First published 2015
If Paul Simpson had big shoes to fill following the departure of John Hollins, then Steve Eyre had to plug those that would have fit a fairy-tale giant.
Keith Hill, the Director of Youth Football who had taken over from Steve Parkin with so little expectation in 2007, had gone on to lead the club to a first Wembley appearance and, two seasons later, a first promotion since 1969.
At the end of the 2010/2011 season, he had led Rochdale to an equal best finish, ninth in League One.
That Hill had, just a week earlier, ruled out leaving the club made the blow all the more bitter when he made the move to Championship side Barnsley during a bleak June in 2011. The club felt rudderless without him, left to float down the perilous waters of a League One pre-season without its enigmatic admiral.
Without wanting to sound too dramatic, the supporters sensed the club’s very soul had been stolen.
Chris Dunphy was faced with his toughest decision as chairman. Appointing a successor to the club’s most efficacious manager was a decision he could not afford to get wrong. Hill had revolutionised the club from top to bottom. His emphasis on sports science and youth, and the infrastructure that went with this, needed to be protected.
Perhaps that is why he sought to appoint a man with a similar ethos to Hill’s. Steve Eyre was approached for the job with more than two decades of coaching the juniors and reserves at Manchester City behind him.
‘That’s true, I was just starting my twenty-first year at City when I was approached to speak to the Rochdale board,’ Eyre recalls. ‘Management was something I wanted to do one day, yes, but this opportunity came to me out of the blue.
‘I was interested, of course, flattered even, but at that point I only wanted to go to the initial interview for the experience. To see what it was like.
‘I was up front with the City staff. I told them about the approach and went to the interview with their blessing.
‘I spoke to my father [former Manchester City player Fred Eyre], I spoke to the people at City, nobody wanted me to leave but they said I should go to have the discussion. They knew I was ambitious and they didn’t want to stand in my way. In football, opportunities can be rare.
‘It was very informal with Rochdale at first, but I wasn’t casual. I made it clear I was up for the challenge and that the time was right for me to perhaps try something new in working with a first team.
‘I was then asked to go for an official interview with the chairman and the chief executive, Colin Garlick. Quickly afterwards, I was invited for a second interview and, at that point, it started to get a bit more serious. I realised I could actually be leaving City. I was offered the Rochdale job the same evening.
‘I was proud and torn at the same time. For the first time in two decades I had to make a decision about my career for myself. At City, I’d been steered and led by older, more experienced people such as Alex Gibson, Jim Cassell and Paul Power but, at that moment in time, there was only one person that could decide where my career was going and that person was me. I wasn’t shy in doing it, I’m a competitor after all, but leaving a club I loved after twenty-one years was hard, yes.’
Despite Rochdale having achieved, at that point, its joint-highest league finish the previous season, Eyre found he had inherited a host of problems when he got behind his new desk.
‘Keith Hill, who is a friend of mine, had a great trust with the team, with the chairman, with the board and with the supporters,’ Eyre says. ‘They were big shoes to fill, of course they were. But I’m not sure people fully appreciate the size of the task that awaited me.
‘I didn’t have a first-team goalkeeper, I didn’t have a training ground and I didn’t have any staff. Eventually, we ended up renting Stockport County’s training ground, having to share with them each morning. It was a free-for-all and, at times, we were even sharing the same pitch. It was far from ideal.
‘There were other challenges, too. I had a captain [Gary Jones] at thirty-five years old holding out for a two-year deal when the club was only offering him one year. I only had seven players to work with that were signed on. Two of them got injured on the first day of training [Joe Thompson and Brian Barry-Murphy]. We lost Craig Dawson, Matty Done and Scott Wiseman to other clubs. There was also someone at the club who wanted the manager’s job and didn’t get it, which was another challenge I had to handle. As a novice manager in my first job, it was a tough start.
‘I had to meet it head on, though. I had chosen to do it. I arrived at Rochdale with a fanfare of well-wishers from Man City and elsewhere in the game; all of who were saying I would be a success, which was nice, but with it came added pressure. It built the expectation from the supporters and the board.
‘My biggest challenge, though, was recruitment within the budget. I have no complaints about the budget itself. It was set before I accepted the job, so I knew what it was, but I made mistakes with it. As a young manager with no scouting-network support, it was tough. My signings ranged from good, to bad, to indifferent. We had a respectable youth academy in place but, at that time, there was nothing to tap into. Now, it has produced the likes of Callum Camps, Scott Tanser and Jamie Allen, but it was in its infancy when I arrived. There was nothing there to use.
