Keith Hill: 4 years 5 months 16 days
Thursday, 2nd Jun 2011 15:56 by Egypt Col
"Ok Keith, we'd like you to hold the reigns for a couple of weeks whilst we get someone else in but if you do alright, you never know......."
Those were the (paraphrased) words said to Keith Hill back in December 2006 when Rochdale came back from a soul destroying visit to Hartlepool pointless and managerless. Things around the club were at their lowest ebb since arguably the mid 80's, and Dale fans were worrying that they would soon be finding out that places like Histon and Ebbsfleet were actually real places. Conference football was staring us right in the face.
And so the reigns were picked up by Keith Hill, and the rest as they say is history. Or the most glorious piece of history that we've ever witnessed in our time as Dale supporters. Before Keith Hill took over as manager, I'll admit to questioning why I supported this side that had been around in League Two since the days of the dinosaurs to such an extent that we celebrated the changes of divisional names as if they were a promotion.
Was simply existing in a world of footballing financial hardship enough to be considered success? Or was real success something that happened to other clubs' supporters? Was it enough to look to the likes of Halifax and Chester and thank our stars for what might have been? Was it ever going to be better than that?
We didn't have a clue.
It's funny when you think back to that spell as caretaker manager, where Hill took over from Steve Parkin. In them days, Hill and Flicker were Hill and Griff, and for reasons still unsure to this day, Flicker's involvement remained beknown to those only with top level clearance, and almost from the outset the turnaround in results was nothing short of breathtaking.
It's been said before that there was a great amount of good fortune in his appointment. Very few people would have had Keith down as a manager from his playing days with the club, though with his annual Summer trips to coach in the States and his work with the School of Excellence, the ingredients had always been there. But as first team manager for a man who once told The Voice of Spotland that he had great plans for working with youngsters but no wish to be a manager?
But the accusations of good fortune do not tell the full story. Yes Dunphy may well have landed on his feet with a caretaker manager who's turnaround in results and style backed the Chairman into the corner, but the results themselves were not an outcome of luck.
Could the chairman possibly risk appointing an outsider, such as the heavily tipped at the time Andy Ritchie? You could imagine the situation where a new appointment failed to keep us up whilst the only man who had shown any sign of getting anything out of the players was languishing back in his Youth Team job. To do so would have gambled with the club's league status, and nobody could deny that Keith Hill had earned the right to be given the keys to the managers office on a permanent basis.
"Ok Keith, we're given you the job until the end of the season. We want you to keep Dale up, and if you can manage that, we'll sit down and we'll have a look......"
And so began the most wonderful footballing story that we've ever had the pleasure to witness.
It's hard to appreciate that their original remit was simply to keep Dale in the football league. For now, looking at relegation dogfights between Stockport or Lincoln or Barnet or Burton just brings out the voyeurism in us all, but that was exactly the hell hole that we wanted Hill to drag us away from. "We'll take 22nd now...."
What we got was far different. With just the odd tweak here and there, what we got was this team of relegation favourites transformed into this wonderful attacking side that ripped sides to shreds at will. Footballed to death as it became so appreciatively known.
And hopes of finishing 22nd even gave way to outside chances of reaching the play offs such was the turnaround in our fortunes, and the Dale fans certainly found their pride again. The stats showed at the end of that first season that under Hill's charge, we had performed at title winning levels with those sides eventually promoted despatched at will. We couldn't stop smiling.
We had it all, no fear home and away and goals scored for fun. We had title parties spoiled, we had promotion favourites hammered and the record breaking tightest defence in the league were despatched for seven goals on their own pitch, and if that wasn't enough, we even had Hilly djing in Studds in celebration of that afternoon. I don’t recall Taggart ever doing that in the Birtles suite or whatever it’s called.
So how do you follow up six months of champagne football? After all, this was Rochdale and we'd learned from years of bitter experience that just when we think we're on the precipice of something good, it comes back to bite us on our backside. We'd learned our place in football the hard way.
But what we learned was the Rochdale rule book had been torn up at every chance Hill was given, and that primary six months was simply a taster of what was to come. The Champagne football continued, with the corks popping at Dale’s first ever visit to Wembley through the Play Offs. Coming within a whisker of automatic promotion, we recovered from a two goal defecit and an almost vengeful refereeing decision to beat Darlington on penalties to make it to the ground formerly known as the twin towers. Northampton was great, but it was always on the cards. Muirhead’s penalty remains the moment that has brought the most amount of joy from watching Dale.
The final was a step too far, and with Perkins suspended and Doolan spherical, a patched up Dale saw Simon Ramsden make his debut as a central midfielder, with the forever unworkable Alfie and Dagnall up front, and despite these deficiencies we made a decent stab at it before coming away as 3-2 losers.
