forged in the wake of the disaster and in particular the support of the people of Hamm.

At 3pm around one hundred people gathered around the memorial at Valley Parade itself. In probably the most touching part of the entire day the names of the fifty six fans were read out. Then people were invited to take fifty six flowers into the ground. Valley Parade was still and silent as 3.40pm, the time the fire broke out, approached. Only the rain pattering on the stand roofs disturbed the silence. A number of people sat alone with their thoughts as the exact time of the anniversary approached. One person even relived his journey to safety as he stepped over seats and made his way slowly towards the pitch. I stood in almost the exact spot I had been in twenty five years previously. I was in the old Paddock mere feet from the base of the fire. I remembered the smoke, the first flames and then the horror of those few terrible minutes. I stood and watched the ghost of my past make its way to the front wall. Stuck helpless, a hand reached up and pulled me over the front wall where I landed head first on the pitchside. From there I jogged across the pitch, looking back to see a wall of smoke and flame driving thousands before it. It was in that moment that I realised that not everyone was going to get out.

I will be seventy one when the fiftieth anniversary comes around. Nearly half the victims of the fire were over seventy years of age. I wonder whether I will be still making my way up Manningham Lane to Valley Parade at such an age? How many of us will be gathered around the memorial on 11 May 2035? Your own mortality is sobering stuff, but inevitable on a day like today.

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