The state of things

It’s an honour and privilege to host an article by fellow (and more successful) Rochdale journalist Mark Hodkinson on how he views the current situation at Rochdale AFC. Mark, like me, is a lifelong Dale supporter and author of the brilliant The Overcoat Men.

He was sure of himself, adamant:

‘He’s a Number Two, always will be.’

This was a former Dale director, telling me about Brian Barry-Murphy and how he was an ideal coach or assistant, but wouldn’t make a good manager.

‘He might do okay,’ I argued.

The same as most Rochdale fans, I wanted the best for Brian. He looked the part: lithe, handsome, great hair and with none of the twitchy brashness of Keith Hill. 

Most of all, with Brian, I was impressed by his humility – that he collected up the balls, every one, after the pre-match warm-ups. Most ex-footballers-turned-coaches are too proud to do this, too full of themselves; they send out the youngest sub to do it or the kit man. Not Brian. He did it himself.

When Hill left in March 2019, BBM was a natural replacement in the Kingdom of the Dale. He started well. He had a clear game-plan and the team played doggedly to secure enough points to avoid relegation.

Early last season, two consecutive away matches had a profound impact. We won 3-0 at Southend United and, two weeks later, lost 6-0 at Peterborough United. In the first game, Ian Henderson scored after a passage of play featuring 16 passes. Footage of the move went viral and a legend was set free of us being the ‘Barcelona of the EFL’, regardless of the fact that the goal was scored against a team that would win just four league games in 35 during a Covid-shortened season.

This same pseudo-possession football failed abjectly at Peterborough. We had the ball for 60% of the time but lost 6-0. Despite the score line, I wasn’t perturbed. On the drive home, I told my eldest lad that the folly of BBM’s tactics was so apparent, so severely flawed, they’d be abandoned thereafter.

Never again, I said, would we play so deep and have workaday defenders passing sideways close to their own goal. BBM would recognise the need for an ‘out ball’ – a big lad upfront who could win headers, shield the ball and bring others into play. He’d see that a midfield comprised of holding, defensive-minded players unwilling to run with the ball would never create overloads. He’d also grasp that we needed players of stronger physique with more pace, and a team able to play with greater width. Finally, he’d see that the crazy, made-up position for Aaron Morley (often tucked in behind the full back) was depleting the midfield of valuable personnel.    

Sadly, these issues, most of them fundamental, were not addressed. Worse, they have been repeated, more or less, ever since, to the same end:  loss upon loss. It has seemed as if BBM is wedded to a footballing philosophy (emulating the keep-ball practised at higher levels of the game), regardless of whether it suits the players or garners results.

Football, as everyone knows (managers especially), is a results business. Right now, we have won once in the last 18 home matches – the fewest home wins in the professional football pyramid of 156 clubs (aside from clubs that have had numerous postponements). On a theme, we have won once, home and away, in the last 11 matches.

I can’t imagine this appalling form would be sanctioned at any other club or level of football. Why isn’t this so at Rochdale? Maybe it is because the town, the club, is plagued by passivity, pessimism and fatalism, an acceptance of ‘rightful place’ and ‘we’re punching above our weight.’ But why not punch above our weight? Other clubs do it. We should each of us – fans and board – be more hopeful and ambitious for our beloved club.

It’s not as if we’re still in the 1970s, hauling waifs off Firgrove and putting them in the first-team anymore. We’ve got a reasonably large squad and a sizable off-field back-up team. On very few occasions have we been out-played this season; our tactics and team selection has been our most formidable opponent, leading inexorably to a losing mentality; it’s in the players’ body language.

I can’t imagine this appalling form would be sanctioned at any other club or level of football.

As a journalist, much the same as Chris [Fitzgerald], I am sometimes privy to information often kept from most fans. Inevitably, it leads to hunches, informed guesses, about what is going on, both in the dressing room and the board room.

So, BBM is well-liked by his squad (and the office staff) because he is amenable, a class act. For players, set against a week of training where they are encouraged and nurtured, among team mates and a manager who believes in them, the 90 minutes of a disappointing match-day do not have the same impact as they do on fans who see and feel only this portion of time – especially during this claustrophobic lockdown. Remember, when all this is done, we, the fans, will remain, when the players and management staff have long gone.

‘He is very comfortable with being Brian Barry-Murphy.’ I’ve been told this a few times by those in the know. Initially, I admired this flinty self-confidence and saw it as a necessity of being a football manager. Now, I wonder. Where, after such a poor run, does confidence seep to stubbornness and even delusion? 

Several in the board room appear to have fallen for the myth and are flattered when told they have a go-ahead, young manager, the envy of other clubs. They don’t stop to ask on what evidence (aside from Southend, August 2019) this is based – it can’t be on our level of performance over the last seven months. They haven’t seen it. We have. And we know.

In recent years, the club has adopted a greater quasi-corporate ‘modern’ approach (i.e. those staff appointments, extra facilities etc). Right now, in the midst of a pandemic and almost zero income, fans are asking of the various out-goings: can we afford it, is it strictly necessary and, if we have this money, could it be better spent elsewhere? This is where we have to trust the board.

On that subject, as someone who has researched extensively previous directors (in my book, The Overcoat Men), I’ve had emails from fans pointing out that they know very little of the current incumbents of the board room. There is a widely-held conception, for example, that both chairman, Andrew Kilpatrick, and CEO, David Bottomley, arrived ‘from nowhere’.  

This isn’t the case, of course, but we need to know more about them and how they are running the club, how shares and commensurate power and control is divvied up, where the accountability lies, especially after the departure of Chris Dunphy et al. There is not the slightest suggestion of wrong-doing or anything malicious afoot but sometimes, as we’ve seen elsewhere, procrastination or profligacy or mismanagement can be equally as damaging.

I’ve had emails from fans pointing out that they know very little of the current incumbents of the board room.

(On a wider level, and this may be apocryphal, I was told by a journalist pal this week that there is an unspoken near-suicide pact between a host of EFL clubs, believing that if they all go bust (or near enough) en bloc, the Premier League or Government will be impelled underwrite the losses. Let’s hope they do.)

It has been disheartening to read the spats among Dale fans on social media. We should all be one. This level of toxicity is caused when fans are unhappy and frustrated. They strike out. They want to see change, firstly on the pitch and, if this is not forthcoming, off it. Perhaps it would be better to make these feelings known to those who run the club and make the decisions, rather than embark upon futile in-fighting.

In most fields of business, targets are set at management level. Has this stood for BBM, that if he fails to win a certain number of games or accrue a sum of points (or even provide sufficient entertainment), he will be removed from his position? If so, what was this target, where is the line drawn? When it appears open-ended and we hear little from the board room, it can seem as if no one cares, no one is noticing, and, then, anxiety is let loose, especially now we are running out of games and drawing ever closer to the bottom of the league.

Some, perhaps, will support the chairman’s continued support of BBM and view it as a rare example of loyalty in a fickle world. Kilpatrick has remained steadfast as potential replacements have found jobs elsewhere and he has approved new signings during the transfer window.

If relegation is avoided and BBM later leads the club to better, happier football (wouldn’t that be great?), Kilpatrick deserves unreserved praise for taking such a maverick stance and seeing so much of what many of us no longer do in the management team. Likewise, if the spiral down continues, he and his board hold ultimate responsibility. It comes with the territory.

The forthcoming appointment of a sporting director (at a cost, obviously) feels to be skirting or fudging the real issue and has been viewed as another attempt to present the club as on-point. Have a word with any of the old-boys in the Main Stand (if only – how we’ve missed their vociferous counsel!) and they’d proffer sage advice, gratis: stop playing fancy-dan stuff in your own half, move the bloody ball up the field and get a few bigger, quicker lads in the team. Job done.

Aside from those two fantastic away wins at Wigan and Plymouth, there has been scant fun watching Rochdale this season. And it is supposed to be fun, lest we forget. I struggle to understand those who have somehow learned to cope and accept a team playing badly, seldom winning and still hold faith in the management and, by proxy, the board.

The forthcoming appointment of a sporting director (at a cost, obviously) feels to be skirting or fudging the real issue.

I’ve tried, but I’m not able to realign my chakras or embrace perpetual disappointment. I’m in it too deep. If the ‘happy-to-just-survive’ lobby and ‘little Rochdale’ lot win the day, they’re welcome to the club because it won’t feel to be mine anymore.

By Mark Hodkinson

Mark Hodkinson is the author of the brilliant The Overcoat Men.