IT WAS in the aftermath of City’s Wembley defeat that James Mason’s doubts began to emerge.

Having gone so close to reaching Championship football with Stuart McCall, the reverberations of that loss to Millwall hit hard.

As he returns to Valley Parade this afternoon in his new capacity as Rochdale chief executive, Mason can pinpoint the time when he first noticed the change of mood at his former home.

“It had been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us,” he said.

“Stuart had come back after we’d lost Phil Parkinson to Bolton and I thought he did a fantastic job galvanising the club and the city. Things could have very quickly gone the other way at the time.

“Stuart hit the ground running and delivered a style of football that the owners and fans wanted. We were very much an attacking side creating lots of chances and literally had 18,500 people on the edge of their seats every week.

“But I think the club struggled to get over the Wembley hangover. Things started to change.”

As the cracks started to appear between Edin Rahic and McCall, chief operating officer Mason found himself becoming marginalised from dealing with PR and the media.

“It was clear that the relationship was strained and that was evident for anyone to see.

“I wasn’t always involved in managing the media messages and that was one of the areas that Julian (Rhodes) and Mark (Lawn) had identified I was skilled in and brought me in to do.

“As time went on, my role started to change and despite my background and specialism in communications, I had less and less control over output and I was restricted. During the tough runs any club has, in our case particularly the 5-0 defeat at Blackpool, I think it’s important for clubs to communicate with their fanbase.

“You need to empathise with their concerns and anger at times, especially when people spend their hard-earned money.

“I was at Blackpool on my own in terms of board members but thankfully had some close ambassadors with me. It was such a low and I sensed we needed to reach out to the supporters. That bond is important at any club.

“It got to the point where I knew I couldn’t change things and it was as if my input wasn’t valued despite the success we had achieved prior. Sometimes you know when it’s time to leave. I had to go and reinvent myself and further my career elsewhere.”

City’s statement when Mason announced his exit in the summer said he would be available on a consultancy basis during his “garden leave”.

He admits to being “surprised” that the offer was never taken up during the fraught period of Michael Collins’ reign.

But contrary to rumours, Mason had no other job in football lined up when he decided to walk away.

“It was a big decision to leave for me and my family. In a lot of ways, I’d planned to be there for many more years.

“There was so much more that could have been achieved. But in the football industry, that doesn’t always work out whether you are a player, manager or staff.

“I was approached within a few weeks by a couple of clubs but the timing wasn’t right. I had to get Bradford City out of my system.

“The Rochdale role was not available so not an option at all. I knew the chief executive Russ Green very well but was completely unaware there was an opportunity until I read it myself.

“I was firmly setting up the FIVE NINE agency, although I left the door open where I could consult for other businesses and that’s what I’m doing now.

“The Rochdale role is a consultative one. But the suggestion it happened months ago is not true.”

Mason spoke at length with Terry Dolan, a former player and manager at Dale, and heard only positive things. He has no intention of “trying to reinvent the wheel” with such a traditional club.

“We’re not trying to sell 20,000 season tickets but adding a few hundred to a gate will make a massive difference.

“Putting our arms around the local community will make a massive difference. Empowering staff to be the best they can be will make a massive difference.

“Julian, Mark and David Baldwin taught me that whatever level of football you’re at, ultimately it’s a numbers game.

“There are more noughts on contracts in the Premier League but at the same time incremental achievements like increases in bums on seats make a telling difference.

“Rochdale are extremely well run, no debts, they cut their cloth accordingly and promote from within whenever possible. They have made me feel valued and the owners have recognised my skills.

“I thank them for my warm welcome. I’m very proud to be associated with the club and will give the job my all.”