Of course, hindsight has shown that Stockport victory was founded on the back of finances built on sand, with Stockport heading into administration just months after in what looked like footballing suicide to outsiders. Our sell to survive mentality had seen us sell Glenn Murray in the run up to Wembley and it’s been considered many a time what might have happened had we played the admin card and lived off unpaid debts.
Around this time, we saw Keith Hill become something of a political beast. He had no time for teams who cheated in the way that Stockport did, and he had no issue letting people know exactly how he felt, and the burning effigies of him in Bournemouth, Rotherham, Nottingham etc did nothing but spur him on his just morale crusade against clubs that were operated on an unfair playing field. Even to this day, it’s almost impossible to log on to the Notts Mad forum and fail to see a thread without his name on it.
Season three will no doubt be labelled as the disappointing season in years to come, as for the only time during Hill’s time at the club we failed to finish higher than we did in the previous season. Of course, that failure saw us finish comfortably in the Play Offs though we were always up against it after a goalless draw in the home leg against Gillingham. That failure was the sort of season that we’d have chewed off our arm for given most of our Dale supporting years, and done so on the back of the sale of our best player from the previous season.
That defeat against Gillingham brought a weird feeling of realism to the Dale fanbase. Not longer were expectations getting the better of us after the meteoric rise under Hill, and the general consensus amongst the support was that a third consecutive visit to the Play Offs was beyond us, as Hill had failed to sort out the defence frailties of Stanton and McCardle, especially given that a pre-season injury to McArdle meant us starting the season with a lad who’s only venture onto the Spotland pitch had been as a supporter celebrating Muirhead’s goal.
Confidence wasn’t boosted when not for the first time under Hill we were forced to sell our top scorer – this time to one of the sides we’d be competing against at the top end of the division. This was not the way to fight a promotion campaign, and the loan signing of a striker who had about 47 unsuccessful loan spells in the previous three seasons did nowt to send us Dale fans rushing to the bookies to lump on a promotion bid.
What followed was the best year of my life. This Dale side, minus its top scorer and a stand in teenage defender drafted in from Radcliffe Borough, became the sort of side that we couldn’t even fantasise about. We were a League Two version of 70’s Holland and a modern day Barcelona rolled into one. We steamrollered sides with fantastic display after fantastic display, and fantasy football was no longer just a term for the throw in counting geeks any more.
We were perfect, and we didn’t just beat teams, we butchered them leaving them as wrecks. A top of the table clash away at Bournemouth saw us return four goals to the good and what was deemed to be a promotion play off with Rotherham has arguably seen them still not recover from that fateful night at Spotland.
Whilst the season ended without silverware, it did finish with one of the best nights of our lives as promotion parties all over town continued into the small hours as forty one years of hurt came to an end. And again in hindsight, the lack of a title was far from a fluffing it up as those loveable magpies deemed it to be. It was a declaration by Keith Hill, as we waved the players in from the pavilion. The League Two innings was over and it was time to start work ten games early on the League One campaign. The job was done and Dale were promoted for the first time in most fans’ lifetimes.
In reality, that should have been it for the Keith Hill era. Having been the first man to lead Dale to promotion since man had walked on the moon, the jobs should have been queuing up and besides, what else could be achieved at Spotland? Surely Hill was always going to be on a hiding to nothing by staying at a club where finances dictated that signings were made from those clubs not good enough for League Two.
Never right the man off. And if the previous season was the stuff of fairytales, they simply continued with aplomb as we stood face to face against teams we’d only previously seen on Match of the Day, and came away as worthy winners. A second successive promotion wasn’t even considered by a set of supporters who even sang about staying up in the second week of August.
The League One campaign showed a new feather in Hill’s cap. Previously, it appeared the tactics were simply go out and scare them to death. Now, we were more mature adding a level of tactical genius to our armoury being able to frustrate the opposition whilst still retaining footballing principles. Demands for a return to 4-4-2 seemed desperately old fashioned as we came with three points of making the Play Offs.
So there you go, a snap shot of four and a half of years of what has been without doubt the greatest time of our lives as Dale supporters. No arguably about it, we’ve been spoilt rotten to levels we could not even dream about, and to take any of what we have enjoyed for granted is a massive insult to the fantastic work done by Hill and Flicker during this time.
To put it into any sort of perspective, we did a piece celebrating Hill's three years in charge at the club not so long back, and from memory one of the things that we asked you to do was to write down your top five moments from supporting Dale. By now, we could ask you to write down your top twenty five moments from supporting Dale, and if out of those you have less than twenty that have come from the Hillcroft era, then you're lying to yourself.
