First published 2015
It shouldn’t be this way for a Rochdale manager. The post should always be taken on amidst an air of hope, not expectation.
Yet Paul Simpson, a virgin in the discipline, found himself in the bizarre situation of looking to replicate a play-off finish or better when he took on the job in the summer of 2002. He was, quite simply, a victim of his predecessors’ success.
Steve Parkin had been revolutionising the club since 1999, shaking off the long-ball shackles that had blighted it for most of that decade. This success eventually took Parkin to Barnsley in 2001, with Dale comfortably in second spot. His mantle was eventually handed to veteran gaffer John Hollins, whose instruction, from December onwards, was to keep the team on target. While he didn’t quite manage that, the club only missed out on automatic promotion by a solitary point.
One of Hollins’ most notable movements during his spell as Rochdale manager was to bring in Paul Simpson the player. A quality, technically gifted attacking footballer, he stood out a mile in the fourth tier, despite his advancing years. His former team-mate Gareth Griffiths said of him: ‘His left foot was a joke. It was astounding. Simpson was the best left footer I ever played with and I’d played with some decent people. What a player.’
Simpson was a product of Manchester City’s youth system and had enjoyed a decent career representing clubs such as Wolves and Derby before making the switch to Rochdale from Blackpool.
‘I was coming to the end of my contract at Blackpool and the manager at the time, Steve McMahon, said he’d had an approach from Rochdale,’ Simpson remembers. ‘He asked if I would be interested. I wanted to continue playing, so I met John Hollins and was very impressed with his ideas going forward. It was no problem to agree to join.
‘Rochdale is obviously a small club but I was astounded by the staff and the players. The team was doing well when I joined, pushing for the play offs, so I enjoyed the challenge.’
Simpson’s arrival was seen as a real triumph for the club, reinforced by his goals and assists on the way to the season’s check-out. Simpson even scored as Rochdale fell to Rushden & Diamonds in the play-off semi-finals and, despite the disappointment, supporters were looking forward to having him in the Hollins-led ranks for a full season the following campaign.
Then things went awry.
Hollins wanted to negotiate an extension of his stay at Spotland, but his procrastination was deemed too much for then chairman David Kilpatrick. Hollins left and Simpson stepped in as player-manager. It was a move that was welcomed by many but was nonetheless seen as risky, given Simpson’s inexperience at a time when the club should have been looking to capitalise on the momentum generated over the previous years.
‘We all expected John to stay but the chairman told me the board ran out of patience with him, retracted their offer and he had left,’ Simpson says. ‘Coaching had always appealed to me. I had already undertaken coaching courses and was, at that time, doing my final year of a sports science degree.
‘The chairman was aware of this and he asked me, at the Player of the Year Awards, if I would speak to the board about the vacancy. I was interviewed a couple of days later and, shortly afterwards, I was told the job was mine.
‘My plan had been to go into coaching at some point, but I didn’t expect it so soon. I had already signed up to play at least one more season and that was my plan if John had stayed. I still wanted to play, so it was agreed I could be a player-manager.’
In Simpson’s praise, the early days of his managerial reign provided this writer with some exhilarating memories – a 5-2 victory in Wrexham, a 4-3 triumph over Cambridge and a 2-1 win at Bristol Rovers (where Rochdale had to wear their hosts’ third kit due to their own being held up in traffic). In each game, the man himself led by example on the pitch – his superior ability visibly inspiring his team mates.
Despite a mauling by a rampant Manchester City over the summer, Simpson was pleased, in the main, with the squad he inherited and how they had prepared for the promotion push ahead.
‘We had an excellent pre-season,’ he says. ‘Our planning was spot on. We had a decent team left over from the previous season and carried that momentum into the start of the next.’
There is also, of course, Simpson’s main accomplishment during his time at Rochdale – leading the side to the fifth round of the FA Cup, an equal club record. The run also brought a figure reported to be around £700,000 into the coffers.
‘The FA Cup was a great experience for the players, club, fans and obviously the staff, too,’ Simpson recalls. ‘It gave the club a huge financial windfall and it left them with money in the bank for the first time in a long time!’
The cup run proved enough for Kilpatrick to offer Simpson a new two-year deal, live on TV, ahead of the fifth-round tie against Wolves.
‘I said to wait, though,’ Simpson adds. ‘We had too many games to concentrate on and I felt we could deal with all that later.’
But despite this, Simpson’s solitary season as Rochdale manager is regarded as a failure. Convincing cup victories over higher-league opposition in Preston and Coventry were at complete odds with the befuddling league form that saw the club eventually finish nineteenth, with home crowds noticeably dropping off.
Those exhilarating early games gave way to something much more pedestrian and, from late September, Rochdale went into a steady decline. A 1-0 defeat to previous season’s conquerors Rushden & Diamonds in November saw Rochdale drop into the bottom half of the table and the side would never again break into the top.
