THERE is no danger of anyone at ROCHDALE AFC losing perspective, and that’s not just down to the pragmatic approach of manager Keith Hill.
Sure, Hill is a boss that epitomises the philosophy of not getting too high in the good times and too low in the bad. Even when Dale were in the League One play-off places earlier this season, neither he nor any of his players were getting carried away.
That mindset is also down to off-field events. It may not feel like it at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon but there are more important things in life than football. And Rochdale is a club that has had more reminders than most of the harsh realities that life can throw at you.
Back in 2013, players and staff helped raise money to support assistant manager Chris Beech’s son Brandon, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. Hill even auctioned off a Manager of the Month trophy.
Dale then became aware of local lad Joshua McCormack’s plight early in 2016 and Hill admitted: “He has touched the hearts of everyone at Rochdale Football Club since we met him.” The 5-year-old Dale fan, who was terminally ill with a brain tumour, was mascot for their opening-day home defeat by Peterborough back in August. But Dale went a step further, signing the brave youngster as a player and naming him as a substitute for their Checkatrade Trophy game at Hartlepool in November.
After winning the game 3-2, the players held aloft Joshua’s shirt while Hill dedicated the victory to him, saying “football pales into insignificance” compared to his story. Sadly Joshua lost his battle against cancer in January and his funeral cortege went past the Crown Oil Arena, with his former team-mates and Dale staff standing outside the ground to pay their respects. Hill has also lost his father recently, with some Dale players attending his funeral.
They included midfielder Joe Thompson, who in the picture above is holding the ball along with Joshua’s shirt. That must have been a poignant moment for him as he was also diagnosed with cancer, while playing for Tranmere in October 2013.
After undergoing chemotherapy, he resumed his playing career with Bury in the summer of 2014 after announcing he was in complete remission. But last Thursday the 28-year-old revealed in a statement on the Dale website that he’d been diagnosed with cancer for a second time.
Even while he was still receiving treatment first time round, Thompson was open about what he and his family were going through. He never felt sorry for himself and proved an inspiration to others, raising £20,000 for the charity Bloodwise. Even after being told he has cancer again, he has shown the same humility with not a hint of bitterness, calling it merely a “life hurdle”.
He added: “I came back from a goal down before, not only to equalise, but to take the lead. This illness may have found an equaliser but the quest for me to get the winner starts today and I can assure you I will get the most important win of all time.”
Thompson grew up in Rochdale and came through the youth ranks of his hometown club, helping them win promotion from League Two in 2010. Hill’s former assistant David Flitcroft welcomed him back into the game when he was Bury manager. Flitcroft called Thompson “inspirational” and insisted he signed him on merit, not sentiment. Thompson admitted he needed to build up his stamina and strength, and he went on loan to Wrexham and Southport before leaving Bury in 2015.
He made 5 starts for Carlisle last season and was handed the chance to rejoin Dale last summer on a short-term deal. Thompson did enough to earn an 18-month extension to the summer of 2018 and had racked up 22 starts for Dale this term before being dealt his latest setback.
He added in his statement: “I would also like to thank the manager and his staff. There are no words to describe this group of people. They gave me an opportunity at the beginning of the season and I hope I have repaid their faith in me with what some say is the best form of my career. Also, to my team-mates, this unique group of players who all believe in each other and keep on over-achieving.
“To the board and fans of my hometown club which I am so honoured to have returned to and so proud to wear the shirt of, thank you for the warmth and support you showed me upon my return and continue to do so.”
Dale hosted Gillingham on Saturday and got their 1st win in 12 in style, romping to a 4-1 victory. That nudged them back up to 10th in the table, 7 points off the play-offs. After Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s 10th-minute opener, the players ran to the dug-out to hold Thompson’s shirt up. Then in the 15th minute – his squad number is 15 – there was a minute’s applause among the fans.
Hill later said: “That win was for Joe. It’s been a very emotional season/2017 for me personally. Joe’s very close to me and the players, and he’s part of the family. That’s why it can be emotional and you have to try to put your emotions to one side when you’re working.
“What Joey’s found here is a group of lads who are special. There’s a family unity. We look after and protect each other. We have a siege mentality but we also have an emotional connection between each other.
“Joey Thompson means the world to me and my family. Joe and other players turned up for my dad’s funeral. It was immense. I love working for this club because there’s still that 70’s, 80’s feel to a family connection, a sense of community feeling – and I wouldn’t want that to change.”
Beech, Hill and Thompson have all benefited from the support of their club-mates and that support has been reciprocated whenever it’s been someone else’s time of need. And that now includes Joe Bunney. The young utility man returned from injury on Saturday and his cousins Harry and Henry will be mascots for tonight’s home game against 7th-placed Millwall.
Young Harry has Down Syndrome and today happens to be World Down Syndrome Day, so Bunney has been promoting that on Twitter, along with their odd socks initiative. The club has got right behind it too – but don’t they always. While Harry and Henry will lead the team out, the players will be wearing pink t-shirts for the warm-up to promote Twincess, a local charity that is close to Bunney’s heart.
Thompson will need continued support, of course, but there can be no doubt that he’s at the best place to get it. I’d like to join everyone else in wishing Joe all the best with his treatment and given the adversity everyone at the club has had to face, I wish them success during the run-in.
But it doesn’t really matter whether Dale win enough of their last 10 games to get into the play-offs, for they’ve already got something much more valuable than that – family.