The clichés are spot on when we say the history books have been rewritten, and any bitterness that we might have because we’ve lost a goalkeeping coach or that it took Barnsley ten days to offer Keith the tools he needs to do the job will do you no good at all. (Incidentally, do you think the Barnsley FC board of directors have realised yet that they now work for Keith rather than the other way round?). Do not judge a manager on your perceptions of day 1628 of his time in charge.
When it comes to assessing Hill’s time, there are no “buts” surrounding his exit. Given the short term life of managerial careers these days, we've probably had at least eighteen months more out of Keith that we could ever have hoped for. We've seen Howe, Adams, Robins etc all poached during the time that Keith opted to stay with Dale and see the job through, and then some.
As a manager, he is without compare at this level given the number of teams that he has built during his time at the club. In the past, we've seen sides decimated by the loss of a single player, such as the departure of Taylor or Reeves, but we've seen the likes of Murray, Dagnall, Perkins, Le Fondre, Kennedy, Buckley rise and depart, before getting replaced by the likes of Wiseman, O'Grady, Dawson, Done, Kennedy, Holness, Holness etc. Each hero has been replaced and superseded as Keith Hill's Dale continued its march up the footballing ladder into completely unchartered waters.
Put simply Keith Hill has dragged Rochdale into the 21st Century. What was considered to be a static club, and one of the old guard has been transformed into one of the most forward thinking clubs in the country, and I don’t think its hyperbolae to say that there isn’t a manager in the world who could have done as good a job as Hill has done in these past few years given the resources he has had at his disposal. It’s been more than emotional. Cheers Keith, all the best!
Photo: Action Images
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Letters from Wiltshire #35 by wessex_exile
As many were predicting, time finally ran out for Steve Ball mid-week, after the U’s lost 2-1 at home to Exeter City. Although a considerable improvement in score-line compared to the 6-1 thrashing they handed out at St James Park earlier in the season, apart from the first 10-15 minutes and very brief glimpses throughout the remainder of the game, it was a poor performance, leaving Robbie Cowling with no choice. After a brief interlude, Robbie named Wayne Brown as our new Interim Head Coach (that’s caretaker as far as I’m concerned), and after an even briefer interlude, Robbie and Wayne in a joint statement put to rest any lingering concerns about Wayne’s attitude to race. If Wayne can show the same sort of leadership on the training ground and in the dressing room as he used to show for the U’s on the pitch, I am certain he’s going to do very well in the job.
Letters from Wiltshire #34 by wessex_exile
I won’t dwell on Robbie’s latest message to the supporters – we’ve all read it, and we’ve all probably drawn our own conclusions about what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. To me, bottom line, I suspect the clock is now ticking for Steve Ball (at least), turn around this terrible form pretty damn quick, or start clearing out your locker. Regardless of personal opinions on any of the individuals concerned, I would like to think none of us actually wants to see people made redundant in the current climate. But, these are difficult times that require tough decisions. If Steve Ball is up to the job and can turn this around, I’ll be more than happy to support him. If he’s not, he has to go before irreparable harm is done…and we all know what that will look like, we’ve been there before…
Letters from Wiltshire #33 by wessex_exile
Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Letters from Wiltshire #32 by wessex_exile
Fifty years ago yesterday, Colchester United of the 4th Division pulled off the greatest cup giant-killing ever, beating 1st Division Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road. Watched by 16,000, and the Match of the Day cameras, Dick Graham’s U’s, a rag-tag band of mostly aging journeymen, defied the odds to defeat arguably the greatest club side in Europe at the time. “The greatest cup giant-killing ever” is a bold claim, and over the years various football magazines and websites have run their own polls of which was the greatest. Whilst that day at Layer Rd always features, as the years have gone by other feats fresher in the memory have been put forward as a candidate – we probably all remember Ronnie Radford’s screamer against Newcastle, Sutton’s exploits, or even Bradford City quite recently at Stamford Bridge – but these pale into insignificance when you pause to reflect on the Don Revie side that we beat that day. Sprake, Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Giles etc – all full internationals, all household names – the only one missing was Billy Bremner, and that was because he was injured. By comparison, all we had to offer was Ray Crawford – at his peak arguably on a par with some in the Leeds side, but that peak had been ten years earlier playing for Ipswich and England. Eleven heroes didn’t just try and hold out against Leeds United, they took the game to their illustrious opponents with such tenacity, grit and no small amount of flair, and before we knew it, the U’s were 3-0 in the lead. As legs tired, Leeds got back into the game with goals from Hunter and Giles, but we held firm – typified at the death by Graham Smith pulling off an impossible save to ensure the U’s achieved the greatest cup giant-killing ever!
Letters from Wiltshire #31 by wessex_exile
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