Rochdale AFC

A century at Spotland, 50 years in the fourth tier

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Forever in the third or fourth tiers, that’s Rochdale AFC. And this reasonably modest standing in the English game is, in all likelihood, unlikely to change after 115 years.

To their immense credit, however, Dale have recently achieved minor miracles in the cup tournaments, holding Manchester United, Spurs and Newcastle to draws. Perhaps more importantly, the club is attempting to stay community-based and mainly fan-owned, avoiding the fate and chaos surrounding local rivals Bury and Oldham.

Under incoming chairman and long-term supporter Simon Gauge, affordable admission and sustainable progress are the watchwords as Rochdale strive to return to the third flight.

Spotland/Tony Dawber

Marooned in the bottom tier of the Football League for 36 consecutive, hope-crushing seasons, Rochdale set their own negative example between 1974 and 2010.

For much of that time, there was little prospect of anything brighter, until the spell was broken when the enigmatic Keith Hill led Rochdale to promotion.

It had been a long time coming. Formed in 1907, Rochdale played locally until moving to purpose-built Spotland, on a hilltop site way west of the town centre, in 1920.

Elected to the Football League a year later, Dale have since ploughed on, unsung and unheralded, for decade after decade.

The few pre-Hill highlights came in the 1960s. Rochdale were the first and, for more than 50 years, the only fourth-flight club to reach the League Cup final. Surprise wins over Southampton and Blackburn, plus a handy bye, brought Dale to the two-legged showdown with Norwich – and defeat on aggregate. This was in 1962, in the early years of the tournament when few of the big names competed.

Rochdale club shop/Tony Dawber

Five years later, Bob Stokoe, who had taken Bury to the semi-finals of the same tournament a year later, arrived at Spotland. The later Sunderland hero built a side spearheaded by record goalscorer Reg Jenkins. Along with forward partner Tony Buck and Stokoe signing, winger Dennis Butler, this strike team propelled Dale to a first-ever promotion in 1969. Stokoe had since departed for Carlisle, but Rochdale quickly adapted to life in the Third, winning eight games straight in the autumn.

Form dipped after Christmas, relegation followed in 1974 and thus began the 36 years of purgatory.

Dale had actually begun to pick up from the late 1990s onwards, manager Steve Parkin bringing in strikers Clive Platt and Kevin Townson. Poached by Barnsley, Parkin was replaced by John Hollins, who took Dale to their first, if unsuccessful, play-offs in 2002.

Parkin returned, couldn’t repeat the magic, and his replacement was Keith Hill. With goals from Chris Dagnell and Adam le Fondre, Dale gained another play-off spot in 2008, reaching the final with a penalty shoot-out in front of a near 10,000 crowd at Spotland.

Spotland/Tony Dawber

Pitted against local rivals Stockport at Wembley, Dale went down 3-2. A year later, it was play-offs – and defeat – again. In 2009-10, Hill’s men, included much-travelled striker Chris O’Grady, earned promotion by right.

This time, Dale’s stay lasted two years, followed by the return of Keith Hill in 2013. A year later, the club was again promoted by right, hat-tricks helping Scott Hogan also gain the Player of the Season award. It was his late goal that finished off Leeds United in the FA Cup at Spotland that January.

Despite the departure of the former Rochdale Youth player for Brentford, Dale achieved a best-ever League One finish in 2015, attacking midfielder Ian Henderson a major factor. The former England U-20 man opened the scoring when Spurs were the visitors to Spotland for a thrilling Fifth Round cup tie in February 2018, Keith Hill’s men holding the illustrious opposition to 1-1 until a late Harry Kane penalty. A dramatic strike by Steve Davies in stoppage time then earned Dale a replay, and a trip to Tottenham’s temporary home of Wembley.

Rochdale club shop/Tony Dawber

In a game ruined by VAR, Dale gave as good as they got until half-time at least, when a 1-1 scoreline was turned around by Tottenham. As Henderson’s goals kept Rochdale above the relegation places in League – just – the Spotland side again showed their mettle in knock-out football. In front of nearly 60,000 at Old Trafford, including 5,500 Rochdale fans, the visitors took Manchester United to penalties in the League Cup in September 2019. After United broke Rochdale’s resistance to go 1-0 up halfway through the second half, 16-year-old schoolboy Luke Matheson struck a shock equaliser to take the tie to penalties. Irish midfielder Jimmy Keohane then forced a superb save out of reserve keeper Sergio Romero in the shoot-out.

Four months later, Matheson provided the pass for veteran Aaron Wilbraham to equalise in an FA Cup tie at home to Newcastle, the Magpies brushing Rochdale aside in the replay. With both Matheson and Henderson lured away, Dale succumbed to the inevitable in 2020-21 despite a brave unbeaten run in the spring.

Relegated to League Two, Rochdale welcomed the arrival of Simon Gauge as chairman before the 2021-22 campaign. Stressing the importance of fan-owned football club, the ex-pilot handed former Scotland international defender Robbie Stockdale his managerial debut in a bid to climb out of League Two at the first attempt.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

A favourite away day for many, Spotland – renamed the Crown Oil Arena at the start of 2016-17 – is neat and welcoming. This is an old-school ground, surrounded by housing, so what you gain in ambience you lose in ease of access by car or public transport.

