First published 2016
Rochdale AFC had lost one powerhouse in 2006, but fans were about to celebrate another.
With Grant Holt gone (and his strike partner Rickie Lambert too), manager Steve Parkin was once more forced to pan the murky waters of football’s wilderness. Against the odds, he found gold among the silt yet again when he signed the unfulfilled potential of Glenn Murray.
Like fellow Cumbrian Holt, it took Murray a little while to hit his stride in Dale colours and, as Parkin lamented when we last spoke, Murray only began to properly fire for Rochdale once Parkin had left the club.
Of course, Murray’s comparisons with Holt go beyond them merely sharing a county of origin. Their early careers followed a very similar path too, with stints at non-league sides Barrow and Workington Reds sandwiching a spell overseas.
‘I was on Carlisle’s books as a kid and the dream was always to be a professional footballer,’ Murray begins, with that Cumbrian lilt the uninitiated usually mistake for a Geordie accent.
‘It didn’t work out at Carlisle, though, and, by the time I was seventeen-eighteen, I was playing non-league football for Workington and was working as a plasterer’s labourer. I had given up on being a professional. I thought my chance had gone.’
There was a glimmer of hope for Murray when he was invited to play in the USA in the summer of 2004. His destination was North Carolina, where he would represent USL Pro Soccer League side Wilmington Hammerheads.
‘I did alright there but was unsure where it would lead,’ he says. ‘It was really hot and so you had to play a lot differently than in the UK. You had to keep the ball a lot more. By chance, Sunderland had come out to North Carolina on a pre-season tour. Mick McCarthy was in charge at the time. I played in a couple of games against Sunderland out there and Mick invited me to train with them back in the UK. I jumped at that and spent three or four weeks with them. In the end, Mick decided not to offer me anything but said he would put a word in with anybody I wanted. I asked him to contact Carlisle because it was my local club. [Former Rochdale boss] Paul Simpson was the manager at the time and Mick said he knew him. He said he’d give him a call to recommend me.
‘I left Sunderland with my tail between my legs to some degree and I had to go back to work as a labourer. The weeks went by and I heard nothing from Carlisle. I was quite disillusioned and began to think Mick might not have made the call. Six weeks on and I hadn’t kicked a football.
‘Then, just like that, I got a call out of the blue asking if I could play in a reserve game for Carlisle the next day. I said: “Of course I can”. I went through there determined, played the game (I can’t remember who it was against) and managed to get myself on the score sheet. That goal got me a trial period.
‘At the time, though, Carlisle weren’t in great shape as a club. I used to watch them, as they were my local team, and I’d seen them relegated to the Conference the previous season. Still, just to be asked to go on trial with them was great. I was there a good few weeks and Paul Simpson said to me: “I’ve not made my mind up about you, but I’ve had Barrow FC on the phone, would you like to play for them but train with us during the week?” The idea was that Barrow would pay me enough money to get by. So that was the arrangement; I trained with a Conference National club during the week and played for a Conference North team at the weekend. I scored ten in ten for Barrow and Paul decided to offer me a deal at Carlisle until the end of the season.’
From there, Carlisle were promoted from the Conference via the play-offs, back into the football league.
‘I got my contract extended and, the next season, we got promoted again,’ Murray remembers. ‘We won promotion from League Two at Rochdale, funnily enough. Despite the success of the club, I was very much a substitute player. I was the impact sub who came on for the last twenty minutes to freshen a game up. I was eager and had the legs, and felt I very much played my part.
‘Then we were in League One, Paul Simpson left to manage Preston North End in the Championship, and the club just moved too fast for me. Coming from non-league, with back-to-back promotions, I was struggling with the standard. Neil McDonald took over as Carlisle manager and he saw that. To help me, I was sent on loan back to League Two with Stockport. That step back helped me, to be honest.
‘While I was at Stockport, Rochdale manager Steve Parkin sent Keith Hill to watch me. Hilly was youth-team manager at that time, but would obviously go on to take over the first-team. He recommended me to Steve. Rochdale came in for me, but then Accrington Stanley did as well, and both were offering very similar deals. The idea was that I would join one of them on loan and sign permanently when the transfer window reopened in January. I told Neil McDonald I wanted to sign for Accrington because it was a bit nearer to where I lived. Neil, to his credit, told me that I had to change my way of thinking if I was going to carve out a career in the game. He felt that Rochdale was a much better club for me and pointed out that it had launched the careers of players like Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert. With his guidance, I signed for Rochdale.’