‘A lot of my recruits were gambles and, perhaps, too young. I had five goalkeepers on trial during pre-season. None worked out. It was a real problem position for me. It was very much fingers in the dam. You would sort one problem and another appeared.’
Of the three ’keepers Eyre did use for competitive games, none of Jake Keane, David Lucas or Matt Edwards worked out.
‘I honestly think I was cursed as far as goalkeepers went,’ Eyre says. ‘I remember we were due to play Aldershot in the League Cup and David Lucas’s knee locked in match prep. I had to stick Matty Edwards in goal and ask a seventeen-year-old youth ’keeper to drive down to Aldershot with his dad, just to sit on the bench. We lost and Aldershot drew Manchester United in the next round. To say that blow was felt would be an understatement. Then there was a time, against Sheffield United, when David Lucas got knocked-out cold during the game and, another occasion, against Colchester I think, when he was violently sick in the changing room just before kick-off. I know managers have to deal with injuries and setbacks but, where goalkeepers are concerned, I was especially unlucky.’
Goalkeepers aside, Eyre’s on-field signings, in all fairness, will be his legacy – the general consensus being that there was an over reliance on former City youth players – and the centre half Neal Trotman.
Trotman came to Spotland with a decent record behind him but a series of calamitous performances saw him ushered out on loan by November. There was Marc Twaddle, too. A player who had played on the left of defence or midfield in Scotland for both Partick Thistle and Falkirk, but found himself playing a seemingly alien role at centre half for Rochdale.
Ashley Grimes and Andrew Tutte were two of the former City youngsters of note that Eyre brought to Spotland over the summer, the latter having previously played for Rochdale on loan and being part of Eyre’s side that beat Chelsea in the 2008 FA Youth Cup final.
Grimes, having been prolific during a loan spell at relegated Lincoln City the previous season, seemed a real capture for Rochdale at the time of his signing, but supporters failed to see an acceptable attitude on the pitch and Grimes’ goal return wasn’t what it should have been for a main striker.
‘Grimes and Tutte were good players for Rochdale,’ Eyre says. ‘I said at the time that Tutte was a future Rochdale captain and so it proved. Grimes is a talented goal scorer. But, it’s fair to say, Neal Trotman wasn’t a success for me.’
Eventually, Eyre brought in Frank Bunn, a former reserve-team coach at City, as his assistant but was still far from convinced his side was ready for the challenges ahead.
‘I managed to convince the team that we were ready to start the season,’ Eyre confides. ‘We trained very hard. We went to Spain. We beat Southport and West Brom. The team was ready in terms of organisation and fitness, but at the front of my mind I knew we were short on personnel.’
Things were about to get worse on that front. Having lost to Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day, Rochdale then sold Chris O’Grady, the main striker at the time, to the Owls for a reported £300,000.
‘My team was planned around Gary Jones and Chris O’Grady,’ Eyre admits. ‘I supported Jones with his two-year contract wish. He was important to me, as a first-time manager, and he was good for the club, legend that he is. Added to that, the chairman promised me no bid would prise Chris O’Grady away and that I could plan for the team with him in it.
‘We were entering the final stages of the summer transfer window and I remember Mr Dunphy phoning me to say, “I know we said Chris O’Grady was Plan A, but now you need to look for a Plan B. He’s going.” I had to find an identical player, a focal point for the entire team, in three weeks. That phone call from the chairman left me with a dry mouth and a knot in my stomach. Even if I had months it would have been difficult to replace Chris.’
Instead, as attacking options, Eyre ended up with Matthew Barnes-Homer on loan from Luton (non-league at the time), David Ball on loan from Peterborough and Ahmed Benali on loan from Man City. Of those, only Ball looked worthy of the shirt but he was recalled early by Posh.
Eyre had his eye on a bigger prize, however.
‘With just a day remaining of the transfer window, I was swimming against the tide,’ Eyre says. ‘I spent the whole day offering terms back and forth with Shefki Kuqi [a free agent after leaving Newcastle United]. He was exactly the type of the player we needed. He eventually gave me an answer at 11.30pm to tell me he was signing for Oldham. It was gutting. It wasn’t the only time I was scuppered late on with players either. Both defenders Miguel Llera and Jean-Yves M’voto were going to sign for me before going elsewhere for more money.’
Despite the constant set-backs, Eyre still feels he got the desired response from his players on occasion.
‘We had the expected opening-day defeat at Sheffield Wednesday,’ he says. ‘The scoreline was fair. Then we had a galvanising draw against Huddersfield where we came back from two down. We rallied in the second half and, I still believe, if that game had gone on another five minutes we would have won it.
‘That type of guts and determination was what I wanted in every game. It’s what I strive to get from any player I coach or that plays under me.’
