Rochdale: A Matter of Trust
To support Rochdale has traditionally been to accept a degree of modesty in your life. Rochdale AFC didn’t win a single FA Cup match between 1928 and 1946 (eleven straight years, even if we disregard the war years). More recently, they went 22 years between 1970 and 1992 without finishing above halfway in whichever division they happened to be in. In terms of the broad history of the club, recent successes – the club reached 8th place in League One, in 2015 – have, if anything, been the anomaly. That 8th place finish in 2015 came immediately after a promotion which ended a period of 36 consecutive years in the basement division of the Football League.
But this club matters. If you start typing in “Rochdale” into Google, “Rochdale AFC” is the first thing to appear, and “Spotland Stadium” also shows its face. If you finish typing it in and hit ‘send’, the first search return is for the club’s website. Rochdale is a town of more than 100,000 people, but Football League status can confer a degree of legitimacy upon an entire town that nothing else can match.
Rochdale’s other significant claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the Co-Operative movement, and this is reflected in the ownership structure of the football club. There are more than 300 shareholders in Rochdale, and this labyrinthine arrangement has served the club well in the past. From the end of last season until this week, though, the club was at war as the result of an attempted hostile takeover of the club by two businessmen from the other end of the country with no apparent previous allegiance to or interest in Rochdale AFC.
Andy Curran and Darrell Rose were from Essex and Worksop, respectively. Curran was somewhat mysterious, but is said to have made his fortune in construction and property. He was previously involved with Lee Power at Swindon Town, which can hardly be considered a ringing endorsement. Curran’s son Taylor played for Swindon last season, but transferred to Maidstone United during the summer. Rose owns a luxury car dealership. But the question of why these two men from Essex and Nottinghamshire respectively were so interested in Rochdale AFC isn’t easy to answer. It was rumoured that they’d been offering multiple times the value of shares to shareholders in a bid to gain control of the club, but why? In the absence of anything obvious, fans soon started to form their own opinions.
The vehicle that they used to try and push this through was a company called Morton House MGT and First Form Construction, but only Rose was either a director or significant shareholder, and he was only appointed at the start of May. Curran recently told the Athletic that he was only there as an advisor. The company’s accounts for the year to July 2020 didn’t give much impression that they have the financial wherewithal to fund a League Two club (pdf), but they have claimed that the accounts for the last business year to July 2021 will confirm their ability to financially support the club. They weren’t the only people involved, either. Another adviser to Curran & Rose was one Alexander Jarvis, whose own LinkedIn page states that:
Alexander was the first British financier to set up a football focused investment company to assist Chinese investors in acquiring European Football Clubs. Alexander has sold several football clubs to investors from the United States, India, China, Canada and the United Kingdom. Alexander has advised investors on over 30 football club investments across England and Europe.
The involvement of Jarvis was a particular curiosity because there had been no talk whatsoever from Curran & Rose of any foreign investment involved in this attempted takeover, and this seemed to be his specialist area. When we consider the recent Al Jazeera investigation into ‘facilitators’ who hide the identity of the true buyers of football clubs for reasons alleged to stretch as far as money laundering, it is hardly surprising that this group, with no previous connection to the club or the area, should have been viewed with suspicion by supporters.
There is little doubt that the last couple of years have been an extremely testing time for Rochdale. The pandemic has had an effect on the finances of all football clubs, and this as been all the more severe at those further down the food chain, where match day revenues form a greater part of a club’s financial income in comparison with television money. The club’s accounts to July 2020 (which are exhaustively detailed, at 36 pages) showed a club that was hardly in a disastrous position (PDF), but they did that note that, “The principal risk for the club at present surrounds maintaining English Football League (‘EFL’) One status”, and this status was, of course, lost at the end of last season.
The summer saw the loss of some of the personnel infrastructure which got Rochdale to their gravity-defying position in the first place. Chief executive David Bottomley and director Graham Rawlinson were voted out of their positions at the club’s EGM, while the club took on a new chairman in the form of season ticket holder Simon Gauge. A few weeks later, the sense of upheaval within the club became more evident to the public when popular manager Brian Barry-Murphy left for the Manchester City’s under-23s.