Unfortunately for Murray, he joined Rochdale at a time when the side was struggling in League Two and it has to be noted that he made his first start in a 7-1 hammering by Lincoln City.
‘Steve Parkin was brilliant with me as soon as I got there,’ he says. ‘He told me I would be starting against Lincoln at the weekend. Then we got battered 7-1. I, personally, didn’t do very well over the next few games, nor did the rest of the team, and Parkin ended up getting the sack.’
But far from fading back into a substitute, Murray began to establish himself as not only a goal threat but a great outlet for his team-mates, too. He could play the targetman as if he had been daubed with a Pritt Stick – a focal point from which his fellow attackers could feed. It wasn’t realised quickly enough to save Parkin’s job, true, but Murray’s talent was fully utilised by the man who replaced him, youth-team boss Keith Hill.
‘We were all low at the time Steve Parkin left, but then Keith Hill stepped in, brought David Flitcroft in as his assistant, and the transformation was incredible,’ Murray recalls. ‘Steve signed me, though, and gave me my chance, so I’ll be forever grateful for that. However, Hilly and Flitcroft brought a new level of enthusiasm with them. From the way they spoke, to the drills we did in training – everything was new. It swept you along. It was a special time for the club.
‘I think the way they showed me attention, and focused on my strengths, brought the best out of me. I’d stay behind after training and Dave Flitcroft would bring out all these new finishing drills. As I say, it was new, exciting and a fun time to be at the club. It brought everyone together, too. We all got on with each other brilliantly. The camaraderie was strong.’
Murray believes the mix of youth and experience was just right, too. Whereas traditionally older professionals may not buy into a young, new manager’s philosophy, this didn’t appear to be the case at Rochdale.
‘Adam Le Fondre came in, and we already had Chris Dagnall,’ Murrays says. ‘We all played well up front together. It wasn’t just about the young lads either. The older lads, like John Doolan, Gary Jones, Dave Perkins and Lee Crooks, were brilliant for us, too. They fed off the energy from Hilly and Flitcroft. Crooks had played for Man City, for example, but he didn’t think he was better than anyone else. He was as enthusiastic about Hilly’s vision as anyone.’
Including his loan spell, Murray made thirty-three appearances for Rochdale that season, scoring sixteen goals. He was an integral part of a side that transformed from one which looked nailed on for relegation into one which narrowly missed the play-offs.
The following was Hill’s first full season as Rochdale boss and Murray was a player in fine form. He had found the net ten times when the January transfer window of the 2007/08 season had opened and, when he looked through it, the Seagulls were circling. They finally deemed it fit to swoop on the twenty-fifth of the month and Murray departed for Brighton & Hove Albion leaving Rochdale in the region of £300,000 better off.
‘I was scoring for Rochdale and the rumours were out there,’ Murray says. ‘Even over the summer people had been saying clubs were interested in me, but nothing happened. I just got on with my football. Then, one day in January 2008, I got called into the office and was told the club had accepted a bid for me from Brighton. It felt a bit strange. Brighton was a club I’d never paid much attention to, being a northern boy. I think Hilly really wanted me to stay, but Brighton were offering me really good money to step up a division and that’s what I knew I had to work towards. I felt I wasn’t good enough for League One when I was last there with Carlisle but I felt ready for it at that point. Rochdale had made me ready for it. My skills had been honed and I was used to playing more than just a bit part with a team.’
Murray spent three-and-a-half seasons in League One with Brighton, each season becoming more prolific. In 2011, after helping himself to twenty-two goals in fifty outings, it was enough for Championship side Crystal Palace to take a punt on him.
‘My time at Brighton was a bit up and down,’ Murray says. ‘My first year was good, my second year saw me in and out of the side due to injuries, and my last year was special. I knuckled down after I got over the injuries, did really well, and it coincided with the club’s promotion.’
