First published 2015
If Steve Eyre was an attempt by the Rochdale board to maintain the modern approach implemented by Keith Hill, John Coleman was an appointment that harked back to the Dale of old.
Here was an old-school lower-league manager who had enjoyed relative success on a miniscule budget at Accrington Stanley, and he couldn’t have asked for a tougher challenge as he attempted to prevent a deflated and demoralised Rochdale squad from hurtling out of League One after just two seasons.
Following Steve Eyre’s departure in December 2011, Director of Youth Football Chris Beech was given a chance to arrest the slump on a caretaker basis. A 5-1 defeat to Stevenage at Spotland helped put paid to that brief stint and the board knew they needed a seasoned hand to steer the wheel – and fast.
After much speculation, the club eventually announced the appointment of Coleman in January 2012, and his assistant Jimmy Bell, bringing to an end the Liverpudlian’s thirteen-year association with Accrington.
During that time, Coleman had led the Lancashire club from the Northern Premier League First Division back into the Football League, reaching the League Two play-offs in 2011.
He left Stanley sitting tenth in League Two, just two points off the play-off places, and arrived at Spotland with Rochdale lying twenty-third in League One, four points from safety.
Like Eyre before him, he chose to leave his comfort zone for an altogether bigger challenge laden with pressure.
‘I made it known the first time round that I was interested in the Rochdale job, when Keith Hill first left,’ Coleman says. ‘There had been a bit of dialogue and I had been asked if I was genuinely interested, I said yes, but the club didn’t pursue it at the time.
‘Six or seven months later, Rochdale came back to me.
‘The chairman told us he expected the club to go down, but it would be seen as a bonus if we kept the club up. They were looking more towards reshaping the club for the next season, which, to be honest, myself and Jimmy were too.’
Despite a first-game derby win over local rivals Bury, Coleman was unable to arrest the form he had inherited and Rochdale were relegated from League One.
‘We did our best to keep the club up,’ Coleman says adamantly. ‘We won our first game against Bury, we were on a crest of a wave, but we couldn’t build on it because the weather turned terrible and we didn’t play for two or three weeks. After that, we just couldn’t generate the momentum.’
Coleman wasn’t perturbed by the challenge.
‘Yes, there were lots of differences between Rochdale and Accrington,’ he says. ‘It’s a bigger club for one. Spotland looks much more like a league ground than Accrington does for a start, no disrespect to Accrington. It didn’t daunt me or Jimmy at all, though. It’s what we wanted.
‘The hardest part was that there was a division in the camp when we arrived. That was evident from day one. That never really left us, to be honest. We did our best to try to get that away but it never left.
‘Some players embraced our methods and some didn’t. They weren’t necessarily against me and Jimmy, though, they were against each other. It was always going to be a problem. We introduced a meeting before and after training in an attempt to improve the relationship but there was a set mentality there. As far as that issue was concerned, we knew we could do our best work over the summer.’
With a pre-season to make the team his own, plus being back in the more familiar surroundings of League Two, hopes were high that Coleman would get Rochdale firing again.
‘During pre-season we went to Austria,’ he says. ‘We worked really hard for six days and implemented how we wanted to play during the coming season. It was bought into by the players and morale was high. We were supposed to end the trip with a match but it got rained off. Instead, one of the players had a birthday, so I let the squad go out to celebrate, for a drink. But there were too many high jinks for my liking and it soured the trip in the end. A few of the boys got into a bit of trouble and I wasn’t happy. They abused my trust. I felt a lot of hard work had gone to waste.’
Coleman’s strength at Stanley was that he was able to tap into Liverpool’s non-league scene, in which he himself was a decent striker during his playing days. His eye for a player was not in doubt, demonstrated by the fact he launched the league careers of talented footballers such as Gary Roberts and Bobby Grant.
While this worked brilliantly for Stanley, it led to Coleman being on the receiving end of criticism at Rochdale, similar to that levelled at his predecessor Steve Eyre, in that he was only prepared to sign players he had worked with previously.
Some supporters labelled the Dale squad under Coleman as the “Scouse Mafia”, due to the fact most of his signings hailed from his hometown of Liverpool.
‘I think that’s a bit unfair,’ Coleman says. ‘Of the players I signed, I had never worked with Rhys Bennet before, or Joe Rafferty or Matty Pearson. I had never worked with Dele Adebola or George Donnelly either. I did sign some of my former players, yes. I tried to give some of them another lease of life − a last chance in the game because they’d done well for me before. I got them in on shit money and a short deal. Ian Craney, for example. It didn’t pan out the way I wanted, but it wasn’t an old-pal’s act, I just wanted to get them going again, to the benefit of them, me and Rochdale.
‘I got Bobby Grant into the club for next to nothing and the club made money on him. You’ll not hear any complaints about that. I’m the first to admit that not all my signings worked out, but that happens to every manager at every club.’
It was during Coleman’s time as manager that Gary Jones’ second spell at Rochdale came to an end. It was a poignant moment for all, given he had made more appearances for the club than any other player (five-hundred-and-thirty-one) and was the first to captain the club at Wembley.
What was worse is that Jones left under a cloud.
‘Gary Jones went through a rocky spell and we dropped him for a game,’ says Coleman. ‘He was thirty-five years old and, naturally, we said to him in passing, “what are your long-term plans? Have you ever thought about coaching?” I wanted to bring him onto my coaching staff. I think he got the wrong end of the stick and thought that I was suggesting he was done as a player. I wasn’t. Gary then asked to leave the club. We didn’t ask him to. I wanted him to stay and join my staff. I had no problem with him at all. People can believe what they like.’
