Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Upstaging the aristocrats: Rochdale’s rise to become England’s 3rd best academy

Posted on 1 November 2019 by Pranav Shahaney

No matter what happens for the rest of the season, Rochdale AFC will always remember that Wednesday night at Old Trafford. A third-round League Cup draw in regulation time against one of the world’s most successful clubs is certainly a moment to cherish for any side, but the Dale came within inches of knocking out Manchester United at their very own hunting ground.

Travelling 21 miles down the M60 to the home of the Red Devils, nobody gave Brian Barry Murphy’s side any chance to progress, and why would they? His side went into the game having lost three out of their last four games – including a shock 2-0 defeat against Manchester City’s under-23s and a 6-0 humbling at the hands of League One outfit Peterborough.

However, what unfolded was there for everyone to witness. Fans at Old Trafford were used to watching their side struggle for creativity, but they certainly weren’t expecting them to limp over the line and win on penalties against a mid-table side two divisions below them.

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David Bottomley, Rochdale CEO, spoke to Sports Gazette discussing what it felt like to watch his team put in a superb display at Old Trafford. He heaped praise on the academy and the staff that work daily to ensure they continue getting points on the table while also sticking to the club ethos of promoting from within.

“It was a memorable experience playing at Old Trafford and it is credit to how far we’ve come as a team and how much work we’re putting in behind the scenes. I was happy with our performance as we really gave Manchester United a go and took the contest to penalties,” said Bottomley.

With United resting a few of their players for the game, the question of whether the League Cup mattered was brought up once again. While it may be an unwanted distraction for clubs vying for the Premier League and Champions League spots, it certainly is a huge deal for those plying their trade in the lower echelons of the English pyramid.

Bottomley certainly shared this opinion and cited Bradford’s run in 2013 as an example he’s set for his players. The Bantams defied the odds in the 2012/13 campaign to make it to the final of the League Cup before losing to Swansea City. It’s one of the club’s greatest achievements in recent history and something fans talk about even today.

“No, I don’t think it’s [League Cup] losing its importance. Certainly not for us and teams of our stature. You’ve seen a lot of League One and League Two clubs go on cup runs which is fantastic. Bradford is a classic example when they got to the cup final in 2013. It certainly keeps things interesting and I really look forward to watching cup games,” he said.

Luke Matheson, 16, became a footballing sensation overnight after he scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The following day he took a psychology exam at school – showing the amount of off-field exposure Rochdale are giving their academy prospects. He also recently penned his first professional contract at the club.

According to Bottomley, Matheson stole the limelight but that overlooked the efforts put in by some of the other youngsters who’ve been a part of the first team for the past few years.

In fact, for the fourth consecutive year, the Rochdale AFC Academy has been named as the number one academy in the country for productivity at Category Three level. In comparison to all the 92 teams from the Premier League to League Two, they stand at an impressive third position. Bottomley hoped this continues and regards Matheson as one of the hardest workers at the club.

“I think Luke is fantastic and it just shows why we have the third-best academy among all of the 92 league clubs in the country. He’s been here since a 9-year-old and has put in the effort since day one to get to where he is. However, a number of our other players are also academy products who also set the stage alight at Old Trafford. It’s certainly incredible.”

Today, England’s third-best academy has a total of 123 players out of whom 103 represent teams between the under-9s and the under-16s. The remaining 14 scholars represent the club’s youth team and are expected to join the senior setup in the coming years.

Callum Camps, who at 23 is the eldest academy graduate playing for the club’s first team, joined the club at the age of 11. Since his debut in 2013 (at 17), he’s gone on to nearly 160 league appearances for the Dale.

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Since 2013, academy graduates have made over 650 senior appearances for Rochdale and given the club’s focus on strengthening its youth setup even further, that figure is set to rise at a greater speed in the coming years. 21 non-playing members work both part-time and full-time shifts to ensure the club maintains its status and continues to upstage the country’s rich football clubs.

Having never played in the Championship before, Bottomley has guaranteed the Rochdale faithful that the authority figures are putting the pieces of the puzzle together before the club is ready to take a leap into England’s second division.

“For a club that’s never been in the Championship, our first goal is to be there. We’ve been in League One for five full seasons now and the aim is to continue where we are while also making plans in place for the future. We are building the groundwork for something special, and I, along with our board of directors, are now targeting promotion, but all these things take time,” said the Rochdale CEO.

Time is certainly on his side and the fans have completely bought into Bottomley’s governance of the club. He’s taken the club from strength to strength and the promises of expanding even further will certainly bring smiles to the faces of Rochdale fans.