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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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A break from the norm

It's not an enviable record. Rochdale are in their 29th consecutive season in the Football League's lowest division and, after another false dawn, they will be there for a 30th year as well.

Division Three has seen some sleeping giants in recent years - Cardiff, Plymouth, Blackpool and Hull - and clubs with a comparatively successful recent past - Cambridge, Oxford, Luton and Bury - but Rochdale fall into neither category.

In the 82 years since they joined the league, Dale have only spent six years outside the lowest league, whether Division 3 North, Division 4 or, now, Division 3, perpetually in the shadows of not just the two Manchester clubs but also Lancashire rivals Oldham and Burnley.

So reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup for just the second time is very much a high point in Dale's 96-year history, bettered only by their unique achievement in reaching the League Cup final as a Fourth Division side in 1962.

And that Sunday's game at Wolves is live on national television is very much a rarity for a club with a highest home league gate this year of just 3,727 as well as a special moment in the career of player-manager Paul Simpson, who spent three years at Molineux.

Though Dave Jones' side are overwhelming favourites to reach the last eight, Rochdale have already eliminated two First Division sides this season, beating Coventry at home and before that, Preston away.

But cup runs can mask disappointing league form, and but for Dale's win over Coventry, Simpson might not still be Rochdale manager. As recently as a month ago, fans were calling for his head while the manager spoke angrily about 'a poison inside Rochdale'.

It is a disappointment borne of underachievement, because, after several near misses, Dale were among the promotion favourites in the Third Division this year.

In 1999, manager Steve Parkin left Mansfield for a more ambitious and wealthier club: Rochdale. After two flirtations with the play-offs (one undermined by a persistently unplayable Spotland pitch), Dale were on course for a top three finish when Parkin was poached by Barnsley in November 2001, presumably on the principle that anyone who could end Rochdale's stretch in Division Three must be quite a manager.

Parkin's replacement, John Hollins, was as big-name an appointment as Rochdale have ever had, but could not deliver the elusive promotion. Simpson, whose superb left foot had helped Blackpool escape the Third Division a year before, came in initially as a player but replaced Hollins last summer after defeat in the play-offs.

The former Manchester City winger inherited a blend of vast experience and extreme youth, augmented by the inevitable lower league journeymen and several - by Third Division standards - big-name signings, resulting from the club's recent prosperity, though the rookie manager has had no money to spend in the transfer market.

The player-manager himself has scored more than 150 career goals while veteran centre back Richard Jobson, now pushing 40, made the England squad more than a decade ago.

Nearer the peak of their careers are dominant defender Gareth Griffiths, brought in by Parkin after he was surprisingly released by Wigan and winger Lee Hodges, a regular in the PFA Division Three Team of the Year and signed by Simpson.

Paul Simpson: Player-manager of Dale's brave cup adventurers.
Paul Simpson: Player-manager of Dale's brave cup adventurers.

But it is Rochdale's young strikers who ensure a steady flow of scouts to Spotland. Kevin Townson, 19, scored 14 goals in just 17 league starts last year. Lee McEvilly, 20, became Dale's most capped player ever when he made his Northern Ireland debut last year alongside team-mate Patrick McCourt.

Add in Dale's two club record buys, Clive Platt (somewhat optimistically nicknamed 'Plattini') and Paul Connor, neither over 25 and Simpson has a comparative embarrassment of riches in attack.

So with a league position of 15th, a season that begun so promisingly - Dale were 2nd after ten games - has faded away alarmingly. Hence the unhappiness on the terraces and calls for Simpson to go.

Instead, Rochdale's FA Cup run has reunited the club. Beating Coventry was the catalyst, prompting improved league form and a new contract offer for Simpson.

As Howard Wilkinson or Jean Tigana may find to their cost, cup runs may not save Premiership managers. In the depths of the Third Division, however, they can be the making of a manager while estimated profits of £650,000 secure the club's future financially.

If Rochdale get past Wolves, that figure could be doubled, and Dale could fund another promotion push next year. If Wolves, whose FA Cup consistency contrasts with their erratic league form, progress as expected to the quarter-finals, Simpson will at least have made history at Spotland. And Rochdale will return to their perennially unsuccessful quest to get out of Division Three.

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