1974: The year of the Watergate scandal, West Germany hosting and winning a World Cup made nervous by the hostage crisis of the Olympic Games held in the same country two years earlier, the death of Juan Peron and two British general elections. It was also the last year in which Rochdale AFC last played outside the bottom division of the Football League. The recent history of the club has been one of a football club in a state of near paralysis. There have been occasional flirtations with the top of the table (they have made the play-offs three times in the last eight years, each time unsuccessfully) and with the bottom (they didn’t finish above twelfth place in the table at all between 1970 and 1991), with their League Two play-off final defeat at the hands of Stockport County in 2008 being the closest yet that they have come to promotion.
If the five years of Third Division football at Spotland between 1969 and 1974 were the heady days of Rochdale AFC’s history, they were also days of high excitement on the south coast, at Bournemouth. The club changed it’s name from Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic to AFC Bournemouth in 1971 (in order to, according to legend, become the first listed club alphabetically of all the ninety-two in the Football League – something that never actually caught on) and changed their kit to red and black stripes out of deference to the all-conquering AC Milan side of the era in the same year. In the November, striker Ted MacDougall scored nine goals in an 11-0 FA Cup win against non-league Margate. MacDougall soon departed for the bright (if at that time fading) lights of Old Trafford and since then Bournemouth have, apart from three years in Division Two between 1988 and 1990, remained a lower division side.
This season, however, both clubs are heading in an upward trajectory and this afternoon’s match sees the home side top of the table and the visitors in third place. There is a clutch of other talent at the top of the League Two table such as Dagenham & Redbridge and Rotherham United, as well as Notts County, who seem likely to try and buy promotion in the new year. No-one, of course, is still any the wiser over who is paying for the that. Even further down the table than that come clubs such as Shrewsbury Town and Bradford City, who may yet prove to capable of more than they have achieved so far. The race for promotion from League Two seems likely to go to the wire, and this match is one of many this season that will be treated as six-pointers.
A sense of event surrounds this match. The crowd is swollen to almost 6,500 and comments made by the Rochdale manager Keith Hill during the week that Bournemouth’s spending in the transfer market is “to the detriment to clubs like ours” has provoked a feeling of tension between the two clubs. Rochdale, one suspects, have something to prove today. From the very start, they move the ball around quickly and sharply, taking the game to the league leaders when we might have expected them to sit back, keep tight and try to hit them on the break. The biggest single threat comes from Chris Dagnall, who has three shots well saved by Shwan Jalal and a reasonably convincing shout for a penalty turned down within the first twenty minutes. Bournemouth are wobbling. The gregariousness of their pre-match rebuttals of Hill’s accusations seem misplaced, and it feels like only a matter of time before Rochdale take the lead, and this finally happens two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half. Chris O’Grady flicks the ball through to Dagnall, who lifts the ball over Jalal for the goal that his first performance has deserved.
Bournemouth start the second half with a flurry of possession, but Rochdale seem happy enough to sit back and allow directionless attack after directionless attack peter out. In ten minutes of pressure and possession, Bournemouth still can’t manage to create anything like a clear-cut chance. Rochdale sit back, let the league leaders come at them, and then hit them on the break with three goals in nine minutes which kill the game stone dead. On sixty-three minutes, Chris O’Grady drives a cross in from a Joe Thompson cross. Six minutes later, Simon Whaley cuts through the flagging Bournemouth defence like a hot knife through butter before scoring the third and with eighteen minutes to play, O’Grady completes an outstanding performance with the fourth goal, this time from a low cross from Dagnall. There is still time for more excitement, even with Rochdale now home and dry. Rochdale’s Nathan Stanton commits to an unnecessarily rash challenge on Bournemouth’s Marvin Bartley. He earns himself a red card and thirty seconds’ worth of pushing and shoving which is about as much as the home support has had to get excited about all afternoon.
Bournemouth’s biggest crowd of the season so far, then, has seen a wasted opportunity. They stay top of the table going into November and may be grateful for the short break that next week’s First Round of The FA Cup brings. Rochdale, meanwhile, jump to second place in the table after Dagenham & Redbridge and Notts County both drop points at home. What may turn out to be intriguing over the next few months will be the issue of what sort of effect the psychological damage of thirty-six years in the same division will have on the team. Will it spur them on, with the thought in the back of their minds that they have an opportunity to write themselves a page in the history of Rochdale AFC as the team that finally managed to escape the Football League’s bottom division? Or will they stumble under the increased burden of a push for a place a division higher? The evidence seems to be that they certainly have the talent to go up this season. Keith Hill’s criticisms of Bournemouth’s trigger-happy transfer policy may have been a little bit of pre-match brinksmanship, but he will deserve his place in Rochdale legend if he can take them up this season.