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Hill taking Rochdale to new heights

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Paul Fletcher | 10:15 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

The word "Hillcroft" evokes images of a thatched cottage overlooking a quaint patchwork quilt of radiant English countryside.

In Rochdale, it is an affectionate term used by supporters of the town's football team to describe manager Keith Hill and assistant David Flitcroft - Spotland's very own Brangelina, though Dale fans will no doubt hope rumours that the Hollywood couple are about to split are not a portent for a parting of the ways in their own backyard.

A cursory glance of the League Two table reveals why Hill and Flitcroft and viewed as the darlings of The Dale.

Currently nine points clear at the top and a healthy 13 points above Rotherham in fourth place, the club, who have spent the last 35 years in the basement division, are on the verge of claiming only the second promotion in their 102-year history.

"Promotion would lift the monkey off the back of our supporters," said Hill. "They have been ridiculed for a long time as fans of the least successful team in English professional football."

However, the former Rochdale defender, who made more than 150 appearances for the club, is not taking anything for granted. "There are no givens at this moment in time," he insisted.

David Flitcroft (left) and Keith Hill are overseeing happy times at Rochdale Flitcroft (left) and Hill are known as Hillcroft by the Rochdale fans

The story of Rochdale 's resurgence can be traced back to the day Hill took over as caretaker manager shortly before Christmas in 2006.

The team were 22nd in the table at the time and in danger of relegation. By the end of the season, they had risen to eighth.

Since then, they have reached the play-offs twice, losing to Stockport in their first Wembley appearance in 2008 and at the semi-final stage last season.

Now they are closing in on automatic promotion. Rochdale are clearly no one-season wonder.

Speaking to Hill, you quickly realise that what is happening at Spotland is part of a plan that has been in force since the day he arrived - and one which has hauled the unfashionable club into the modern era of professional football.

The renaissance is also a wonderful example of how a limited budget and modest surroundings should not impact upon a club's ambition.

Hill maintains that he has always planned for the long-term - for the season beyond and the division above - but he respects the fact that a manager must be continually successful in the short-term if he is to last long enough to see the job through.

The 40-year-old, in his first management role, has introduced a new way of thinking at Spotland. Diet is closely monitored, the players wear heart monitors during training while video analysis is used to prepare for every match. In short, sports science is embraced not shunned.

"Financial requirements do limit us somewhat but these types of things can be used at this level," he said. "You won't find us running around tracks or on roads - everything we do is football specific."

When Hill looks around the changing room at Rochdale, he sees a young group of players keen to learn and improve. But he insists he is not afraid to jettison anyone who is not "flying in the same direction". Just ask Clark Keltie, who was released by mutual consent before Christmas.

The environment Hill has created is designed to allow players to think for themselves and flourish - provided they remain within set boundaries of behaviour and styles of play.

"Within those, the players have the flexibility to make decisions. If they are wrong, then we - the coaching staff - offer guidance. If they are right, then we encourage," said Bolton-born Hill.

The relationship between coaching staff and squad is something that matters to Hill - he talks about the intimacy he has with his players and the importance of trust - and claims he has lost count of the amount of personal problems he has sorted out for his players over the last three years.

Hill and Flitcroft have learned a lot from their own experiences as players - often negative ones that they wish to avoid repeating. Hill recalls managers who showed no interest in him as a person or a player and the effect such snubs had on his performance.

As a result, the door is always open to his office, although he is insistent that everybody respects the very definite line that exists between players and management. There is a "switch-on time" for players, and Hill, who is hoping to complete his Pro Licence in the summer, says training sessions are no place for laughing and joking.

Developing young talent is crucial to Hill, but he is realistic enough to acknowledge that the longevity of a manager's career is often determined by the quality of his recruitment. He recently pulled off a coup by signing striker Chris O'Grady on a permanent deal from Oldham after a successful loan spell at the club.

Rochdale were second in the table at the end of last Feburary but ran out of steam. This season there is no evidence to suggest that there will be a repeat performance.

Former Stone Roses lead singer Ian Brown Boss Hill has a huge amount of respect for Ian Brown

However, the spate of recent postponements mean that Dale's remaining 20 games will be compacted into a relatively short three-month period, regularly featuring games on both Tuesday and Saturday.

It other words, 'Juicy' by the late Notorious B.I.G is likely to get a lot of airings. It is the current signature tune that the squad listen to before they take to the field.

It isn't really Hill's kind of music. He much prefers former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown and has great respect both for his songwriting and the way he reinvented himself as a solo artist.

"He is an exception to the rule and in my eyes similar to the way in which David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself," said the Dale boss, who did a little bit of DJing in the early days of his management career.

