Mark Hodkinson returns to the familiar territory of his previous books with the story of Rochdale’s worst ever season. This time he contextualises the football club’s struggles with the economic and social turmoil of the early 1970’s.
In 1973/74 Rochdale were in the Third Division (now League One) and under a new manager Walter Joyce. Joyce’s plan was to use only young players during the season, but it massively backfired with the club winning only twice in 46 league matches.
They closed the season with a 22-game winless run and played a match against Cambridge United in front of the lowest-ever Football League post-war crowd of 588.
Rochdale’s 2-0 home defeat to Cambridge on Tuesday 5th February 1974 was one of the bleakest days in modern British history. ‘The country was in deep recession. The Government was in disarray. Inflation was running at 10 per cent. The three-day working week was in place. Miners had announced another national strike. Petrol was running out. And bombs were detonated across England. Supporters of Rochdale thought it fitting that the worst day in the club’s history should fall on such a wretched day.’
It was a dispiriting time for the players, manager, and directors, but it was even more traumatic for the Rochdale fans. In a letter to the Rochdale Observer, Andrew Harrison wrote ‘I wish Walter Joyce had done something else in life, like gardening, rather than trying to be a football manager.’
Rochdale’s relegation was fittingly confirmed on April Fool’s Day 1974 when Tranmere Rovers won 3-0 against Port Vale. Joyce and his management team had failed by an unprecedented degree but if the team was defeated on the pitch, it was also a reflection of the defeatism emanating from Chairman Fred Ratcliffe and his directors. There was a feeling that the club was on a gradual wind-down to extinction.
Since that dreadful season Rochdale have survived as a Football League club, while others have fallen into non-league, but it’s been an ongoing struggle.
‘The Longest Winter’ doesn’t quite live up to some of Hodkinson’s previous books but it still provides a vivid picture of a traumatic football season at a time of great social, economic and political unrest.
Ironically, although there have been huge advances since the 1970’s, we are once again facing an economic, social, and political crisis and Rochdale AFC are near the bottom of the Football League.
The Longest Winter – A Season with England’s Worst Ever Football Team by Mark Hodkinson. Published by Pitch Publishing. Price £16.99,
This review first appeared in the November 2022 edition of Late Tackle magazine.