THE ROCHDALE WAY
How the League One club have become academy masters
ON A wall at Spotland, the crumbling yet characterful home of Rochdale, a photograph shows a row of shirts, all bearing the names of illustrious alumni.
Rickie Lambert. Glenn Murray. Grant Holt. Adam Le Fondre. This old place has long been a fertile orchard for the English game.
Now, they are growing their own – and how. When the latest Elite Player Performance Plan figures were released, Dale’s name stood out like Ade Akinfenwa at a ballet class.
Ranked first of all Category Three academies.
Ranked second in the whole of the EFL.
Most incredibly of all, ranked third when Premier League clubs were added to the mix.
In short, that means Rochdale have propelled more academy graduates into the professional game than all but two other clubs in the whole of England.
Some, like Andy Cannon, Jamie Allen and 21-year-old skipper Callum Camps, ply their trade in Hill’s promotion-chasing first team.
Others, most notably Aston Villa’s £12m signing Scott Hogan, have progressed further still. So what is the secret?
For those at the coalface – men like director Andrew Kelly and academy manager Tony Ellis – the process is three-fold.
First, a strategy. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have any money,” said Kelly, a local businessman who has spent countless hours forging links with schools, business and youth groups.
“The academy was going to be scrapped and we had to prove to the board it was a viable proposition. I told them it was my vision we could develop it. Thankfully, they said OK.”
Next come talented coaches.
“Coaching isn’t teaching, says Ellis, a striker who played 59 times for Dale before retiring in 2006. “It’s guiding and influencing, giving them the tools to make choices.
“We want self-developers. Problem-solvers. Players who, on a matchday, go out and do it themselves. They’re in control. We’re not shouting or giving instructions.
“We want thinking footballers, lads who can look at what’s happening on a pitch and say ‘OK, something’s not right, how can we rectify it?’”
Thirdly, and most critically, is a first-team manager willing to take a punt on untested kids.
“It would have been easier for Keith (Hill) if he’d been given £5m to spend on players,” adds Kelly. “But then we’d have been bankrupt if we hadn’t succeeded. “You have to put the foundations in before you build the roof. You pay the mortgage off before you buy another one. Walk, jog, run. Keith was a real advocate of that.” So much so that, when Hill returned to the club from Barnsley 2013, he did so only on the proviso that Kelly – who was preparing to step down – stayed to spearhead the development strategy they’d forged together in 2007. Ellis says: “For any youth player to succeed, he needs first-team opportunities. If the manager doesn’t do that – and carry on doing it – the whole thing falls down. “Here, we have a captain of the ship in Keith who steers the course and filters down exactly what he wants. There’s no us and them.”
Even the man himself doesn’t tiptoe around this point. “This isn’t me being arrogant or disrespectful to anyone,” says Hill. “But, ultimately, those stats are a product of me trusting in young players.
“We have got talent. We have got good coaches. But if you measure success by output – which is correct – then any academy is dependent on the manager at the top.”
Which begs an obvious question. If Hill is lured away, as he was in 2011, will the production line simply grind to a halt?
On this point, the club is united. If Hill does pack his bags, even a CV from Pep Guardiola will be fed through the shredder. The next Rochdale manager will come from within, a fact already discussed with the club’s coaching staff.
“It’s not law,” says Hill. “It’s not like the directors have said to me ‘Keith, you have to use the academy’. It’s something I have to do due to a lack of resources and that I want to do out of principle.
“At the same time, there’s a plan in place that allows me to be brave enough to pick kids.
“Would someone coming in fresh feel that security?
“I’m not sure. So, if it was to change and they wanted to stick to the strategy, they’d have to make an appointment from within.”
GRADUATE: Jamie Allen has joined the ranks of the first team
HEAD BOY: Callum Camps became Rochdale skipper at just 21
KEY MAN: Keith Hill
PROGRESS: Scott Hogan