Tensions increased a further notch last week, though, when it was confirmed that Gauge had made a complaint to the FA over homophobic and insulting comments made by Curran during a Zoom meeting between Curran & Jarvis, the current coard of the club, and the EFL. It was alleged that Curran called the people of the town – presumably those who didn’t want to sell their shareholding to out of town speculators – ‘small minded’ and the club’s current board as ‘nancy boys’, and suggested that any future disputes could be settled in ‘a fight in a boxing ring’. Jarvis’s response – “There was a lot said at the meeting. If they were said I’m sure they weren’t meant in the way that they’ve been interpreted” – was, frankly, pathetic.
If this didn’t paint Curran in a very positive light, there was more to follow last week when the town’s veteran Labour MP wrote to the EFL expressing his concerns about everything that has been going on at the club over the summer:
The Football League system has seen numerous owners whose competence to run a football club was simply not there, many simply using the club as a cash cow for their own benefit.
They have frequently left clubs weakened, or in the case of Bury FC, no longer in operation.
The EFL, in principle, has duties with regard to the ‘Fit and Proper Person Test’, and the need for owners to have a financial model that does not put the club in jeopardy.
If trustworthiness does count for anything in the buying and selling of football clubs, Curran & Rose seemed to be falling short in just about every respect. For example, Curran met with a small number of fans at a Rochdale hotel at the start of July, but the club’s supporters trust, The Dale Trust, subsequently released a statement to say that they had met with an investor who had told them that they had already purchased 42% of shares in the club and that had provided proof of funds to the governing bodies. The EFL, via the club, contacted the Trust days later to outline neither statement was correct. “The EFL is still to receive any evidence of the source and sufficiency of funding on behalf of any potential purchaser.” The Trust, in turn, had to issue their own clarification.
Al Jazeera reported yesterday that the EFL ‘admitted that football was vulnerable to “unscrupulous individuals” and that “people will try to gain access into our clubs”’, and that, ‘the Owners’ and Directors’ Test would be reviewed “in light of the observations made in the programme”.’ And this morning, came news that few had been expecting but were nevertheless very welcome, with an EFL statement which confirmed the end of the matter:
On 16 August 2021, in accordance with its Regulations, the EFL issued notice to multiple individuals of the commencement of disciplinary investigations in respect to the acquisition of shares in Rochdale Association Football Club.
It is alleged that Morton House MGT acquired Control of the Club, and a number of individuals became Relevant Persons without the prior consent of the EFL in accordance with the Owners’ and Directors’ Test (OADT).
The EFL’s objective was to gather additional evidence as it continued to investigate whether the Club, any Official, any Relevant Person(s) and/or any Persons wishing to acquire Control of the Club complied with the requirements of the OADT and whether any Relevant Person(s) are subject to a Disqualifying Condition.
Having considered the request for information made of them, Morton House MGT, on behalf of its directors, and representatives, has now informed the League that it is formally withdrawing from the approval process and plans to divest the shares acquired in the Club at the earliest opportunity.
Furthermore, Morton House MGT, its directors, and representatives, have confirmed to the League they are refusing to co-operate with the League’s ongoing investigations. Despite these developments, the EFL will be continuing with its disciplinary investigations into this matter and will take the most appropriate action available to it under its Regulations.
More importantly, the EFL will continue to work with Rochdale AFC as we collectively seek to ensure a successful and sustainable long-term future for the Club and all those associated with it, particularly its players, staff, and supporters.
There didn’t seem to be anybody who wanted these two (or however many of them there actually were) involved at Rochdale, and they didn’t seem to like or respect the town (or at least the townspeople) or the supporters (if we consider their flagrant lying to them) very much, either. Perhaps we’ll never get answers to these questions. The fact that they’d been hoovering up shares without the consent of the EFL and their refusal to co-operate with the League over their investigations alone hardly reflects positively upon them.
But it is worth concluding by reflecting upon the huge amount of effort put into fighting for the club by its supporters. The Dale Trust and the supporters in a broader sense have done an incredible job over the course of this summer, digging up every piece of information that they could find about these speculators (consider, for example, this exhaustive forum post, which is a remarkable body of work in itself), treating them fairly and allowing them to make their case, but never unquestioningly accepting their actions or behaviour. The fans carried out all of this work because Rochdale AFC matters, and it matters in a way that it never could to the vultures who seem to be perpetually circling our football clubs.