This week, the Football League spotlight is placed on Rochdale as Bruce Halling looks at why they could well be a team to watch in League Two this season.
In the lower tiers of the Football League, so far this season there definitely appears to be a trend emerging which suggests that adjusting from life a higher division to a lower division is more difficult than people seem to think. If you look at Coventry and Wycombe in particular for examples of clubs who particularly seem to be struggling, it’s obvious that it’s not just a case of it being a bit easier because of playing less difficult opposition.
Not everybody is getting it horrendously wrong though, with Doncaster faring quite well in League One and Exeter enjoying their start to life in League Two. For this blog, however, I’m going to put Rochdale under the spotlight for two reasons. Firstly, I think they’ve had a lot of challenges to deal with over the summer, and secondly, they’re flying under the radar at the moment despite – at the time of writing – sitting in a playoff place. I won’t dwell too much on the events of last season, but it was always going to be difficult for John Coleman to arrive when he did in January and be able to push the club forwards enough to guide them to safety and ultimately the club finished bottom of the table. Given they had been 9th in the same division the year before, it was tremendously disappointing and very difficult for Dale fans to take.
With relegation came the inevitable rush of departures, with a number of key players leaving the club. The one that hurts for a lot of Rochdale fans is the departure of former club captain Gary Jones, whom had been with the club since 2004. Jones is their record appearance holder and had been an integral part of the side for many years, so the fact that he joined divisional rivals Bradford City only made this an even more bitter pill to swallow. The loss of players such as Nicky Adams, Dean Holden and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, whom have all had impressive starts with their new clubs again just further demonstrates that relegation does a lot more than simply knock a club down a division, it often strips them of the core of their squad, or at the very least a number of key assets on the playing staff.
Subsequently, a manager is forced to rebuild the squad and bring in large numbers of new players, and it is this that often leads to things going wrong and clubs taking an even larger step backwards in the short-term than they had originally anticipated. This doesn’t appear to have happened at Rochdale, however, and it appears that John Coleman has assembled a very decent squad of players who are already working quite well as a unit and are pushing the club in the right direction.
If you look at the signings that have been made, they have been intelligent and well thought out. Players like Josh Lillis, Phil Edwards and Matthew Pearson have helped to form a decent defensive unit that has only conceded three league goals in front of their own fans so far this season and although there is still a little bit of concern about how strong the team has been at the back away from home, they are winning more games than not and to do that you have to be good in your own third. In midfield, Ray Putterill and Kevin McIntyre have been good signings and have definitely helped to give the squad a solid foundation. Up front, however, is where I think John Coleman has done particularly well with his signings, with Dele Adebola and Bobby Grant already establishing themselves as a strike force which has the potential to change games and win the club plenty of points this season. The two players have contributed eight league goals already this season, and the combination of Grant’s undoubted talent alongside Adebola’s vast experience is working fantastically, and you cannot help but give Coleman credit for recognising the strengths that both players bring to the table and combining them to create a tandem which is up there with the best in the division.
At current, they haven’t been setting the division on fire and they haven’t really taken many headlines, owing to the strong early season form of Gillingham and Port Vale in particular, but I believe that in a lot of ways this is of benefit to Rochdale. They have had a solid start to the season and as time goes on, will only go from strength to strength as the players become better gelled as a unit and grow in confidence from the results they are getting. They are already in a decent position and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were solidly in an automatic place before too long. Whether they are able to go on and claim a promotion place by the end of the season will depend just as much on their continued progression as it will on that of some of the other expected promotion challengers, but if I were a betting man, I’d be putting some money on Rochdale this season. They have all the ingredients to have a successful season, and as I’ve already stated, they will simply go from strength to strength as the games go on and this makes them a team that should definitely be watched as the season goes on.