Inside Rochdale’s desperate bid to save club from extinction

Rochdale chairman Simon Gauge
Rochdale chairman Simon Gauge is fighting to stop the club going under - Paul Cooper

“It is unthinkable, yes, totally shocking,” Simon Gauge says, as Rochdale’s chairman gazes across at their Spotland home’s pitch and contemplates the prospect of the 117-year old club ceasing to exist. “I think even when you look at it from the perspective of the 15 over-60 blokes who turn up here to play walking football every Friday morning for two hours and enjoy a social interaction some of them might not otherwise have. Even on that level the club needs to exist. It’s at the centre of the community.”

Without urgent investment, Rochdale face liquidation by the end of the month. There are interested parties from the United States, with Texas-based World Soccer Holdings having signed a letter of intent to buy the club. But unless a resolution is passed at an emergency shareholders meeting at Spotland on Thursday to create more favourable conditions for a £2 million sale, then the fan-owned National League club could go bump.

Gauge puts on a brave face but these are dark times. “I’ll have a sick feeling in my stomach until we get a long-term investor and the club’s future is secured,” he said.

‘We’re not a basket case’

The North West has been awash with chilling stories of clubs brought to the brink of ruin. From Bury, Bolton and Blackpool to Oldham, Stockport and Wigan, all have come perilously close to going out of business at one time or another. Macclesfield Town did just that and now operate as Macclesfield FC in the Northern Premier League.

Rochdale, by contrast, just seemed to plod along nicely. Up until their promotion to League One in 2010, they had spent 36 consecutive seasons in England’s fourth tier. To many, it became known as “the Rochdale division”. While some local rivals chased a dream, often at great cost under maligned owners, Dale – as they are affectionately known in these parts – lived frugally and within their means. And, in reality, that still rings true now. “Some of those teams you talked about have gone for s--- or bust where they’ve spent way more than they earn and become basket cases,” Gauge says. “We’re not a basket case. We’re still steady Eddie now. We’ve just run out of cash.”

Simon Gauge at Spotland
Gauge admits these are dark times for Rochdale - Paul Cooper

Without their own training base and facilities they can hire out or wealthy benefactor and no prominent additional revenue streams, Rochdale have tended to be reliant on player trading and the occasional Cup run to help boost their cash balance. It has long been a delicate balancing act and one they managed relatively well until the double whammy of the Covid crisis and a very costly hostile takeover bid sent the club into a tailspin. Two relegations in three seasons saw Rochdale drop out of the Football League for the first time in more than a century, accelerating the decline, and now they are fighting for their very existence. “It’s been like the perfect storm for us,” says Gauge. “We’ve always kept our head above water but we’re just going below water now and can’t get up again.”

Indeed, as a town Rochdale has had enough scandals in recent years without it now losing such a precious community asset as its football club, beloved of the 2,000 to 3,000 who pour through its doors every week. From the death of infant Awaab Ishak from respiratory failure in a mould-infested home that triggered national outrage to the child sex abuse ring that ruined countless lives, Rochdale has lurched from one crisis to another. That the Rochdale by-election won by the divisive MP George Galloway last week should feature a plethora of tarnished candidates seemed emblematic of a town in the throes of persistent turmoil.

“It’s all negative connotations,” Gauge says, exasperation etched large on his face. “Whether it’s deaths in social housing, grooming gangs, a farce of a by-election we’ve had going on, it’s all negative. At some stage I think the council and political leaders of this town need to get a grip. The football club is a perfect springboard for them now because of the publicity they can see it generates to start building a positive message for the town.”

Rochdale is a fan-owned football club - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The football club could certainly do with a break or two and maybe World Soccer Holdings will provide it. They had hoped to buy themselves a little breathing space in the January transfer window with a host of top clubs, including Crystal Palace and Southampton, sniffing around their talented 18-year-old defender George Nevett. But then Everton and Nottingham Forest got charged by the Premier League with breaching its financial rules and suddenly Rochdale, in keeping with their misfortune, found potential suitors getting cold feet and, with it, a prospective £350,000 transfer fell through.

‘My kids won’t go because of abuse’

One of the sad and ironic aspects of Rochdale’s plight is that supporters like Gauge, who fought so hard and at great personal cost – financially and emotionally – to keep the club out of the clutches of Morton House MGT during a bitter, year-long hostile takeover battle and help make it fully fan-owned, have found themselves the subject of abuse from fellow supporters at games. Gauge’s children have stopped going to Spotland as a consequence. “The kids used to love standing in the Sandy Lane and watching the games,” Gauge explains. “But they won’t do that now because there’s abuse at me sometimes and they get third-party abuse, but it’s not the majority who are like that.”

Rochdale’s fan-owned status was born as much out of necessity as desire. Morton House had been courted by Rochdale’s former chief executive David Bottomley as he scoured for external investment into the club and the payroll company began acquiring a stake in the club through private, independent deals with shareholders. Individually, none of the completed transactions were subject to EFL approval but, as a whole, they took Morton House above the 30 per cent threshold required for submission to the EFL owners’ and directors’ test.

Rochdale supporters, including the influential Dale Trust fans group, were instinctively mistrustful of Morton House’s motives and, fearing the club could go the way of Bury who were expelled from the EFL in August 2019 under ruinous ownership, they mobilised. Former chairman Andrew Kelly was persuaded not to sell his 42 per cent stake in the club and a bitter ownership wrangle ensued that saw Morton House launch a High Court claim in July 2021. Morton House would eventually settle 13 months later by agreeing to transfer its shares to the Rochdale board having refused to cooperate with an EFL investigation into their attempted purchase of the club. Bottomley was given a two-year ban by the EFL in October 2022 along with Morton House representatives Andrew Curran and Darrell Rose. A fourth person, Faical Safouane, received an 18-month suspension. Rochdale received a six-point deduction, suspended for two years.

‘Time, money, stress’

Gauge and other shareholders spent around £500,000 buying up Morton House’s shares while the Dale Trust did a remarkable job crowdfunding to help foot part of the £500,000 legal bill. Coming on the back of the financial hits caused by Covid and relegation from League One in 2021, it could not have been more poorly timed. “It probably cost us 15 months of time that could have been spent finding an investor,” Gauge says. “Time, money, stress. But we were just fighting for our life. I don’t know how it would have played out had Morton House got to 51 per cent. I think the club could have gone because it would probably have got deducted that many points and been fined that much I’m not sure how it would have operated.”

Much now rests on the outcome of Thursday’s EGM, which would see only 10 per cent of the club remaining fan-owned should the relevant resolutions get passed. “It’s going against the fan-owned model and the culture of the club a little bit,” Gauge says. “But we will not survive unless we change.”