Then there were wins against Premiership outfit QPR in the League Cup, and local rivals Bury and Preston in the league. Eyre cites these performances as the best of his tenure.
‘There was adversity attached to some of those games, though,’ Eyre says. ‘On the way back from London following the QPR win [an evening midweek fixture], the coach broke down at 3am. We didn’t get back to the club until quarter-to-seven in the morning.
‘And that Preston game, for me, really sticks in my mind. The term “a week is a long time in football” was never more apt than here. We went out of the FA Cup the previous Saturday to an eighty-third-minute screamer scored by Bradford’s Nahki Wells. It was a real blow. Seven days later, to the minute, Nicky Adams scored at Deepdale to give us a morale-boosting win and lift us out of the relegation zone. It summed up the topsy-turvy nature of things at the time.
‘And that’s the thing. I had reliable players like Andrew Tutte, Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy. On any given day we could tear teams apart, like we did Bury in the derby 4-2. We could give it going forward, without a doubt. But when we went a goal behind, we didn’t have a middle and we had a fragile back line and a novice goalkeeper. We could never get a foothold in a game on a regular basis. Over time, I believe we would have done. We didn’t find our identity often enough.’
Eyre was eventually sacked six months into his contract following a draw with Yeovil, a game he says Rochdale should have won 8-0, but, despite this, he harbours neither grudge nor regret about his time at the club. It’s also worth noting that the side didn’t climb any higher up the table following his departure.
Chris Dunphy told the BBC at the time: ‘We currently have a squad of 28 players which is the biggest Rochdale Football Club’s ever had by a long way − Keith’s squad was about 18 or 19. We’re also on the biggest budget we’ve ever done at Rochdale, which is not a fortune but it is a big clump.
‘You add them all together and I feel that I’ve done everything I can as chairman to support the management team, and if we’re not getting results the only thing I can do is change the management team.’
‘I know what was good, I know what would have been good and I know what was bad,’ Eyre says of his time at Rochdale. ‘I’ve dissected it, I’ve unpicked it and I’ve moved on. I would have liked to have stayed longer and done better for Rochdale. It would have been slow progress but we would have moved forward, I know it.
‘The chairman was disappointed, though, as the fans wanted instant success. Taking the Rochdale job took me out of my comfort zone, but has turned me into a stronger coach with a stronger skillset in terms of what I can bring to football for the rest of my life. I don’t regret taking the job. I regret losing my job, but I’m proud I did it. I felt saddened to learn my fate over the telephone and not in person, but, thankfully, that practice isn’t generally commonplace in football. I only ever wish Rochdale success in the future. I still love going to watch them when I get chance.’
However, one thing that still irks Eyre is that he feels rumours had deliberately been fed to supporters concerning his ability to manage first-team players.
‘I was disappointed with the rumours circulating about me,’ he says. ‘It was put out there that I was just some Under-12s coach and that I exaggerated my credentials. I think the Rochdale supporters were unaware of my wider responsibilities at City. I was working as manager of the Under-18s at the club and as a coach to the reserves. I was also overseeing the entire youth programme. Because I loved the club that much, and because I love coaching, I spread myself around all the age groups from Under-12s up to the reserves. I chose to go in on a Sunday morning with the Under-12s and to stay on a Thursday night to work with the U-15s. Those were my choices.
‘There was a long spell when, through the working week, I coached every player from the Under-10s to reserve level, always with four or five fixtures. Eighteen-hour days were normal. I won the FA Youth Cup at such a young age with great players and great staff around me. Those are my credentials. I coached the City reserves to victories over Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and, of course, Rochdale, which is when Mr Dunphy became aware of me. For anyone to think Mr Dunphy didn’t carry out due diligence on me is ridiculous. I know who put these rumours out there, but I have enough dignity not to start mudslinging. It was an attempt to undermine my genuine achievements and to make an already granite-like challenge even harder.’
Eyre next became head coach at Championship side Huddersfield, a club he joined at League One level not long after leaving Rochdale in 2011.
‘I was lucky enough to have ended up at Huddersfield, who picked me up when I was down,’ he says. ‘I was welcomed immediately and, by the end of the same season I left Rochdale, I was in the semi-circle at Wembley, leaving the division through the top end of it. I believe I can stand tall and proud. Winning the play-off final at Wembley was a justified achievement for twenty-plus years of coaching.’
And his spell at Rochdale hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for another crack at management one day.
‘I love developing players. I’m a student of the game and try to bring that to those I coach. I wouldn’t shy away from management in the future. I would like the chance again but certainly not in the short term.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham