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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Tottenham's FA Cup opponents Rochdale an English club grounded in reality

Keith Hill, under whom League One club have performed commendably despite spending within their means, concedes a replay makes Spurs stronger contenders

Rochdale, who secured a replay against Tottenham Hotspur, are a small club with limited funds and resources. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Rochdale, who secured a replay against Tottenham Hotspur, are a small club with limited funds and resources. Andrew Yates / Reuters

It was a realistic assessment, not a rallying cry. “Tottenham at Wembley should beat us comfortably,” Keith Hill said.

His Rochdale team are 11 points from safety in League One. There are 64 places between them and Spurs. But the gap stood at 63 last week when Rochdale drew 2-2. The FA Cup’s propensity to get players performing far above their natural level was summed up in 90, remarkable minutes at Spotland.

A rematch and a replay, as manager Hill conceded, makes Spurs even stronger contenders. Mauricio Pochettino made 11 changes for that draw and some of his squad players looked rusty.

Yet that was still a starting 11 that cost in excess of £120 million (Dh615m). By way of comparison, Dale’s record signing remains Paul Connor, a striker who cost £150,000 in 2001.

Mentions of money are inescapable. If cup runs represent an unwanted burden to relegation-threatened Premier League clubs, they are a lifeline to their League One counterparts. Tickets are discounted at Wembley, but Dale will get a 45 per cent share of the profits.

Factor in the television rights from a second broadcast tie and the FA Cup financially secures Rochdale’s immediate future.

“Basically, yeah,” Hill confirmed, though a windfall will not be wasted. “The plan doesn’t change. It’s a sustainable plan we’ll continue to use. There’ll be players leaving in the summer and we’ll bring a young group through, players who probably have not had the best season elsewhere and we’ll regenerate them.”

Hill’s was an explanation of how the other half live. He ranks as the most successful manager in Rochdale’s history and, in 2014/15, took them to their highest ever finish: eighth in the third tier, or 52nd in the league ladder.

There is a theory that success breeds support. Hill refutes it. Rochdale is not a wealthy place. “Spare cash in pocket, that’s a big issue,” their manager said.

The Manchester giants can tap into their catchment area in a region overflowing with rivals. “We have Oldham, Bury, Burnley just around the corner,” Hill added.

“The successes we have had – getting promoted twice – it hasn’t generated extra fans. The only point of view where it is frustrating is that your budget is based on your fanbase. My budget is the same, year in year out, other than selling players or FA Cup runs.”

Hill, 48, signed a new five-year contract last year fully aware that Rochdale could drop into League Two during that time. He highlighted the cautionary tales of clubs who have ended up in non-league after not displaying his frugality while noting the increased expenditure of League One rivals.

“We are finding it difficult to stay on their coattails because of how the spend has gone up,” he said. “We won’t chase them financially by spending money we haven’t got and end up where Stockport, Darlington, Wrexham, Tranmere are.

"We have to live to fight another day and save our money.”

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Rochdale manager Keith Hill is a man of simple tastes. Carl Recine / Reuters
Rochdale manager Keith Hill is a man of simple tastes. Carl Recine / Reuters

That long-term view means Rochdale, who have never reached the last eight of the FA Cup, have earned the right to savour this occasion. His players will be allowed to take selfies but, 75 minutes before kick-off, they will have to focus on the game. They spent Tuesday training training at St George’s Park, the facility used by the England national team.

“All the pitches are on the same dimensions as Wembley,” Hill added. “They are all immaculate.”

A man with a winning informality ventures south determined to be true to himself. He will not dress up for Wembley.

“Suits are for funerals and weddings, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed about being Keith Hill. I am pretty comfortable in my own type of suit.”

His son Sidney will be a mascot, just as he was last week. “My lad won’t be on the bench,” the Rochdale manager added. “He messes about too much. He’s six.”

His thoughts will turn, too, to the previous generation and his late father, Keith senior. “My dad died 12 months ago but he has been a constant inspiration and motivation for me,” Hill said. “He’s been my hero as far back as I can remember.

"Even from three years of age I wanted to spend all my time with him.”