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Believe in the Sign by Mark Hodkinson

Release date: 05th January, 2007
Publisher: Pamona Books

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Crede Signo, or 'Believe in the Sign', is the motto of Rochdale FC, a club that according to all available indices is the worst-performing football club to have had continuous Football League status over the last 35 years. Undoubtedly its worst period, in a generation that has only contained lows, was between 1974-80, when they were regular attendees at the annual re-election of the bottom four clubs in what was then the Fourth Division.

By 1980, with Rochdale propping up the other 91 clubs and with a credible alternative amongst the ranks of non-league football in Altrincham, it seemed The Dale were doomed. The old pal's act engineered by eccentric chairman Fred Ratcliffe which had seen them survive countless re-elections, was deemed to be passed its sell-by date.

However, when the election came, just one vote separated the two north west clubs and The Dale were saved. Legend has it that the chairmen of Grimsby and Luton, travelling together to the Caf√ą Royal intending to vote for Altrincham's election, were involved in a car crash and missed the crucial meeting. Soon after, a rusty horseshoe found under Rochdale's pitch was nailed to the home dressing room door, since when the club's luck has changed for the better.

Mark Hodkinson, a respected football journalist, has 'previous' when it comes to writing evocatively and humorously about his home town and football club. During the 2000/1 season he produced a thoughtful weekly diary following his beloved Rochdale as they never quite believed they could get promoted. These columns were turned into a highly regarded book, Life Sentence, and he has written in similar vein about Barnsley (Life at the Top) and Manchester City (Blue Moon).

In many ways, Believe in the Sign is a personal account which reads more like a novel than his previous work. It's a homage as much to his home town as the football club and to a pre-Thatcher Britain of decaying industry and a sport on the cusp of being over-run by hooligans. It is a lost world, largely unloved and forgotten, but laced with poignant and humorous childhood memories.

Between the ages of 10 to 16, during the period of the book's action, Hodkinson attends matches, both home and away, with religious zeal. He creates colourful and informative scrapbooks on the club from local papers, follows players around town, even writes to some of them. By the end of the book he is "assistant editor" of the programme, doing the copy run to the printers and sitting in the press box working for legendary freelance Jack Hamill. "Hamill, Rochdale", barks his mentor on answering the 'phone.

Amongst the awfulness Hodkinson finds humour. He engineers a way to get free tickets. He writes to Alex McGregor, an Aldershot player, telling him he is his biggest fan but his mum and dad are too poor to get tickets for the forthcoming Rochdale game. Hodkinson gets more than he bargained for: two free tickets, "One for you and one for your old man", together with passes for the players' lounge and an invite for drinks and a chat with and about his favourite footballer. "At the final whistle we quickly headed home," explains Hodkinson, adding, "I was still apprehensive McGregor had our address."

Not everyone wants to support a Premiership outfit and Hodkinson shows why, irrespective of how bleak the outlook might appear, genuine fans continually look for signs that things might improve; if ever your side's had a bad run, you should read this and smile, knowingly.



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