Formations seemed to vary from one game to the next, with the dreaded long ball even rearing its head on more than one occasion, though this seemed to be out of desperation rather than instruction. The players began to look lost. Kevin Townson, the young protégé of Steve Parkin’s era, was restricted to brief substitute appearances and, to the mystification of the Dale faithful, seemed to be on the periphery of Simpson’s plans.
‘There is no way I would say the players let me down,’ Simpson says adamantly. ‘They showed a great attitude towards me from day one and I know they did all they could to try to win games.
‘The board showed faith in me to give me the job and, although they didn’t give me a lot of money to work with, they did what they could. We had some decent young players and a good set of senior players too. That said, I had to pick the teams I thought would win us games.’
Simpson instead cites a naivety with his available budget as his key error. He decided to spend the majority of it on what he thought would be three key players – Crewe centre back Steve Macauley, Huddersfield midfielder Chris Beech and Scunthorpe winger Lee Hodges. All three had performed well at a higher level but, for one reason or another, they would only play a handful of games for Simpson’s side.
‘I was given £3,000 per week to add to the squad I inherited,’ Simpson says. ‘My idea was to use that money to bring a spine to the team. I brought in three players, hoping they would be major additions to our squad. With hindsight, this was probably wrong and I should have used the money more wisely.’
Hodges arrived at the club unfit and, while Simpson won’t admit it publically, it clearly irked him. Someone who had been a leading light in the division previously, found himself shipped off to Bristol Rovers on loan and then out of Rochdale permanently. Meanwhile, Beech arrived as an obvious general for the midfield, a clear replacement for Gary Jones, who had followed Parkin to Barnsley. However, injury limited Beech’s impact to disappointing cameos and another of Simpson’s Rochdale vertebrae was dislodged. Macauley, like Hodges, was sent out on loan after a handful of appearances, this time to Macclesfield, who he would go on to join permanently.
‘I was new to the job and got no help from the board in terms of how to do it,’ Simpson says. ‘It was a very steep learning curve.
‘I don’t think it would be right to say anything or anyone held me back, though. I made mistakes and this is all part of learning. In hindsight, I think we peaked as a group the season before, in the play-off games, and, although we did very well as a group for a long part of my season in charge, we were not well enough equipped to maintain it over the full season. The excitement of the cup took over, too, and the players struggled to reach those heights in some lesser league matches.’
It was a disappointing finish, given the previous season’s fifth place, but it wasn’t enough for the axe to fall cleanly. Kilpatrick’s enthusiastic verbal contract offer earlier in the season was not so keenly supported by the rest of his board at the season’s end and some felt that, while Simpson had something about him as a manager, he perhaps needed another, more experienced person brought in to hold his hand.
‘When the season ended, David said he intended to step back as chairman and so the other directors met me. They said they wanted me to stay but they were going to choose an assistant to work with me.
‘In the last game of the season, away at Macclesfield, we lost in the last couple of minutes. This defeat caused us to drop a number of places in the final league table. The directors said that if we had won, and stayed higher up the table, all would have been fine but, as things stood, they had to be seen to do something.
‘I was told to remove either Jamie Hoyland, my assistant, or the youth coach Colin Greenall. It was ludicrous. Neither of these two were the problem. I said I was not prepared to accept those terms. I told them I would leave and that they could do what they wanted. So that’s what I did.’
Simpson’s spell at Rochdale hardly hindered his coaching career. In fact, it inspired him. Back-to-back promotions with Carlisle and almost getting Preston into the Premier League are fantastic achievements and perhaps vindicate Kilpatrick’s foresight when giving the fledgling manager his debut shot.
‘I learned a heck of a lot during my time at Spotland,’ Simpson says, frankly. ‘Some good things and some bad. The way some supporters turned on me, and my family, for example, was a massive eye opener into the life of a football manager and this helped thicken my skin for the future.
‘I also discovered that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and so chose to do my job to the best of my ability, work as hard as I could and stick to my beliefs. Unfortunately, supporters are not party to all that goes on behind the scenes and make their assumptions on part of the facts. As a manager, you are totally judged on results. If they are not good, like ours towards the end, then the rest normally takes care of itself.
‘I learned a lot in terms of planning, coaching and setting up a team to get results, which you don’t learn on any coaching course. Another huge one for me was delegation. I thought that I should do everything myself in my first job but found out by Christmas that I was burning out. It was only when I left and reflected on the season that I realised this, and took the lesson into my next job.
‘Overall, managing Rochdale was a good experience, although I expect not many people will agree with that. It was a job I have no regrets about taking but I am also glad I chose to leave when I did. It was a season which helped the club for the next few years, due to the cup money, but also helped me to move on to better things.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham and Dan Youngs