We’re used to a botched set-piece at Rochdale, but the one that led to the clumsy non-announcement that first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy (BBM) had had his contract extended by a year will take some topping.
The manager’s contract was due to expire at the end of this season and a large section of the fan base had been expecting that, at the very least, the board would let this happen given the club has endured what is believed to be its worst run on the pitch for 40 years.
But, in attempting to answer this very question at the fans’ forum last night, present director Graham Rawlinson seemed to fluff a pre-rehearsed routine which led to an awkward-looking BBM himself announcing his contract now ran until May 2022.
Unsurprisingly, this led to mass confusion among the supporters – taking aside the validity of the contract extension and more focusing on the lack of any kind of formal announcement.
When did this happen? Was the club ever going to let the supporters know? Did they hope to sneak it by us at the forum last night and hope nobody would notice?
This muddle overshadowed more serious messages coming from the assembled head honchos, the main one being that we are absolutely skint and just getting to the end of the season solvent would better remaining in League One as an achievement. There was much mitigation of the glut of off-field appointments in this regard and, I guess, the publication of the accounts in the coming months will show us where some of the money from previous player deals has gone.
The board itself is in a worrying state of transition, with interim chairman Andy Kelly himself taken ill at present. Andy has been good enough to speak to me candidly about the club in recent months and I wish him a speedy recovery.
Rochdale, as a club, will face its biggest test in decades, come the summer. Kelly, at 77 years old, has no interest in taking on the high-pressure role permanently. Indeed, it is only his unflappable love of the club that saw him accept the role on even an interim basis and I do hope this hasn’t contributed to his current illness.
We will not only be looking for a new chairman but new board members to boot. Our latest US recruits, Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli, performed an unceremonious U-turn just days after accepting board positions. Absolutely no clarity was shed on this at the forum last night, leaving supporters to speculate. The two are now significant shareholders and they may yet return if the boardroom looks to achieve a more stable footing in the near future. Yet, even at that, we are faced with people not previously connected to the town or club coming on to the board. It’s not something we are used to at Dale and it always bears closer scrutiny.
As it stands, we only have four voting board members – and all of them must be weary. This season has clearly hit the club coffers like no other. The board knows investment is needed and that new blood is required to bring it in. Perhaps an open call to the townsfolk would be a sensible measure here, before looking too far over the horizon? I do not believe for one second any of them want to leave this club in a ruin. I genuinely believe that. Maybe it’s time to enlist the help of those who have already shown experience of being in a Rochdale AFC boardroom? These are dire times and old grudges can be put aside for the future of our club, surely?
And then there is the first-team manager. BBM clearly has the boardroom’s support. CEO David Bottomley’s emotional backing of him last night represents that. It is now up to supporters whether or not they buy into it. BBM is determined that we still have what it takes in the remaining 12 fixtures to get out of this mess and remain in League One – but a League Two campaign next season looks likely.
“I know Keith Hill won’t be here forever, just as he wasn’t the last time, but we’re wiser now. I’ve already identified one person at this club who would make a fantastic manager. He has every attribute that Keith has.”
Those were the words of former Rochdale AFC chairman Chris Dunphy when I interviewed him for my first book back in 2015.
While he asked me not to share the name of the individual concerned at the time, it is now no secret that Dunphy was talking about Brian Barry-Murphy. I was aware BBM was still at the club, of course, but my memories of him at that point were his ship-steadying appearances as a holding midfielder in the first team and reports that he was used in bounce games as a guiding hand for the youth players. I had no idea he had blossomed into a highly regarded coach in the interim. But, as we sat, Dunphy eulogised about his ability, as did then manager Keith Hill, and I left that interview with renewed optimism that, when Hill eventually did leave the club, there was somebody equally prodigious ready to climb into the cockpit.
Just four years later, something had turned rotten in the state of Denmark. Dunphy had not only stepped down as chairman but he had also left the board completely – and not in a manner that felt at all natural. On the field, Hill had evidently lost his mojo and a Rochdale team that had been punching well above its weight in League One had become one that had battled relegation for two successive seasons. It’s testimony to what Hill actually achieved over a decade that the support expected more from our small Lancashire club.
While it was sad that the time of the greatest ever manager to tread the halls of Spotland had come to a less-than-glamourous end, I was quietly optimistic when BBM was announced as ready to take over, albeit initially on a caretaker basis, because of that chat back in 2015. The fact that Dunphy was no longer around, and that the current board still seemed sold on the Irishman, spoke volumes to me.
And so it proved.
BBM had 11 games to keep Rochdale in League One. The bounce was instantaneous. Gone was the ponderous football that had cost Hill his job and instead a steely resolve was evident – a must-not-lose-at-all-costs mentality that saw the side eek out four vital 1-0 victories, among other notable results, on the road to safety.
Installed as permanent manager, BBM outlined his vision for the future. There was an acceptance that the style of football needed to keep Rochdale in League One in those final 11 games was not his preferred modus operandi. Instead he would want to play a possession-based, passing game that should be both pleasing on the eye and allow our youth academy graduates to develop into saleable assets to teams higher up the football pyramid. This business model is not a new one. It was definitely the way Chris Dunphy wanted the club to operate during his time as chairman, albeit the execution may have been different. I’ll not dwell on this too much here, however, as there is an excellent article exploring this more fully on RochdaleAFC.com.
With BBM’s permanent appointment, the atmosphere around the club felt good, too. I’m going to be a bit lazy here and repeat something I’ve written elsewhere, but the reason for this is that I still believe it is true and I cannot say it better again. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I know BBM is a thoroughly decent human being. How? People I have spoken to – inside and outside of football – do not have a bad word to say about him. Trust me when I say the inner circles of football can be truly treacherous places, where jealousy is rife and people can have more faces than a 20-sided die. For someone to come through this unblemished is unusual.
His good character was also evident in the way he engaged with the supporters. Until the turn of the year, his communication was embracing and we were seen as part of the machine, whereas previous managers had viewed us as an irritant ranging from a tiny flea bite to a full-blown rash.
It’s easy, too, to see why Brian appealed to the top brass of Rochdale AFC. Whereas previous managers may have sought to undermine and embarrass employees and volunteers at the club for not being ‘football people’, I understand Brian listens to the opinion of everyone – from the boardroom right down to the kit room.
But it wasn’t all just down to the fact that he is a nice guy. The way he talked about developing players made his coaching prowess evident. It’s been an education listening to him via the various platforms on which he has appeared. He also has an eye for a player, too. No one can argue with the ability of the majority of the players he has brought to Rochdale.
No game better exemplifies BBM’s preferred style of play as the oft-cited away trip to Southend United in August 2019. Yes, the hosts had lost all of their opening league fixtures and would eventually be relegated, but the old adage ‘you can only play what’s in front of you’ rings true here. BBM’s Dale put on a masterclass of Champagne football, of which one of the goals in the 3-0 victory became a viral social-media clip drawing comparison with Barcelona or Brazil.
Then there are the cup games against Premier League opposition. A magnificent home game against Newcastle United, which earned a replay, and a phenomenal display against Manchester United at Old Trafford, which ended only after defeat on penalties.
The issue is, however, to use those above examples again, that they were performances in isolation. The brand of football just hasn’t been consistent enough to ensure long-term success. And let me clarify what I mean by success, as a level-headed Rochdale supporter. Success for me means comfortable safety in League One, coupled with signs of progression, in the hope that the side could once again get somewhere near the realms Keith Hill had achieved in his pomp. Championship football would be the Holy Grail, of course, but I would be happy with players pulling their tripe out every week and a feeling that remaining in League One was paramount above all else.
And while I don’t put as much stock in entertainment as a great many other fellow supporters, I can appreciate the value of football as a spectacle for the paying fan. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather see us win a game by footballing sides to death as opposed to achieving victories via a John Beck grow-the-grass-long-in-the-corners-and-punt-the-ball-up-there approach, but winning is the key currency in football and I’ll always pick the style that wins a game in any given situation, thank you very much.
This, for me, is where BBM has come unstuck this season. While we achieved safety on a points-per-game basis last season, after the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world and ended football for months, what turned out to be our final game that season was a resounding and convincing win over the eventually promoted Rotherham United. Again, there was cause for optimism.
But here we are, one season later, rock bottom of League One. The possession-based, passing football just hasn’t worked and there has been no sign of a reversion to the attitude, desire or system of those first 11 games BBM was given back in 2019. Worse, there has been a consistent repetition of mistakes game after game, which has put the side on the back foot very early. Is this down to a stubbornness? It must be, because there is no way BBM, who knows more about football than I ever will, cannot see what we all see. Yes, we were badged as the entertainers of League One for a brief period – mainly because of goals at both ends – but, again, that period only yielded 10 points from 11 games. The stats speak for themselves. One home win in the whole of the 2020/2021 season, one win home or away since December 15, and now seven games without even scoring a single goal. Those are damning figures and they are very hard to defend.
In fact, had supporters been allowed into Spotland this season, I feel the pressure on BBM would have come to bear much sooner than it has. Even the purists, who bought into the style of play fully, are starting to feel let down. The spectacle, via iFollow, just isn’t entertaining to watch anymore. Lots of passing around the defence which, either leads to a mistake due to the opposition easily pressing us, or a misplaced pass towards an isolated attack. On the occasions the ball does make it into the final third, there seems to be a frustrating lack of urgency to get it any further. You can almost hear the stadium itself groan on behalf of the absent supporters.
