Written on March 10, 2017
School teachers and pupils – that’s how one of Keith Hill’s friends has described his ROCHDALE team. And that analogy is something Hill admits he is more than happy with.
Finding older, experienced players is easy. Unearthing youngsters who are not only willing to learn from them but able to put those lessons into practice, not so much. You also need a manager with the conviction to give those youngsters an opportunity to develop, by bringing them into the first team and then giving them a run in the side.
Hill has been doing that for years now at Rochdale and the club’s Academy system has proved the cornerstone of their recent success. Given their resources and their history, Dale should not be challenging for a place in the League One play-offs. But the production line that has been put in place by Hill and his assistant manager Chris Beech (who previously headed up the youth set-up) has provided the first-team squad with a steady stream of young talent, players capable of competing at League Two and now League One and who will provide a sell-on value which will boost the club’s coffers.
Craig Dawson and Scott Hogan have moved on to bigger and better things and although midfielder Jamie Allen only turned 22 in January, he’s been a regular since October 2013, racking up 135 games. Callum Camps, Andy Cannon and Scott Tanser then followed Allen into the first team, while Joe Bunney and Donal McDermott have made telling contributions since being plucked from non-league.
This season Aaron Morley made his League debut at just 16 and last week, just days after turning 17, the midfielder signed his first professional contract until the summer of 2019. This week Camps, Cannon and Ollie Rathbone all extended their contracts to the summer of 2018.
Camps doesn’t turn 22 till November but has already played 92 games and has been the captain this season. Cannon, who scored in the first 3 games of the season, celebrates his 21st birthday on Tuesday and has now played 74 games, while Rathbone has made 14 league starts for Dale after being released by United last summer.
“I wanted to make sure that we were planning for next season,” said Hill. “We want to work these players, we want to continue developing as a club and we want to continue developing those players. It’s good business, we’re underpinning our future as a club.
“As a manager, I have to make decisions to protect players and their long-term future, not just mine. Callum does need a rest sometimes and when I don’t play him, it’s not because I’ve lost my marbles, it’s because I’m protecting that player.
“Sometimes I get the finger pointed at me because of that, but as long as I see players develop like Camps is doing, Jamie Allen, Ollie Rathbone, Joe Bunney and Andy Cannon. I take a pride in what I do with young players, almost like a father figure. It’s really important that my moral value is more than just football. I’ll protect those players as long as they’re protecting me and they’re all in. That’s why we’ve got a good, young, vibrant team.
“One of my friends said to me at the weekend ‘you’ve got a team full of school teachers and pupils’. And we have. It was a great analogy for me, and, whether it’s a school teacher or a parent’s attitude to protection, that’s all we’re doing with this young squad.”
Those teachers have been the likes of Keith Keane, Ian Henderson and ex-Stockport and Bury defender Jim McNulty. All started last Saturday’s home match against Sheffield United, along with Allen, Cannon and Rathbone, while Camps came off the bench.
Dale twice came from behind to claim a 3-3 draw and almost nicked a winner late on. And although Hill’s men are now 9 games without a win, it was a morale-boosting result to not only fight back against the league leaders but to almost beat them.
Dale are now 12th in League One, 9 points off the play-off places but with 2 games in hand on 6th-placed Millwall. They now face 2 away games in 4 days – at MK Dons this Saturday then Scunthorpe on Tuesday – so have a chance to revive their play-off hopes.
Defender Joe Rafferty is now back from suspension too, while Steve Davies and Matty Lund both scored last Saturday on their return from knee injuries which had kept them out since January.
Lund said: “We’ve got a few players back so we’ve got to push on now. We’ve got chances, we’ve games in hand, so there’s no reason why not. You can look at the table now but it doesn’t make a difference. We’ve got games in hand so we’ve got to step up and get the 3 points. There’s a lot of games left but we’ve got to show the spirit we had on Saturday and really push on from here.”