Originally St Clement’s, where the turn-of-the-century Rochdale AFC (no relation) moved in 1900, Spotland stands on a hilltop on the north-western edge of town before the landscape changes from urban to untamed.

Built for today’s Rochdale AFC in 1920, Spotland has been groundshared with Rochdale Hornets since 1988 – in truth, regular rugby league does the pitch few favours.

Significantly overhauled in the late 1990s and 2000, Spotland comprises four stands. Home fans gather at both the Pearl Street end by the bowling green and the covered standing terrace at the Sandy Lane End. As away fans are allocated the nearest sectors of the sideline Willbutts Lane Stand to the most raucous of Rochdale support behind this goal, it makes for a great atmosphere. Stewarding is polite and professional, all staff friendly and rarely is there a hint of trouble. Stadium bars welcome all-comers and the chippy on Willbutts Lane does a roaring trade.

The main stand contains the ticket office and club shop. Capacity is 10,250.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

Considering Spotland has been Rochdale’s home for over a century, public transport from town isn’t the best – the walk is about 30 minutes. Getting here from Manchester is a trade-off. The frequent train to Rochdale from Manchester Victoria takes only 15-20mins but the station is south of town, the stadium north-west. The Metrolink pink line from Victoria brings you Rochdale Town Centre, closer to Spotland, but takes around 1hr. You can take the swifter train to Rochdale station, then hop one stop to the town centre by Metrolink, of course. Services run every 12mins.

The Metrolink stop in town is by bus hub Rochdale Interchange, from where the 467 trax bus heads to Spotland Bridge, near the ground, every 30mins daily (hourly eve). Journey time is 12mins. The quicker Transdev R2 rosso service only runs hourly daytime Mon-Sat.

 A taxi from Rochdale station to Spotland should cost around £8.

The sat nav code for Spotland/Crown Oil Arena is OL11 5DR. The stadium car park is for permit-holders only and on-street parking is limited but available – though not in the immediate vicinity. The club recommends using Oulder Hill school (O11 5EF) on Hudsons Walk, about a 10-15min walk from the ground. Edenfield Road (OL11 5AG), leading from the junction with Willbutts Lane, is also reasonably close and has street parking. The nearest car park to Spotland is Reed Hill at 26 Howard Place (OL16 1DX, free up to 3hrs, after 6pm & Sun, £1/4hrs, exact change only), about 15-20mins away on foot.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The RAFC ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, match-day Sat 9am-3pm) is behind the main stand. Phone sales are available on 01706 644648, option 1 and there are online sales, too.

At the turnstiles, it’s cash only, away fans allocated the Willbutts Lane Stand nearest Sandy Lane.

Standing places in the Sandy Lane Terrace are £18, £13 for over-65s and under-21s, £10 for 12-17s, £7 for under-11s. Seats in the Pearl Street Stand at the opposite end are £20/£15/£12/£7. In the main stand and Willbutts Lane Stand for visiting supporters, it’s £22/£17/£14/£7.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The club shop (match-day Tue 4pm-7.45pm, Wed-Fri 9am-5pm, home match-day Sat 9am-3pm & after final whistle, away match-day Sat/close season 9am-noon) is by the ticket office behind the main stand. Home kit is blue with dark-blue pinstripes, away red with black pinstripes, straight lines and dotted. Third-choice black-and-white stripes harks back to Dale kits of yore.

Well worth a read is Tony Collins – Football Master Spy by Quentin Cope and Sarita Collins, daughter of the legendary Rochdale player, manager and super scout who worked with some of the biggest names in the English game, Revie and Clough included after leaving Spotland in 1967. The first black club manager in England, Collins gained late recognition with awards and TV interviews shortly before his death at the age of 94 in 2021

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Despite its rather remote location, Spotland has several traditional pre- and post-match drinking options. Home and away fans mix in friendly fashion, including around the bars at the stadium itself.

On Rooley Moor Road, that leads from second roundabout over the river from town, the Royds Arms is as traditional as it looks, with a performing dog one of its many attractions. 

A Dale fans’ favourite, the Cemetery Hotel (‘The Cem’) is a terrific local lauded by the Daily Telegraph and frequented by singing star Lisa Stansfield when she returns to her home town. Opened in the 1860s to serve the funeral trade, it features the tiles and woodwork of yesteryear, embellished by signed shirts and vintage photos of memorable Dale moments. A real fire and ales such as Spotland Gold complete the picture. It’s on Bury Road, a straight 7-8min walk up Sandy Lane to the home end.

Closer to Spotland but on the other side from town at No.438 Edenfield Road, the refurbished Star Inn is handy and friendly option currently awaiting new management after the pandemic restrictions.

You’ll find two match-day venues at the ground itself. The Ratcliffe Bars by the main stand comprises the former players’ lounge, the Dale Bar, and the Ratcliffe Suites function rooms. Doors open three hours before kick-off and up to 500 home and away fans are welcomed – there’s TV football, too. The venue can be accessed from outside the ground. For home fans in the Pearl Street Stand, the Carlsberg (formerly Studds) Lounge fills with pie-seeking Dale supporters from shortly after turnstiles open an hour before kick-off.