But if Manchester United fan Brown is a solo operator, Hill is currently all about team building. His big fear is that the financial restrictions will eventually halt the undoubted progress the team have made since he took over. Players such as Glenn Murray, David Perkins and Adam Le Fondre have been sold to clubs that can afford higher wages.

"There are constant battles, fire-fighting every day and when we have sold players it is sometimes hard to digest," said Hill.

Rochdale's solitary promotion was clinched after a 3-0 win over Southend on 10 May 1969, seven days before Hill was born. Relegation followed in 1974.

And right now I imagine that Dale fans are happy to cast to one side any long-term fears and focus on savouring the prospect of a team heading for promotion for the first time since John, Paul, George and Ringo were still together.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Rochdale have been amazing this season!

    They fully deserve what has happened to them. Hard work and commitment are by far a better formula. Compared to certain other clubs in their division who have tried and failed to buy promotion through extravagant takeovers that have fell flat on their faces.

    Its a shame that Rochdale will be replaced in league two buy lowly Stockport in the higher division. but thats football.

    Rochdlae's story this season is a similar story to Altrincham fc in the Blue Square premier.

    No budget at all but a squad of gutsy and commited players who wear the shirt with pride. Altrincham have escaped three season of relegation dogfights through reprives and last day drama but this season they are not far away from the play off spots!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Keith Hill is doing a fantastic job with Rochdale and i'm pretty sure they'll get the automatic promotion that they deserve. Chris O'Grady signing on a permanent deal was massive. He's a great player and what every club in that league needs.

    Although at the start of the season I predicted that Rotherham will win the league. So i'm going to stick to my guns and say they'll still be crowned champions come 8th May. I know you state that Rochdale are currently 13 points ahead, but Rotherham do have 3 games in hand. Obviously 3 games in hand isn't a secure 9 points but, I don't think it'll be far off.

  • Comment number 3.

    This management duo have confounded all the critics and have produced minor miracles to get Rochdale where they are at the moment. No long ball nonsense, no hack and kick stuff, just football the way it should be played - on the deck. The transformation both on and off the field is incredible. However, as Keith Hill always says, it is a 'work in progress' and nothing has yet been achieved. We are on course for a memorable conclusion to the season. Last time we won promotion, I was a schoolboy, and leapt over the wall to congratulate my heroes, as the whistle signalled the 3-0 defeat of Southend, and promotion to a higher division. If a similar situation occurs at the end of this season, I hope someone will help me over the wall !! Up the Dale.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog, and a very similar story is happening down the road at Bury, where Alan Knill has turned a club fearing for its future in the league into one fighting for promotion. We've had so many dark years since Stan Ternent left us for Burnley but there's a definite buzz about Gigg Lane at the moment. The big fear for us this month is losing our midfield dynamo Stephen Dawson. His contract ends in the summer and he's refused a new one. I only hope he changes his mind, as without him we're a completely different team.

    Considering we've been without our best striker for the vast majority of this season, we're storming along after a poor start. If we can get Andy Bishop back fully fit and firing, then we're in with a massive chance of automatic promotion.

    C'mon the Shakers!

  • Comment number 5.

    You got him then.. ;-)

  • Comment number 6.

    An excellent article Paul, with praise rightly lavished on Hillcroft. I think they would be the first to stress that support from the board has been there whenever needed. Every time a chink appears, it is quickly and successfully filled. Example - I was at Aldershot last Tuesday when the return of loan player Will Atkinson to Hull revealed a weakness on the left flank. Within 3 days we have another premiership squad member to fill the gap, Andrew Haworth from Blackburn, who sparkled in Saturday's 4-1 win at Cheltenham.
    Next up it's Port Vale at home on Tuesday evening. I read somewhere recently that these are the only 2 teams in the Football League with only British players in their squads; just thought I'd end with a bit of useless information.

  • Comment number 7.

    I refuse to believe that Dale won't cock it up between now and the end of the season, there have been far too many false dawns in the past. Fixture congestion does not bode well for a small squad, plus it'll be hard to play pretty football the more knackered the pitch at Spotland gets, especially with Rochdale Hornets giving it a good battering.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a Gillingham fan I was hugely impressed with Keith Hill last season after our play-off semi final victory over Rochdale. We went through to Wembley thanks to a penalty which was pretty 50:50. However, after the game there were no excuses or jabs at the referee, he simply said the better team won on the day. I found it so refreshing given the blame-environment football finds itself in, and since then have looked out for their result every week, crossing my fingers they finally break the 35 year hoodoo!

  • Comment number 9.