With Brighton and Crystal Palace being arch-rivals, it’s perhaps understandable that Murray was reluctant to discuss his switch in any great detail. One can only assume that, with Murray under freedom of contract, he felt Palace showed a greater interest in acquiring him than Brighton did in keeping him.
Regardless, Murray described the move as an ‘opportunity to take on a new challenge’.
And it took him just two seasons to reach the Premier League with Palace – with him smashing an incredible thirty-one goals in forty-five appearances during the promotion season. He also scored a memorable extra-time winner at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the League Cup quarter-finals.
‘My first season at Palace was not good at all, though,’ Murray says. ‘I was playing in a very defensive-minded team under Dougie Freedman. I only managed seven goals. I felt comfortable in the division but didn’t feel like I had completely gotten to grips with it. That said, we did go to Man United in the cup and win. I’ve played against them since and only matched that result once. We were buzzing. They had players like Paul Pogba and Dimitar Berbatov playing. It was a great night for us. I scored the winner and Darren Ambrose scored that wonder goal of an equaliser. We were so close to the final that year, too, eventually getting beat by Cardiff on penalties.
‘The next season saw us really kick on. Dougie tweaked the way we played to give me more support up front. I had Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie on either wing firing balls in. For a striker like myself, it was perfect. Two wingers who wanted to carry the ball to the by-line and cross it. While Dougie left us to manage Bolton in the October, Ian Holloway came in, maintained that playing style and guided us to the play-offs.’
Sadly, Murray’s season was cut short a game early by a serious knee injury and he wasn’t able to take part in the play-off final. In fact, the injury would delay his experience of the Premier League until the following February.
‘I snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Brighton. I remember going for the ball in the penalty box and twisting in agony. I missed the next leg and then the final, which was obviously gutting, but the lads took us over the line. I’m at peace with it now. If we had lost, and I felt that my playing would have made a difference, that would have been much harder to take.
‘It hindered me for a while did that injury, but I guess the only positive was the period I sustained it − right at the end of the season. It was a nine or ten-month injury, but I knew I had three months before every other player would kick another competitive ball. I would be well into my rehab by then and that was the positive spin I put on it to get me back. The fact I was now a Premier League player was an added incentive.’
When Murray did return, he found the step up in class a formidable one.
‘The obvious thing about the step up is there are a lot less mistakes at Premier League level and the players are much more athletic,’ he says. ‘Instead of stepping out and engaging strikers, the defenders tend to stay in their line and, if one does decide to engage, then their team mates cover round. All the teams are well drilled and become hard to break down.’
The change of managers at Palace was also a difficult transition for Murray to handle. He feels Neil Warnock, who had replaced Tony Pulis, who in turn had replaced Ian Holloway, didn’t see him as a Premier League striker.
‘He had six strikers and, in his opinion, I was the sixth,’ Murray says. ‘When a manager says that to me, at thirty years old, I’m going to look elsewhere to get games. I wanted to show people that I was fit again and was capable of playing game after game after game. It wasn’t even about scoring goals at that point; it was about proving I could play games consistently. I told him I wanted to leave and he said okay.’
Murray moved to Championship club Reading on loan in September 2014, scoring twice on his debut. He went on to score six more times for the Royals before returning to Palace in January 2015.
‘Reading was good for me because I played week in, week out and scored goals. It removed all doubt as far as I was concerned.’
Murray returned to Palace under yet another new manager, Alan Pardew, and scored seven times in fifteen league appearances. His value as a Premiership force was reignited. After several bids, newcomers Bournemouth lured him to the south coast on a three-year deal, the fee to Palace a not insignificant £4 million. At the time of our interview, Murray had already scored a late headed goal to clinch a famous win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
‘Palace felt the bid from Bournemouth was a good one and let me go,’ Murray says. ‘I haven’t played as much as I’d have liked at Bournemouth, but to be part of a squad that everyone thought would be relegated, and wasn’t, is a great feeling.’
As we round off our chat, Murray once again reiterates the fondness with which he recalls his time at Rochdale.
‘Rochdale was a massive point in my career,’ he says. ‘The perfect club at the perfect time. Like those strikers before me, Holt and Lambert, the club made my career. It sounds daft, but I wouldn’t be a Premier League striker now if it wasn’t for Rochdale, Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham