Fitz for Purpose

The sun sets on seven-year relationship with League One

In AD 64, the great city of Rome burned while the Emperor Nero sat in his quarters and played the fiddle.

Okay, so historians have since pointed out that the fiddle would not be invented for another millennium and Nero was actually out of town that night, but, while the legend may not have stood the test of time, the analogy has.

As the 2020/21 season comes to an end for Rochdale AFC, I am minded of the story of Nero. The damage will not be done tomorrow, in our final game, nor was it done last weekend when relegation was confirmed. No, the fire has raged over the course of an entire season.

I am left with a pervasive feeling that the powers-that-be could have done more to prevent the club’s seven-season stay in League One coming to an end. If they did indeed focus on other issues as ‘Rome burned’, I don’t think they did so out of self-interest. I still genuinely believe that the board – a small band of four local men – want what they believe is best for the club. But here’s the rub – it is what they believe is best. That is their right, of course. They’ve paid for their seat at the table and that’s fair enough. But while it is their right, it doesn’t always mean they are right.

My take is that there have been irrefutable mistakes. Extending first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy’s contract by a further year, and not informing the supporters, is chief among them. Never in my time following football has that happened at any professional club in this country. We, the supporters, have since been offered some form of words by way of explanation, but, despite the tokenistic purple hyacinth, we still don’t truly know what happened. We probably never will.

It’s not even the fact that Barry-Murphy was overseeing our worst home record in the club’s entire history at the time, or cup exits to lower-league opposition. It is the fact that a decision was taken by a person or persons unknown and then kept secret from the external world. For three months!

The way the news was eventually revealed to supporters had the air of a Monty Python sketch about it – except it wasn’t supposed to be funny. I fear the board members involved will be eternally haunted by the memes and recollections of one of the most memorable fans’ forums in living memory.

Perhaps the biggest chain reaction of the season occurred in February, however. Our chairman of some three years, Andrew Kilpatrick, stepped down out of the blue, citing personal reasons. He remains the club’s major shareholder – a gift from his late father – but, like during much of his chairmanship, remains very much in the shadows, leaving others to carry the burden.

This prompted director Andrew Kelly to step up on an interim basis. A long-serving board member in various stints, Kelly was even part of the club’s youth set up as a player many moons ago. Now, at 78 years old, it is only his unflappable love of the club that led to him answering the call in a time of great need. God knows, he didn’t need the added stress. I still believe it is no coincidence that he was taken ill a short time later. Upon recovering and taking the hotseat once again, he reiterated his desire to find a suitable permanent replacement, so that he might step down and take life easy.  He cannot alone bear the brunt of responsibility for what has happened this season, given the limited time he has sat in the top chair. To use the Roman analogy again, you have to imagine the boardroom is analogous to a senate, where a consensus is found but not necessarily to the entire satisfaction of all within. A numerically small board concentrates power – and that’s not always a good thing.

Despite the tokenistic purple hyacinth, we still don’t truly know what happened. We probably never will.

More starkly delivered than the news of the manager’s contract extension, was the revelation that the pandemic has hit the club hard from a financial point of view. No punches were pulled here. I have complete sympathy. The club is a business forced to operate at full cost with no paying customers. Our cash reserves built on years of selling players with lucrative clauses have been, we are told, unavoidably battered.

This led to former chairman Chris Dunphy declaring his interest in returning to the role in a bid to help the club he loves. His claims were bullish and gave hope, but they were also perceived as antagonistic to serving board members. The turkeys refused to vote for Christmas and the required support Dunphy needed from key shareholders waned. This is a shame. While Dunphy might not have brought millions to the table, his leadership and experience would certainly have been invaluable in these uncertain times.

Then there is the duo to which Chris Dunphy effectively sold his power – Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli. The US pair, who I revealed last summer had purchased Dunphy’s shareholding (as well as that of Bill Goodwin and Paul Hazlehurst), had accepted an invitation to join the board upon Kilpatrick stepping down, only to then perform an unceremonious U-turn. Their subsequent statement was as damning as it was alarming, claiming their decision had been based upon “serious internal issues” at the club and their dissatisfaction at the club’s handling of those concerns.

Chris Dunphy was prepared to return to the club as chairman.

This prompted the Supporters’ Trust to canvass support of shareholders and call for an EGM. Instead, the club announced a cavalcade of AGMs for June 1. The 2020 AGM, the 2021 AGM and the previously adjourned club EGM that was originally called in early 2020. This will be followed by the EGM called by the Trust. With me so far? Good, because my head is spinning. If you like your general meetings, June 1 is the date for you.

The board of directors have now also made public that they are working to secure outside investment for Rochdale AFC and, as a result, have met with several “serious investors” over the past few months.