    This is a good blog, but I'm not quite sure how we might have fixture congestion between now and 8th May.
    As things stand at the moment, we only have four more midweek games to play (Port Vale (h - 26 Jan), Bradford (h - 23 Feb, when every team is playing), Rotherham (h - 2 Mar) & Darlington (h - 13 April, when every team is playing)). I'm not counting bury next Monday as we aren't playing on Saturday.
    Notts County's continued FA Cup involvement could see the game there on 13th February being postponed, but as it is, there isn't a concentrated period of Tuesday-Saturday fixtures, as implied.

  • Comment number 10.

    A good account of Keith Hill's philosophy - which has already picked up appreciative comments on the Dale fans' forum. Hill could become one of the great 'managers with attitude' in the tradition of Shankly or Clough or (at least) Sam Allardyce (who Hill admires).

    Another thing about the 'Hillcroft' philosophy, is that Dale are top of the fair-play league too. Ironic, as in their playing days Flitcroft and Hill were in the unflinching, gutsy, 'never mind the ball, get on with the game' mould which led to not a few red and yellow cards.

  • Comment number 11.

    Definately the best team I've seen (coming from a B'Mouth fan) although Bury are a close second.

    Good luck to 'em. Hopefully they'll win a majority of remaining games and beat of other competition for us.

    Not mention of how significant their loan players have been - proves how tight League 2 is, and whilst Hill is taking the plaudits, his loan transfers might just be the difference....shame we aren't allowed to make any.

  • Comment number 12.

    Best team to come to Valley Parade this season by a mile, very good side with a great strike force. Interesting that O'Grady is doing so well, he was deemed to be "rubbish" by some of our fans after 2 games coming on as a sub. What i would do for him now!!

  • Comment number 13.

    Its hard not to have a lot of respect for Rochdale's supporters for sticking with the club through thin and thin. People take the mickey out of supporters of small clubs like them and my team, Bury but the vast majority of Rochdale fans have never ever seen them win promotion and they've only really come close under Hill in the last 2 or 3 years. There are no glory seekers at Spotland on a Saturday afternoon, that's for sure.

    Hill has worked wonders with what must be a very small budget. Their crowds are as bad as, if not worse than Bury's (especially considering the population of the two towns) and to have consistently got good results is a minor miracle.

    Of course, the two teams mentioned there meet at Gigg Lane on Monday for what should be a cracking match. If you're not going, you should tune in to Sky to watch it. Whoever the winners (please let it be Bury) you'll see two of the best footballing sides to have graced the bottom division for many years.

  • Comment number 14.

    There is a belief surging thro the veins of all shirts taking to the field wearing the Dale colours..the mental strength and focus which our management team have instilled into the players would gain the respect and admiration of the greats such as Ferguson and Wenger.
    This is an abject lesson in how to get a pint from a half pint glass..our players arent particulary the best, we as fans know that.. however when they step onto the pitch they are an unstoppable force TEAM ROCHDALE are in town and beware anyone who stands in their way for if you score 4 then we will score 5
    It will be an amazing achievement if Dale get promotion but no chickens are being counted just yet ...these are halcyon days at Spotland so lets enjoy it for we believe in Hillcroft now and forever AMEN.......

  • Comment number 15.

    Yep - definitely think that Rochdale look fully equipped to last the distance. Who do you think will go up with them?

    And any Dale fans out there - life must be pretty good at the moment?

    Clarkeonenil - yep. Got to keep at it, haven't you. A bit like Leeds on Saturday night.

  • Comment number 16.

    With reference to #2 Cyril, one of Rotherham's 3 games in hand is against Rochdale. Considering we have scored in every home game this season then Rotherham will have to score 2 goals, a feat achieved by very few (6 to be exact: Rotherham (A), Morecambe (A), Accrington Stanley (H), Chesterfield (H) and Crewe (A)). As can be seen, in 12 home matches this season, only twice have Dale conceded more than 1 goal.
    I'm extremely excited about this season, Hillcroft have certainly produced the best football i can remember in supporting the Dale for my 20 years.

    Up The Dale!!!

  • Comment number 17.

    #16 - one of Rotherham's 3 games in hand cannot be against Rochdale, as that would not reduce the deficit in games played that Rotherham currently have against Rochdale.

  • Comment number 18.

    Nice article and spot on. As a long-suffering Rochdale fan, my abiding memories are of drab goal-less draws on a wet and windy Tuesday night at Spotland, standing near that bloke with about four teeth who used to hurl all manner of colourful obscenities at the linesman (they weren't called assistant referees in those days).

