First published 2015
Of all those to manage Rochdale in the past twenty years or so, Steve Parkin is easily the most unfairly maligned.
He took the almightiest of risks according to football cliché parlance − he came back.
After an incredible first spell, where he transformed the club over a single summer from perennial strugglers to play-off challengers, anticipation was high among the Rochdale support that Parkin would be firing the kind of lightning that strikes the same place twice.
That’s not to say his return following the sacking of Alan Buckley was universally welcomed. Some sections of the support still harboured ill feeling at the way Parkin left Rochdale to join Barnsley in 2001.
That aside, the reputation he earned for what he achieved over his first two-and-half seasons at Spotland, despite failing to match that success at Barnsley, was sound.
‘First and foremost there was a basis of a decent squad when I first got to the club in 1999,’ Parkin says. ‘I spoke to Graham Barrow about the job and he told me he thought the players he had left behind were decent but had merely underachieved. He was right.
‘It wasn’t so much a case of me revolutionising the club, it was just a case of bringing a few more players in. I had a lot of help from David Kilpatrick [then chairman] and the board in that regard. There was a strict wage structure in place, which reflected the gates we were getting at the time, but it was still very useful in attracting the players I wanted. I’d been working in that division for two-and-a-half years with Mansfield, so I had a good idea of the standard and the type of players that we needed to bring in to improve us. I evolved it season by season from there, really.’
Parkin’s initial stint as Rochdale manager gave this writer his first experience of the team performing admirably against Premier League opposition (prior to that, my only encounter had been a trip to Anfield in January 1996 for an FA Cup third-round tie. A hat-trick from Stan Collymore, a debut goal for Jason McAteer and Ian Rush overtaking Denis Law’s FA Cup scoring record made sure the day was all about Liverpool. Mick Docherty’s odd team selection on the afternoon failed to make any kind of impact in a 7-0 defeat).
Fast forward to September 2001 and Parkin’s Rochdale, despite eventually losing to Fulham on penalties after a 2-2 draw, made sure the Premier League side knew they had been in a match. The League Cup tie belonged to young substitute striker Kevin Townson, who made an experienced back line look ordinary throughout as he bagged a brace.
Sadly, the game went ahead not long after news had broken about the 9/11 atrocity in New York City.
‘I remember it quite vividly, really,’ Parkin says. ‘Me and Tony [Ford] were heading back from training ahead of the game. I turned the car radio on and there was all these news bulletins about a bomb that had gone off in New York. We got back to Spotland and we had a little TV in our office. We turned it on and we saw the pictures and realised it was aeroplanes, not bombs, that had hit the World Trade Centre. Me and Tony sat and watched this for ages and ages and ages. It took our mind − everyone’s mind − off the game.
‘In hindsight, as a mark of respect, that game shouldn’t have gone ahead. But we were so far down the line in terms of arrangements that we couldn’t postpone. Fulham were already in the Lancashire area and so on.
‘We had to be professional and, as it turned out, it was a great game. Kev Townson was fantastic. He made a name for himself that night, but it was a team performance. We deserved to go through for sure. We were very unlucky.’
More spectacular results followed that season and, in November 2001, with Rochdale riding high, the lure of second-tier football management at Barnsley took Parkin and Ford over the Pennines.
‘In hindsight, it wasn’t the right decision to go to Barnsley,’ Parkin reflects. ‘It was too early. Rochdale were almost top of the league at the time, just behind Plymouth. We had a great little squad, a squad that me and Tony had built. The ideal time to move on would have been at the end of the season. The squad was good enough to go up and I should have seen that through. We should have got that first promotion since 1969.’
Parkin also asserts that his departure was not financially motivated.
‘The move to Barnsley wasn’t about money,’ he says. ‘People will say that, but it wasn’t. We constantly had a real problem of where to train at Rochdale. The club didn’t have its own training facilities and so we were like bloody nomads, going from one ground to another, one area to another. We were always looking for decent facilities or pitches that weren’t waterlogged. I’d done it for two-and-a-half years and it had taken its toll. One thing I knew about Barnsley, because I’d been there a few times with the Rochdale reserves, is that their training facilities were fantastic. That was a big sway for me. It was still tough to leave, though. I had a great relationship with David Kilpatrick and the board and, I’ll say again, it was the wrong decision.’
Parkin says he endured a turbulent twelve months in South Yorkshire.
‘I wasn’t given any time at Barnsley. They had a squad that was too big for starters. I think there were forty-six players when I arrived. I managed to get rid of sixteen of them in twelve months. The squad needed to become a manageable size. While I was doing this, the ITV Digital money stopped [the digital platform had paid £315 million to screen lower-league football in 2001 but collapsed in 2002 due to lack of interest from the paying public]. That had a massive impact on the club as we had a lot of players on big wages. This became unsustainable, even with our trimming. We were relegated and the board couldn’t prevent the club going into administration. The writing was on the wall for me and Tony from then on to be honest.’
It wasn’t long before Steve got back into football, however.
‘I went to work with Billy Dearden at Notts County six months later,’ he says. ‘I had a couple of job offers prior to that but they didn’t appeal. I’d been lifelong friends with Billy, so it was a pleasure to work with him. Notts, despite being in administration themselves, were a nice friendly club. I was enjoying football again.
‘Then, one day, I had a missed call from David Kilpatrick on my phone. I knew Alan Buckley had left Rochdale, but I still wasn’t sure what David wanted. I called him back and he said straight away, “will you come back?” I said I’d give it some thought, but, to be honest, it didn’t take long. I knew most of the staff and players that were still there. I wanted to do it again.
‘I went back, met the board, and they told me the club had to stay up. That was my only objective. We managed it by the skin of our teeth. Beyond that, my brief was to consolidate and get the club back to some kind of stability again. There was no further pressure other than that.’
On his return in January 2004, Parkin worked hard to restore some pride to the demoralised unit left behind by Buckley and, the following season, it looked like the magic touch had returned when he guided Rochdale to a ninth-place finish.
This was due, in part, to a particular gift he possessed. Parkin, during both of his spells at Rochdale, had an exceptional eye for a striker. Under his watch, supporters enjoyed goals from Kevin Townson, Clive Platt, Paul Connor, Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Chris Dagnall and Glenn Murray. Only Platt and Connor cost the club a significant sum, while Holt, Lambert and Murray have gone on to make Rochdale over seven figures between them.
‘I’ve not got a bad eye as a former defender, eh?’ Parkin laughs. ‘It goes back to my Mansfield days. I’d always watch strikers for the runs they made into the box. I wasn’t so bothered about those who could crack it in from thirty yards, they tended to be one offs. I was more concerned with how strikers got themselves free in the box, the intuition they showed, the way they beat a defender to the ball. At Mansfield, I signed Steve Whitehall from Rochdale and he got me twenty-odd goals before he moved to Oldham. Then there was Tony Lormor, who gave me a decent goal return, and Lee Peacock, who I bought from Carlisle for £75,000 and the club sold for £500,000.
‘I carried this on at Rochdale.
‘During my first spell, I found Clive Platt, who would get me goals but would create them too, which was vital to that team at the time.
‘Kevin Townson didn’t fulfil his potential, which is sad. He was probably managed in the wrong way after I left. He got a hefty three-year contract thrown at him and that probably wasn’t the way to nurture him along and keep him hungry. He had a great eye for goal and was a natural finisher. He was very instinctive.
‘Paul Connor was a real talent, too. I really felt for him because he got some nasty injuries and that held him back. He could have gone all the way. He still did the business for Rochdale, though. I enjoyed working with him. He was a really good lad.
‘I saw Chris Dagnall loads of times at Tranmere. He was tenacious and quicker than he looked over twenty yards. He always created chances for himself. He wasn’t the perfect finisher by any means, but still always looked likely to score.
‘Glenn Murray was a raw one. He had an unorthodox running style, but he always seemed to get himself to where he could grab a goal. He went on to score for fun at Rochdale. I’ve met him a few times since and he always says he is grateful for the chance I gave him, now he’s in the Premiership [at Crystal Palace at the time of interview].
‘I’d seen Grant Holt a little bit before I signed him. He, too, was very raw but effective. I knew I could bring him on. He had the right attributes to be a fantastic striker and just needed a little work. He proved a very worthwhile investment of our time.
‘Rickie Lambert was even more pleasing. I’d only ever seen him play in midfield. I never thought he had the legs to play there, to be perfectly truthful. He did have a terrific shot, however. I started thinking, if he’s a bit further up the pitch, he could create the kind of space in the box that he does in midfield. I sold this idea to him, I said, “I want you up front with Holty”. He snapped my hand off because it meant less running for him.’
Holt and Lambert in particular formed one of the best strike partnerships to be seen at Spotland, but, sadly for Parkin, their goals were not enough to bring him the success of his first spell, the sale of both players coming while the season was in flow and effectively derailing all momentum.
After a nightmare start to the 2006/2007 season, Parkin looked to have picked things up with a run of form culminating in a 5-0 win away at Darlington. It wasn’t to last and Rochdale embarked on a run where they won just one of eleven games, including a 7-1 embarrassment at Lincoln City.
Parkin’s demise finally came on Saturday 16 December 2006, following a third consecutive defeat, to Hartlepool United, a game many supporters still believe yielded Rochdale’s worst display of Parkin’s two reigns, despite there being heavier losses.
‘You can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat, can’t you?’ Parkin says. ‘I’d got to the stage where I was experienced enough to know a club like Rochdale has to sell players to carry on surviving and functioning. You can’t keep hanging on to players when they have a value. Before you know it, the value is gone and the club is in trouble. It was hard work rebuilding teams, though. You lose a striker so you need to find another one that’s going to get you thirty goals a season. Losing Rickie and Grant in quick succession really hurt. I think if I’d held on to them, we’d have been there or thereabouts. Instead we went backwards a little bit.’
Players met by this writer over the years have always had good things to say about Parkin. Paul Connor, who Parkin brought to Rochdale from Stoke City in 2001 for a club record fee of £150,000, is one of them.
‘I’ve always said, whenever I’ve been asked to name the best manager I’ve played for, that it’s Steve Parkin,’ Connor enthuses. ‘He was hard as nails but was a great person with it. He had an aura about him, in that he had the respect of the dressing room but was one of the lads as well. He got the balance right. He knew when to be the boss and when to have a beer with the boys. He was massively into team spirit. Perhaps it’s considered a bit old school now, but he would encourage the nights out and all that. I’d say that was his overall strength. He got the best out of the lads that way. When I first went to Rochdale, and I know the players concerned won’t mind me saying this, we didn’t have the greatest squad in the division in terms of raw ability, but it was the best dressing room I’ve ever been in. That made us better than a lot of the more technical teams out there.
‘That’s not to say Steve wasn’t tactical. Training was never dull. He liked his teams organised. We had quality in the right areas, of course, but he signed leaders at the back and made sure we were strong defensively. Our training under Steve was always centred on being organised, strong and aggressive.
‘It just seemed to click for me the minute I got to Rochdale. I put that down to Steve giving me the confidence to go and play. As long as we were alright defensively, he let the attackers play their own game and express themselves. I loved that about him.
‘Second time round, Steve had to deal with financial changes at the club. He didn’t have the same budget that he enjoyed first time. Quite rightly, the club cut its cloth. It takes time to build a successful squad with a small budget. He did get the time, but had to keep selling key players – so he was effectively starting from scratch each time.
‘Rochdale was the most enjoyable club I’ve been at. I had bad luck with injuries there, but it was still a welcoming environment. A lot of that was down to Steve.’
After Parkin left Rochdale for the second time, Director of Youth Football Keith Hill took temporary charge of the team, with Rochdale only lying outside of the relegation zone on goal difference. What followed was perhaps the most effective transformation of a football team this writer has ever witnessed.
Having, on a caretaker basis, taken charge of a leaden side; Hill oversaw a period where Rochdale began to demolish teams regularly by four goals or more. Given the job permanently, with former player David Flitcroft as his assistant, Hill made sure the form continued, a dazzling 7-2 away victory at Stockport the highlight. In less than half a season, he had taken Rochdale from the doldrums to finish just outside the play-offs.
‘I set Keith on his way with the youth team job at Rochdale,’ Parkin says. ‘Keith, when given the chance, injected the first team with a new self-belief and confidence. Again, you wouldn’t think he had been a centre half as a player, because he’s a firm believer in attacking football. Once a group of players get a bit of confidence and they score a few goals, it builds momentum. You cannot underestimate the power of momentum in football. When you have it, you can quickly become unstoppable. I saw that happen in Keith’s first spell and I was made up for him.’
Connor, who played with both Hill and Flitcroft at Rochdale, has his own recollections of the pair.
‘Hilly was a tough old-fashioned centre half when I played with him,’ he says. ‘He’s really modern with his methods now, though, I believe. He was hard as nails but a great lad in the dressing room. He was an absolute winner. He wanted to win all the time, no matter who we were playing against. He wanted perfection and could lose his rag if he didn’t get it. He gave me a few bollockings, I can tell you. You just knew him and Flicker [Flitcroft] were going to go on to be managers and work together. They were best mates and travelled in together each day. I’m delighted they both made it. They deserve it.’
‘My ten years as a manager were enough for me,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed it all except the twelve months at Barnsley, which were hard on me and my family. I see what managers have to go through these days, the press they have to deal with, the criticism. Latterly I’ve played the role of assistant manager. It’s more of a free role, I suppose, and that suits me fine.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham