They wanted control of the club - but the fans weren’t about to let that happen
The bloody battle to save a 115-year-old institution
On 13th April 2021, a Rolls Royce pulled up at Rochdale AFC’s stadium, the Crown Oil Arena. It was a little out of place, and fans took notice. The car belonged to a businessman named Andrew Curran whose son was playing against Rochdale for Swindon Town in a match that day. But it was a two birds, one stone situation. Rochdale’s directors had begun courting for private investment and Mr Curran liked what he saw.
Unfortunately for him, many of the team’s supporters did not want a new investor. This being Rochdale, birthplace of the co-operative movement, the club is fan-owned and has remained sustainable whilst several close neighbours collapsed under outside ownership. As such, they make their own rules. They treat interlopers with suspicion.
When considering the outsiders who he believed tried to take control of the club, Francis Collins — a lifelong fan — doesn’t mince his words. “Forgive me for being crass,” he says, “but if any one of them went for a shit, we’d know about it.”
Hypervigilance, as I’d come to find out, is Rochdale AFC’s watchword — and some would argue rightly so. From that first Rolls Royce sighting, a chain of events was set in motion that would, in the eyes of many Rochdalians, threaten the very existence of their 115-year-old club.
The cast of characters involved in this story runs to double, if not triple figures in the director’s cut of the tale. I’m advised early on to keep track of all the various players fastidiously. For example, there are two Kilpatricks involved, a “good Kilpatrick and a baddie,” unrelated. To get your Kilpatricks confused is to commit a cardinal sin.
First though, some figures. At the time, Rochdale AFC was diced up into 502,957 shares (more have since been issued), owned by 337 separate parties. Anyone who achieved ownership of 251,479 ordinary shares would have a controlling stake and the club would no longer be fan-owned. Curran and Darrell Rose, another businessman, through a firm called Morton House MGT, set about privately convincing shareholders to sell, offering way over the odds (up to £12 was offered for £2 shares). They built up a 42% stake, agreeing to purchase shares owned by directors Graham Rawlinson and David Bottomley, alongside a few others.
Before this emerged, shareholders were emailed by the board of directors, on which Rawlinson and Bottomley sat, about an Extraordinary General Meeting (or EGM) that would be taking place on June 1st last year, having been cancelled the previous year. The directors proposed issuing 700,000 new shares and having existing shareholders waive their right to first refusal so they could be sold as they saw fit. In other words, shareholders were being asked to let the directors sell the club to whoever they wanted to. Curran and Rose, it is believed, were waiting in the wings.
In response, the Dale Supporters Trust — the club’s main fan group — called for an EGM of their own. They wanted the directors responsible for the plan, namely Rawlinson and Bottomley, removed from their posts.
The infamous 12
In a dimly lit upstairs function room at the Cemetery Hotel on Bury Road, 12 fans, who would later be affectionately dubbed “the infamous 12,” or “the Rottweilers,” gathered to discuss the board’s proposal. “We felt like we were about to lose our club for good,” said one of them. Allowing the motion to pass would be like signing away the club’s most vital organ — its independence. Fatalistic prognoses were shared in panicked tones.
The directors, who between them had tens of thousands of shares, would of course back their own proposal. With only 50 or so people allowed in the room on the night (because of Coronavirus restrictions), if it came to a vote, they would win. The only option for “the 12” was to get enough of the club’s smaller shareholders to vote by proxy.
From Companies House they printed a list of the 337 shareholders. “It was reams and reams of paper,” says Collins, who previously served as Chief Executive of the club. There was one row of names and one row listing the number of shares that person held. Between them they knew about 30 people on the list. They needed to find another 300, dispersed all across the country, explain the situation and convince them to back them. So they did.
One shareholder was tracked all the way to the Isle of Arran off Scotland’s west coast. Broadband access being limited on the remote island, where fewer than 5000 people reside, the fan promised that he would head into town to use the library’s computer and internet to fill out the forms when it opened the following Thursday.
The wife of a former director was startled when Collins appeared on her doorstep having driven 60 miles to ask for her vote by proxy. “I gave the poor dear the fright of her life,” he says. Others drove further. They were also backed by “the overcoat men,” Trevor Butterworth, Graham Morris and the late David Kilpatrick, three widely revered custodians of the club with tens of thousands of shares (the latter two of whom stepped in to rescue the club from the abyss in the 1980s).
“The 12 of us were working 10 hours a day non-stop for two weeks,” says Collins. “Thankfully it was lockdown so we had bugger all else to do.” He would set himself up at his computer at 9am, select six names from the list and not stop until he’d found them all. The men communicated via a WhatsApp group named “Shareholder Meeting” in which they would celebrate every person they convinced.
Armed with an overflowing binder and immense quantities of collective pride, they attended the EGM on June 1st 2021. “Their faces dropped when they found out what we’d done,” says Collins. “We had located people they thought were dead.” The motion to issue new shares was withdrawn before being put to a vote. They then voted to dismiss Bottomley and Rawlinson from the board.
Francis Collins is dyed-in-the-wool Rochdale. He doesn’t suffer fools, but more than fools, he doesn’t suffer southerners. He puts to me his theory that Bottomley was somehow changed by experiences in the South and returned to Rochdale with his northernness tainted. “Something must have made him turn from a happy-go-lucky Rochdale fan into…” — Collins continues conspiratorially, but his allegation is unpublishable.
If nothing else, his strength of feeling demonstrates how gravely supporters viewed the situation. Collins and Bottomley were close friends who would stand together during matches and dine out with their families. Bottomley, whilst living in Henley-upon-Thames, would “spread the word of the club to anyone who would listen.” He drove up for every home match. But no one has heard from him in months, having left the club officially in July. “He’ll never be forgiven around here,” Collins adds.
The fallout of the EGM left the club in limbo. Weeks later, Colin Cavanah, the chair of Dale Trust and Richard Wild, a trust member and fan, met with Curran at the Cemetery Hotel. He was attempting to revive his bid for a controlling stake and outlined his plans for the future of the club and, and more pertinently, what he wanted from it. That plan, paraphrased by Wild, was to “come up on match days, have a drink and a good time and get pissed with his mates.” Wild was bemused. Curran had by this point spent £1.2 million on shares and was looking to spend more. It seemed like an expensive and convoluted way to go about organising a piss up.
“It was very unusual,” Wild continues. “It was very odd from a man with no connection to Rochdale.” Curran wasn’t interested in getting involved with the running of the club either, that would be left to those already in place.
Curran was from Essex, Rose was from Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Neither seemed to have ties to the town. Collins believes “it’s a bit like having a trophy wife.” Wild speculated that Curran already had the Rolls Royce and the flashy watch, so he needed a football team to complete the set. During their extensive online investigations and late-night theorising on club forums, many of the fans were frustrated by Curran’s lack of digital footprint.
At this point, smaller shareholders at the club began receiving phone calls from an unknown company asking about buying shares. Andrew Kelly, who owned 58,250 (roughly 10% shares), was courted heavily by Morton House but ultimately rejected their offer — if he had caved, Morton House would have claimed a majority.
Then, a Zoom call meeting between the English Football League, the club and Curran turned heated with an angry Curran — his deal slipping away — accusing members of the board of directors of being “nancy boys.” He then added that future disputes could be settled in a “boxing ring,” for good measure.
After the original meeting between Trust members and the would-be buyers, the English Football League launched an investigation into the acquisition of shares by Morton House, having failed to go through the Owners’ and Directors’ Test — a prerequisite for gaining control of any club.
Soon after, Morton House withdrew from the approval process. But months later, they were back — launching a high court claim against both the board of directors and the supporter’s trust, claiming they ran a campaign to cause prejudice and damage to Morton House as a shareholder. They are now spearheaded by Matt Southall — a former Charlton Athletic chief executive accused of using club funds to rent a £12,000-a-month flat overlooking the Thames, who believes the takeover can still go ahead. Dale Trust have crowdfunded over £40,000 to help fund their defence so far — with money from fans all over the country.
This week, the English Football League charged Rochdale AFC with a breach of league rules for attempting to facilitate this takeover — frustrating fans, who argue that the figures behind the attempted takeover no longer serve on the board and that this will only hurt the team, which might end up having points deducted.
‘We’ve no choice but to be sustainable’
“A lot of fans, if they’re given an egg they want more than an egg omelette,” Collins tells me, “we’re more than happy with an egg omelette.” Perhaps this self-awareness is their strength. Once-rivals Bury, who have since gone into administration (and still lay dormant despite promising developments), are a model of what they sought to avoid — spending beyond their means and coming unstuck.
Elsewhere, Macclesfield Town were wound up, Bolton Wanderers survived by a whisker and Oldham Athletic have been warring with their ownership since 2018. The industrial north-west is a graveyard of once-great clubs reduced to husks. “We’ve no choice but to be sustainable,” Cavanah says. The other option is collapse.
That much seems to have been averted. Despite the legal challenge, relative normality has returned to Rochdale. The team are a modest 17th in the League Two table at the time of writing. For supporters, patience, self-governance and community remain the buzzwords. No big-time investors, no magic wands.
One source of funding looked upon more fondly is the David Clough Legacy Fund. Clough was a beloved Rochdale superfan who raised over £400,000 for the club in over 20 years. He began by selling scratch cards at Whittles Bakery in Littleborough, where he worked in the 90s, and then started collecting the weekly draw, doing so always on a bicycle as he didn’t drive. He died in 2020 and his entire estate was left to the club. There is now a statue of him in the ground, complete with his sartorial go-tos: NHS specs and flat cap.
Bottomley, for his part, has fled to AFC Fylde, tantamount to being exiled to a kind of Siberian outpost for naughty football executives, at least viewed through the eyes of fans. Nothing but bitterness and resentment remains for those who attempted to facilitate the takeover. “I would be astounded if any of those individuals ever showed face at Rochdale Football Club again,” says Wild. Bottomley declined to comment. When I reached out to Andrew Curran for comment, I missed his call. By the time I called back, I was blocked.
Collins believes the events have left Rochdale fans more guarded, perhaps more parochial than before. “We’re more savvy now, I don’t think we’d fall for it again,” he says. “The next time someone comes in with an expensive suit and says they care about the club, we’ll say: ‘Do you? Well what part of the ground have you been in because I’ve not seen you.’” He pauses momentarily, before saying, with malice: “I can’t forgive or forget.”