That summary is one-sided, of course. There are always mitigating factors. Always. This summer we lost Ian Henderson, who had become almost as talismanic to the club as Keith Hill. Henderson’s goals had been vital in getting Rochdale to, and keeping them in, League One. The club offered him a new deal but he declined to take it, instead moving to League Two Salford City. Following him out of the door was Callum Camps, who found the offer of Fleetwood Town preferable to remaining at Rochdale. Of the two, Henderson was the significant loss, as Camps, superb player that he is, was rarely used to maximum effect in his time at Dale. Then there was the return to his parent club of goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. The fact he has cracked Brighton’s first team this season shows what a talent, and loss, he is. Both full-backs also departed – the incredible Rhys Norrington-Davies back to Sheffield United, and our own Luke Matheson to Wolves.
Those kind of holes in a squad would give any manager nightmares with a new season to prepare for – and, given it was to be a season like no other thanks to the pandemic, it really didn’t make ideal foundations for BBM’s groundwork.
But then this is where the Rochdale board surprised me. The chairman at the time, Andrew Kilpatrick, had put out a stark message as the eve of the season approached, which equated to a poverty plea. “We’re skint, ladies and gentleman” was the takeaway message. This was reiterated by the remaining board members at last night’s forum. And yet, BBM was given funds to assemble the players he wanted, identified in the main using the SmarterScout software, with fees even paid for a couple of them.
The early evidence I saw on the pitch told me that these players were more than good enough to survive in League One. Slow start aside, we certainly didn’t look like the relegation fodder the bookies had us down as.
Again, in immediate defence of BBM, he then had to endure a rough hand of luck when it came to injuries. His two main strikers have barely spent any time on the pitch together (and have looked good when they have), and his defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room, making consistent selection difficult. But it is up to a manager to deal with injuries as best he can, especially at a club like Rochdale, where small squads are de rigueur.
I actually called for BBM to get some kind of help back in December. The advert for a sporting director has come too late, however. BBM needed support prior to January, so we could hit the run of ‘winnable’ games at full tilt, with all key positions recruited for during the transfer window. That moment has sadly passed. Clubs around about us did what was necessary and are now reaping the rewards. I would hate to think that BBM has become a scapegoat for boardroom indecisiveness.
But then how much is BBM trying to adhere to some abstract club philosophy and how much of it was his own vision? At what stage do you put the league status of the club ahead of player development? At what stage do you abort the experiment as a Frankenstein’s Monster?
Make no mistake, we are deep in the brown stuff. It could well be unsalvageable. The wilderness of League Two is not an easily traversable one for the likes of Rochdale. There are no guarantees of a swift return – in fact, there are no guarantees that we won’t plummet further. Many a club bigger than ours has become tangled in the weeds down there.
This season has been incredibly difficult for me personally, too. My intention has only ever been to bring factual, up-to-date news to Rochdale AFC supporters, with my own insight as an addition. I have aimed to do this professionally, ensuring the veracity of any transfer news before posting and backing up any opinions I may have formed in my blog posts by outlining both sides of any argument and using stats. It has never been my intention to upset anyone at the club. If anything, I had hoped what I did would bring the club and supporters closer together.
It was to be a year-long experiment, the reasons for starting which I have outlined previously. It was to be done in my spare time, as a free service to ALL supporters in the absence of any recognised local media coverage. It was to deliver news of signings just hours before they were announced by the club, to create a buzz, but so as not to ever jeopardise a deal; the refuting of rumours circulating on ridiculous and faceless social-media accounts, or even sometimes in the mainstream media; and insights from myself on how I see things at the club and on the pitch. If the latter ever required me to hold the club to account, in a fair way, so be it.
It’s no secret that I am a supporter of the club myself and a qualified journalist. Therein now lies a conflict. It has become apparent that the support has become divisive – both with itself and with the club – and the word toxicity has been used in various places to describe the current atmosphere.
While I would vigorously defend my posts as being in the interests of the supporters, can I still say what I am doing is in the best interests of the club also? That is the conflict I feel. My ultimate aim is for the club to thrive and survive. I put that before anything else.
I don’t want to be seen as being on one side of any divide. This project of mine was to serve ALL supporters, whatever their opinions. I feel that is not now how what I do is being perceived and, if I am being honest, it has hurt me more than I’ve probably been able to admit before now. I’ve had sleepless nights over this stuff. Spent waking hours worried about it too.
I have no agenda or personal vendetta other than to see the club do well and remain a part of the community for as many years are left to come. I don’t need to “sell papers” or get clicks to appease advertisers. I do what I do because I’m a supporter and I have enjoyed it. Until recently. I have tried to provide the info to supporters that I would want to know myself. I keep saying that football should be fun. In addition to this, it’s also easy when talking about football to forget that essentially the commodity at the root of it all is human beings. People’s livelihoods and dreams. I do not condone personal attacks on any player or member of staff at RAFC. I never have and I never will. That isn’t my definition of fun.
Even before this season, I’ve written about and commented on Dale for years in a fair and considerate way, with my heart on my sleeve, wanting only the very best for the club. That’s still the case. I am here to protect, yes, but to help also.
Up the Dale.