Manager interviews: Graham Barrow

First published 2015

Graham Barrow

One name in Rochdale’s modern history that seems to be knocked more than most is that of Graham Barrow. 

By his own admission he feels he achieved little during his time at the club, but he did put in place various elements that would go on to benefit it in later years. 

His arrival, after the eventual dissatisfaction of Mick Docherty’s brief tenure a year earlier, carried with it much hope, but instead of leaving a legacy remembered fondly, his era at the club more readily evokes talk of “Barrowball”, the derisive marque given to the football supporters witnessed between 1996 and 1999. 

Barrow took his seat behind the manager’s desk at Spotland with a decent CV in his hand. His appointment by then chairman David Kilpatrick seemed a sound one. He had previously guided Chester City back to the third tier of the English game at the first attempt and had then, with the help of Dave Whelan’s capital, turned strugglers Wigan Athletic into something of a lower-league force, before being surprisingly sacked with the club sitting seventh. His reputation as a manager was growing. 

‘Mr Whelan was a man on a mission when he bought Wigan,’ Barrow remembers. ‘It was a bit of a shock when I got the sack. They were heading towards the Conference when I took over and I got them into the top half of the bottom division. We did have a decent working relationship, me and Mr Whelan, but he was in such a hurry that seventh in the league wasn’t good enough for him. It’s not unusual at the top level these days, but, back then, at that level, it was. I don’t take it as personally now, as a few other managers after me have suffered the same fate. I was hurt at the time, because Wigan were on a roll. 

‘But look at it objectively. The only way a manager can get a job is if another manager loses theirs. That’s how it works. So I was sat by the phone waiting for the next call − and it came from Rochdale.’ 

Graham Barrow

While he wouldn’t enjoy Whelan-esque financial backing at Rochdale, the hope was still there that Barrow, with his contacts, would be the man to take the club forward, to lead it out of the fourth tier and secure a first promotion since 1969. 

‘I’d achieved promotion with a small budget at Chester, so it wasn’t an alien concept,’ says Barrow. ‘My goal, agreed with the chairman, was to achieve the play-offs and improve on a season-by-season basis. Because I’d done it before, the board thought promotion was achievable with Rochdale.’ 

Barrow took the job as the England team inspired the nation at the European Championships over the summer of ’96, but, to the observer on the terrace at least, it appeared football wasn’t “coming home” to Rochdale. Playing the long game seemed to have been taken a little too literally by the new manager’s charges. 

In fact, such was the side’s perceived unwieldy style during Barrow’s occupancy that, on a visit to Spotland in 1998, Independent writer Nicholas Harling noted: ‘The hosts base their game on massive clearances, long-range shots and the odd weaving run from their Spanish winger Isidro Diaz.’ 

But to understand Barrow’s footballing philosophy, is to understand the man’s background. 

Hailing from Lancashire, Barrow spent most of his playing career at non-league teams such as his hometown club Chorley, Southport and Altrincham. 

By his own admission, he was a powerful, no-nonsense defender, occasionally used in midfield if extra muscle was required, but he could pass a ball too. 

‘I came into the game the hard way, if you like,’ Barrow says. ‘We’re going back to an era when I was a schoolboy. I came from a council estate where there were no phones. You had to walk three miles to a payphone because my dad didn’t even have a car. It’s not like it is nowadays. You had to muck in. I had a trial at Blackburn when I was young but eventually ended up playing non-league for Chorley. I was in the same team as Mickey Walsh, who went on to do well at Blackpool and Everton. He made the grade quicker than me, but I did eventually get there myself. 

Graham Barrow

‘I almost signed for Wigan when they first got into the league, strangely enough, but that didn’t materialise. There was also a trial at Everton, but that came to nothing. I transferred to Southport before my biggest move at that point, which was to Altrincham. The Conference was just starting up then and Altrincham were like the Man United of non-league at the time. They won the Conference title but, as it was at the time of the old re-election voting system, Rochdale, who finished bottom of the Fourth Division, stayed in the league by one vote [79/80]. 

‘I eventually turned professional at twenty-seven, signing for Wigan. They had a really strong side at the time under Larry Lloyd and won promotion. I even got to play at Wembley [in the final of the Freight Rover Trophy]. Five years after joining Wigan I found myself at Chester and that’s where I became exposed to the notion of management.’ 

It wasn’t a natural transition for Barrow, however. 

‘When I was a part-time footballer, I was working as a heating engineer,’ he says. ‘I had worked for a living, if you know what I mean? It meant I knew what could be waiting for me after I finished playing. Because I loved football so much, coaching and managing were an ideal opportunity to stay in it. They’re a poor second to playing, don’t get me wrong, but they kept me in the game.’ 

Barrow says that while the rough and tumble of non-league and lower-league football taught him to be physical, the long-ball game, while useful at times, was never his outright modus operandi. 

‘The long-ball thing was never intentional,’ he insists. ‘I had players like Alex Russell at Rochdale. Passers of the ball. I wanted to use them that way. I can say this now, because I’ve since worked with Premier League players, and it’s clear that the top, top sportsmen have an unwavering belief in themselves. As you go down the ladder, unfortunately that belief wavers a lot more easily. A few mistakes and a player starts to panic and the ball gets played long instead of short. Any manager will tell you, once the players get on the pitch, no matter what you’ve done with them during the week, their mentalities take over. Any footballer that’s trained under me will tell you that my sessions are possession based with shorter passing, but you’re also trying to win a football match, aren’t you?’ 