    It's a pity we didn't quite make it in the centenary season, but it wasn't to be. This season the squad looks so solid and committed to the cause, they are a joy to watch. All thanks to Hillcroft. If we do go up, I just regret that my old da (who used to manage the Rochdale youth team in the 80s) isn't around to see it!

    There will be some Championship clubs sniffing around our players come Easter, and I just hope we can hold onto them.

  • Comment number 19.

    I have really enjoyed reading some of the comments by Rochdale fans because I get a definite sense of how much they appreciate that they are currently in the midst of great times, ones that have to be savoured. I often think many supporters don't realise what the good times are until they've gone.

    It also seems that plenty of fans of other clubs have complete respect for Rochdale and the football they have been playing - and would not begrudge them promotion.

    Neil (18) - you might be more or less up by Easter!

  • Comment number 20.

    #17 I stand corrected, youa re ofcourse correct!

    With regards to being a Dale fan, it's brilliant!! I remember 2001 as a mad 11 year old standing on the terraces watching Rushden & Diamonds break my little heart. Now I'm proud to wear my Rochdale shirt around Hull, my university home.

    I genuinely believe that if we beat Bury nest Monday then we are pretty much nailed on for promotion. I know many people will point to the almost annual drop of form we always seem to encounter towards the end of the season, but there's a different feeling about this season.

    I may be being slightly biased here but an early contender for player of the season must be Craig Dawson? 10 goals from centre half is a brilliant return and there's still plenty of time for that number to increase!!

  • Comment number 21.

  • Comment number 22.

    As someone who has to follow The Dale from a distance, this season has been something truly amazing to keep up with. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that Dale would play at Wembley, but to think that just two seasons later we would be top of the league, looking at automatic promotion, and if we win tonight 12 points clear!

    Is it really happening, or will I wake up one day soon to find I've been in a dream for 6 months? Everything started to get going with the 3-0 win over Bury in August - which I was fortunate enough to be at with my 3 year old daughter - her first match, but proud as her dad to be wearing the Dale shirt...

    Great stuff... Keep it up "Hillcroft", and let's hope the board can keep them for next season too... Something tells me there'll be a few clubs sniffing around our management team, never mind our players.

  • Comment number 23.

    My late grandfather used to take me to every Rochdale home game in the 60's and early 70's. Lots of memories - promotion, taking a day off school to watch them beat Coventry in the FA Cup, Reg Jenkins, Billy Rudd, Steve Melledew and the other characters that both played for and watched the Dale. Just before my time was the League Cup final in 1962 against Norwich!
    Good luck for the rest of the season and am sure my Grandad is up there smiling.

  • Comment number 24.

    After so long without any real or minimal success you have to keep pinching yourself to believe its real. I thought that Going to see Dale play at Wembley in 2008 was the absolute highlight of being a Dale fan. but if anything going to Games now, being at the top of the table, with a gap is even more nail biting. You keep thinking everyweek that maybe this is the week that the wheels finally come off.

  • Comment number 25.

    As a Dale fan of thirty odd years (since my dad used to lift me over the Wilbutts Lane turnstile) I can't believe this is happening!. Not just the being top by nine points but the manner of football played. It's a pleasure to watch. The players make it look simple. Pass to someone in the same colour shirt, move into space, look for a return. When the ball is lost, get straight on to the opposition to hound them into giving it away. Play it wide, cross it in and bingo!

    I just want more of the good citizens of the town to get to Spotland to enjoy it with us. All glory hunters will be welcomed!

  • Comment number 26.

    As a Lincoln fan I hope they can make it this year (we had a period of being the "nearly men" not so long back and it wears a bit thin after a couple of seasons). We were discussing the state of Lg2 at the game on Saturday and the general feeling was that Rochdale were the only stand out team this year - what's more they are doing so playing football.

  • Comment number 27.

    I watched Rochdale play Luton in an FA Cup tie some months back. I couldnt believe they lost. They wasted opportunities vs Luton. But watching the way they played was truly refreshing for a league 2 side. So much technique and patience and accurate passing. Proper football was being played. I loved it. Since then, i have been monitoring their progress and im not suprised they are about to get promoted. I wish more managers would try and set a style and a team with this kind of philosophy. You dont have to be an Arsenal to play this way, you just need to KNOW how to play football.

  • Comment number 28.