During the season, there was criticism from sections of the support about Coleman’s methods. There was a general feeling that the free-flowing football and sportsmanship that had been built up since 2007 had given way to something more primal. Following a 3-2 home defeat to Exeter, Coleman decided to issue an open invite for fans to meet him.
‘We were three-nil down but shouldn’t have been,’ he says. ‘We were outstanding in the game and got it back to three-two but couldn’t equalise. It was a tremendous effort but we got booed off the pitch. I didn’t like that. Someone shouted at me from the crowd and I said, “don’t shout at me from up there, speak to me outside”. It eventually led to a meet-the-fans event at the stadium. It was like a doctor’s surgery. I was there for three-and-a-half hours. Not one person was aggressive. Nobody left dissatisfied either. I can empathise with fans, I really can, and I enjoyed talking to each and every one of them. I was open and honest with them throughout.’
Coleman says internet message boards caused him more mischief than any supporter in the stands.
‘If you read internet message boards you’ll go mad,’ he says. ‘They’re negative by nature and not representative of an entire fan base. It’s the same fifteen or twenty usernames that crop up. The message board I looked at would have you believe we had a disastrous spell in charge at Rochdale. Look at the stats, though. Gillingham, Rotherham, Port Vale and Bradford were promoted from League Two that season. We went to Rotherham, Gillingham and Bradford and won at all of them. We drew at Port Vale. Is that disastrous?
‘The problem with message boards is that quite a few senior people at Rochdale pay attention to them. I think they’re frightened of them. I also had someone in my dressing room that couldn’t be trusted. They were posting things on there that were exaggerations of the truth. Some of the things posted were outright lies, too. I heard claims that myself and Jimmy turned up to training late and drunk. That really angered me. I never found out who it was, but it was very, very disappointing.
‘I’m the first to admit that I made quite a few mistakes at Rochdale. I know I didn’t ingratiate myself with the fans, but it sickens me when I see players and managers wave a club’s scarf about when they have no affinity to that club. I wanted to wave the Rochdale scarf when I’d done something for the club – promotion or a trophy. Maybe that backfired on me. One of my problems is I’m not from Manchester and I’m not Keith Hill. That’s not my fault, but I shouldn’t have pushed that down the fans’ throats. I’m my own man and have a lot of belief in my own ability. I know I’m a good football-league manager. I felt I got unfair criticism but I know I should have tried to ingratiate myself more.’
Coleman also believes he should have been more assertive with the Rochdale board.
‘I should have brought in my own staff,’ he says. ‘I was only allowed to bring in Jimmy Bell. I should have stood firm. The training ground was unacceptable, too. I should have made that a deal breaker but I didn’t have the power at Rochdale that I had at Accrington. I believe these things ultimately weakened my position.’
Over December 2012 and into the New Year, Dale went on to lose eight out of ten games, dropping from the upper echelons of League Two into mid-table. It was enough for Chris Dunphy to call time on Coleman’s reign.
‘The end, for me, was bizarre,’ he says. ‘It was January and I needed a centre half and a left back to help us push on. The board said it had to be a one-in-one-out policy. I got a £30,000 offer for Jason Kennedy. He didn’t want to stay and had already tried to leave at the start of the season. I recommended we sell him because he was going to go for nothing in the summer. I had also arranged for Dele Adebola to move on. Ashley Grimes wanted to leave too, and Rotherham would have given us £30,000 for him. That would have got me £60,000 into my budget and three wages off the payroll. We were only four or five points outside the play-offs at this time. The board dragged their feet, though. I knew something wasn’t quite right.
‘I was then summoned to a board meeting and had to go through all this again. I went home, had a nap and woke up to a phone call from the chairman telling me I’d been relieved of my duties. I was really gutted. Why could they have not told me at the board meeting instead of letting me outline my plans again? It was all wrong. I told the chairman this. I thought we were about to turn a corner. I just needed those players.’
Meanwhile, Keith Hill, like Steve Parkin before him, had found the transition from Rochdale to Barnsley an ill-fated one. He returned for a second spell at Rochdale. Coleman believes Hill’s sudden availability ultimately forced the Chris Dunphy’s hand.
‘Listen, as soon as Keith Hill became available, I was a dead man walking,’ Coleman says. ‘I’m a realist. When he was sacked at Barnsley, because of what he’d done previously at Rochdale, of course he was going to get pointed in that direction and, of course, Rochdale were going to look in his.
‘I attach no blame to Keith Hill for going back. What does annoy me is that he was allowed to sign a load of players when I couldn’t sign two. He didn’t let Adebola go till near the end of the season. He didn’t sell Grimes or Kennedy, so where did the money come from? The club got what they wanted, though. They got back into League One with Hill. Perhaps they would have got there a season earlier had they kept me and Jimmy, but we’ll never know.’
Now Coleman is back at Accrington Stanley as manager.
‘I love Accrington Stanley and it was a big wrench to leave in the first place,’ he says. ‘I’m glad to be back here as I feel I got Accrington to this level. I wouldn’t say they’re the only club I can manage, though. I’m still ambitious. Myself and Jimmy could do a job higher up. Again, I mean no disrespect to Accrington, but we’ve been good to them and they’ve been good to us.
‘Don’t misconstrue my feelings towards Rochdale, either. They’re a fantastic club. They’re well run and do things the right way. Okay, it ended a bit sourly for me, but I have no animosity towards the club. At the end of the day, it’s a smashing place with good people.’
Photos; Mark Wilbraham