Barrow had to deal with personnel challenges from the outset at Rochdale, with the sale of Paul Butler to Bury for £100,000. 

‘Two days into the job, Paul came to me and told me he was off,’ Barrow says with resignation. ‘That was a body blow. He was crucial to my plans going forward. He was a fantastic centre half. Then I had another setback. I had my eye on Wigan’s Colin Greenall, a tremendous player. He was captain material. The board backed me, we put in a bid, and Wigan said it was fine but we had to wait until the team returned from a pre-season tournament in the Isle of Man. He played well for them over there and, when they came back, Wigan said they were no longer prepared to sell him. Again, that was a body blow.’ 

The 96/97 season got under way in earnest for Rochdale with a 2-1 defeat away at Swansea which was, in mitigation, a traditionally difficult place for the team to go. However, an unbeaten spell between September 28 and November 2 created a buzz around Spotland, even if the football on display lacked the silk to match. It wasn’t to last. 

Rochdale would eventually finish the season in fourteenth, with fourteen wins and sixteen losses. 

‘Despite this, I felt we did okay that year,’ Barrow says. ‘We got close to the play-off positions at times but, just as we seemed to get there, we couldn’t kick on and I found that really frustrating.’ 

The 97/98 campaign followed a similar pattern to the previous, with Dale finishing four places worse off in eighteenth, despite a relatively strong end to the season. 

‘We never had it quite right at the top of the pitch,’ Barrow concedes.’ You’ll never get promoted if you don’t have decent forwards. I signed Graham Lancashire but he didn’t reproduce the form he had done for me previously [at Chester and Wigan]. Had we had a goal scorer that season, I’m sure we would have been up there. We had a good midfield with the likes of Gary Jones and Alex Russell, Neil Edwards was a top ’keeper at that level, too, so it was up top where we were short.’ 

Chairman Kilpatrick finally delivered the coup de grâce at the end of the 98/99 season. With Dale finishing in nineteenth, Barrow had presided over three seasons of regression. By now, he had very little support left in the Spotland stands. 

‘I was led to believe I was going to get another crack at it,’ Barrow says. ‘I think you deserve that kind of time with a tight budget. That said, people were very good to me at Rochdale and three years is a lot of time, especially if you compare it to nowadays, but I just felt I was never that far away.’ 

Graham Barrow

While frustrated, Barrow accepts the financial constraints he worked under. 

‘Mid-season at a small club like Rochdale, you’re not going to get the money when you need a boost,’ he says. ‘They back you in the summer, but don’t have the finances to do so after that. I knew the position. We sold youth-team goalkeeper Stephen Bywater to West Ham United for a lot of money [rumoured to be £300,000 plus incentives] but I didn’t see any of it. I was asked to play him in a League Trophy tie against Carlisle to help the sale, but he wasn’t ready. The poor lad conceded a load of goals [Rochdale lost the game 6-1]. I had to take that on the chin to help the club. I was prepared to do it, though. It was part and parcel of football at the time.’ 

It is unfortunate for Barrow that the money from the Bywater sale didn’t benefit the club until a year or so later. Kilpatrick once said that he owed then West Ham manager Harry Redknapp a debt of thanks for playing the goalkeeper in a London derby against Arsenal in 2000. That appearance triggered a £200,000 payment to Rochdale and went some way to funding the purchases of Clive Platt and Paul Connor. 

Meanwhile, Barrow had to scour the market for more affordable options, an area where he feels he lacked good fortune. 

‘Managing with a tight budget requires that little bit of luck,’ he says. ‘I had it at Chester. John Beck had gone to Preston and, because he likes to play the game a certain way, he didn’t have room in his squad for players who played the game differently. They were still quality players and it meant I could sign them for free because he needed to move them on quickly. I never got that kind of luck at Rochdale.’ 

With Barrow gone, former Mansfield manager Steve Parkin took the hotseat. Under Parkin’s stewardship, Rochdale shrugged free of its long-ball reputation and enjoyed a period of marked progression. Parkin eventually left to join Barnsley in 2001 with Dale sitting second in the division. 

But what, if anything, did he have that Barrow didn’t? 

‘Steve demonstrated that the club was only a few signings away from being decent,’ Barrow says. ‘He got Flickers in [Dave Flitcroft], who I was interested in signing myself as I knew him from Chester. Steve actually phoned me when he got the job to say thanks for leaving him with the solid basis of a team. 

‘And that’s the thing. I left Rochdale feeling I hadn’t achieved a lot but I had improved certain aspects of the club and had always been careful with the budget. Neil Edwards, Keith Hill and Gary Jones are all positives [Barrow brought the man who would go on to be Rochdale’s most successful manager and Rochdale’s record-appearance holder to the club]. People are always entitled to their own opinions but, while I was there and when I go back now, people at Rochdale are always fantastic with me. 

‘I will say, ironically, over the past four or five years I’ve probably felt more prepared for management than I did in my forties. I had that early success with Chester, maybe too early, because you think you know it all and you really don’t. You never stop learning in the game. Only now, in my sixties, do I feel I’ve accrued that kind of knowledge. The coaching courses teach you the basics but only by doing do you actually really learn.’ 

Photos: Mark Wilbraham