    As a Bury fan I think it's healthy for both ourselves and Dale to be vying for promotion as both clubs need the gate money generated when we play one another. The Shakers have come back from a pretty awful start, caused I think by the hangover of missing out on automatic promotion by a single goal and then losing out to Shrewsbury on penalties in the play off semi, and whilst we have had an appalling injury list - missing strikers Andy Bishop, Danny Carlton and midfielder Damien Allen for most of the season so far alongside injuries to defenders Paul Scott and Ryan Cresswell, strikers Andy Morrell, Ryan Lowe and Tom Elliott at one time or another - we are finally hitting form and have lost two in 18. With the return of the Bishop, Carlton and Cresswell I think the Shakers will be challenging Dale for the title. It's not going to be easy as Dale are playing some fine football and scoring goals for fun - how come Chris O'Grady played more like Paul O'Grady when he was on loan at Gigg? - it's going to be a cracker at Gigg Lane next Monday night and I'd advise any neutrals in the Manchester area to pop down and sample a great atmosphere and hopefully another three points for the Shakers!

  • Comment number 29.

    It would be a wonderful success story if Rochdale could push on and become a hugely successful team in the Premier League and across Europe. Imagine if Rochdale won the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League in 2024!!

    Mora would be gutted when HGT scored more than him in a season!

  • Comment number 30.

    Firstly, how wonderful to be able to read about the Dale and watch highlights after decades of being too insignificant for a wider audience.
    Second, a cracking article, thanks, but let's hope it doesn't alert speculative sorts from other clubs any more than this unprecedented success will already have done.
    I was born in Rochdale the season we were last promoted. I've always loved them, even when we were truly awful... anyone remember Cooke getting sent off after a few minutes of a grim 5-0 drubbing at Orient? could have been 30-0! Now Hill and Flitcroft have generated a superb squad who play with desire and pride and no little skill. Even if we were to bomb and miss out again (and we won't) Hill has brought the most consistent level of success to this club ever and we will always be grateful to him. He is a legend.

  • Comment number 31.

    Thanks for all the comments - I'm picking up some serious excitement vibes about next Monday's Bury-Rochdale match. Me thinks I'll be watching that one on the David Kelly.

  • Comment number 32.

    Re #15 debate on who will go up.

    I'm going for Rochdale, Rotherham and Notts County - purely based on squad size and the ability to bring in players to cover the excess games.

    I think Bury, Aldershot are looking good for the play-offs (if they can keep key players like Morgan and Jackson fit)

    other two will depend on loan signings to bolster squads and who can put a decent run together.

    Bournemouth will fade completely away and end up mid table. Some will laugh, some may mock (top of the league and you ****** it up), but its what the football league wanted - and what they will get.


  • Comment number 33.

    Paul, even better than watching it on the "David Kelly", get yourself down (or up) to Gigg Lane on Monday and maybe write a blog about two lower league teams trying to play football the right way?

    Just a suggestion, but a very good 1 at that!

    UP THE DALE!!!

  • Comment number 34.

    As a Rochdale supporter in Australia (long story), this has been an amazing season so far. I am torn between the joy of being clear leaders of League Two, the team that everyone says is playing the best football, with excellent reports like this blog, and the inbuilt pessimism that being a Dale fan, surrounded by Premier League and other successful team supporters, can bring.

    Amongst my friends down here, Rochdale has become their second team, with many hoping for promotion (if only the Brisbane Roar in the A-League down here were doing as well, but that is another story).

    All I can hope for is for the boys to keep doing what they are doing. They seem to be quite good at it.

  • Comment number 35.

    Paul, never mind watching it on the Sam Fox, get down to the rub-a-dub, preferably one somewhere in either Bury or Rochdale, and sample a proper Lancashire derby atmosphere! I for one shall probably be in the working men's club near me teasing all the elderly Rochdale fans, heehee!

  • Comment number 36.

    i not a dale fan, been to see them a few times now. i a friend of kieth hill, and its good to see he's doing well. all the best dale!!!!

  • Comment number 37.

    I go to watch The Dale when I can, which isn't often enough. Family comes first though!

    The quality of football on offer at Spotland has been excellent for three seasons now. It's a shame the crowds are so small as this inhibits the mood of the occasion a little, and it will also be a major factor in financing the club if they win promotion.

    If they do win promotion it will be an amazing achievement considering the resources of the club, and the fact that so many bigger clubs are an easy commute from Rochdale.

    It's worth pointing out though, the type of football played by Rochdale is far more entertaining than you would see at some north west premiership grounds. If The Dale win promotion then perhaps some disgruntled die-hards from clubs like Blackurn, Bolton or City might just choose to spend an afternoon watching some classy pass and move football at Spotland.

    If you come when it snows you might even get a part time job, or find yourself in a snowball fight with the mascot. You can also make your comments well and truly heard by everyone on the pitch....now that's democracy for you ;-)

  • Comment number 38.

    I can't resist watching the Dale. http://ukschoolsdirectory.net

  • Comment number 39.

    Quite interesting coming across this article from last season farmacia

 

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