They say they have reached a key stage with a number of “highly interested parties”, including a group of investors who attended Rochdale’s home game against Swindon Town last month. The club confirmed Nik and Eva Speakman, the TV life coaches who reside in Littleborough, were at that game, although it is unclear whether or not this was in the capacity of potential investors.

I understand one particular party stands out from the others, however, and shareholders can expect to hear more at the AGM. Either way, we are at a major fork in the road in the club’s history. There are only two ways this can go and this is when supporters need to wield the power they have – legally and with civility, of course. You only need to glance down the road to see what can potentially happen if trust is betrayed. Don’t get me wrong, change is very often good. It is certainly needed at Rochdale AFC right now, as the status quo is not an option, but questions must be asked, scrutiny applied and two-way communication enforced. Don’t forget, when we talk of unconditional support – this is it. We collectively put money into the club rather than take it out and we challenge for the greater good – no matter how uncomfortable it may be for us in the short term. We are not in this for personal gain. It is very much a labour of love and a collective responsibility to safeguard the future. Like a church is not a building but the people within, so too is a football club.

And then there is the product on the pitch – the marketable product, if you like. I’ll just get this out of the way now. It hasn’t been good enough – pandemic or no pandemic, supporters or no supporters. Overall, for all the plaudits we are told we have received from directors at other football clubs, it has been poor. Yes, there have been flashes of brilliance, a peek into what this squad could have been truly capable of if handled correctly, but, in the end, form simply reverted to type. I don’t blame the players for this. I can think of very few games where a lack of effort has frustrated me. In the main, it has been down to how the team has been set up, the direction of play within a game and a frustrating failure to adapt over a number of games.

I do not for one second buy into pre-season bookie predictions of impending doom. We have defied those odds fairly steadily since 2008. The ability of the players on the whole is not in question either. The vast majority of our current squad is good enough to play in League One. Nor do I subscribe to the finances defence. Despite a budget to reflect the pandemic, Barry-Murphy has been given funds to get every player he has wanted this season – and that included paying fees for two very good strikers. Much has been made about missing out on a left-back and not having a plan B, but the excellent Jimmy Keohane, and, to a lesser extent, Matt Done, have mitigated that area of weakness. Injuries, we’ve had a few, as Frank Sinatra might have sung, but so has every other club in the land. While I do allow for some extenuation here, it’s a particular prerequisite of a Rochdale manager to manage a small squad. That’s just the way it is.

Matt Done has filled in at left-back and up front this season.

For me, the dismay stems from the relentless persistence with a tactic or formation, which was so obviously failing, for clusters of games. We seemed to take the attitude of, “well, it will come good eventually”, as opposed to making the best use of who we had available for who we were facing.

The resounding wins at Plymouth and Wigan actually served to impede progress as we stuck to 4-4-2 and, all of a sudden, insisted Matt Lund was a forward, rather than a player who could arrive late to great effect. It wasn’t so much that one formation was better than another, more that we needed to adapt week-on-week and, crucially, mid-match, to gain points.

We didn’t, so we slipped inexorably into the bottom four, despite it being quite preventable. With a simplistic approach to set up in the best way, with whoever we had available, and by sticking to getting the ball through midfield into the opposition half quickly, I believe we’d have steered clear of trouble in a similar manner to Shrewsbury or Burton. It didn’t even need to be that big of a concern.

These flaws can probably be best summed up by AFC Wimbledon’s third goal at their place on April 27 – a last-ditch equaliser in a key game which cost us two vital points and all but confirmed our relegation.

It illustrated three things: poor use of substitutes, tactical inflexibility within a game (or over a period of games) and a lack of defensive structure.

I know tactical breakdowns are not everybody’s cup of tea – and I don’t usually indulge in them – but this is an important illustration of the above theme. The picture below shows the ball in mid-air en route to the third goal. Wimbledon’s No. 7, Cheye Alexander, has crossed it. Our left wing-back is too high, leading to one central defender being too far left.

The midfield three are all on top of each other and the back line is disjointed. If we had gone 5-4-1 for the last five minutes, and the left wing-back stays back, all three central defenders are in the middle. This means the midfield is stretched across the pitch, which prevents their No. 7 crossing it. If we had gone 5-4-1, the crosses in this image show where our players should have been.

We would be five-10 yards higher up, with a wide player in midfield preventing the cross and all defenders in a line rather than resembling a fragmented jigsaw like they are. This has been a systemic failing in many of our games this season. It leads to last-minute goals, which in turn undoes any previous good work in a match and leads to accusations of players bottling it – which just isn’t true or fair. I think this will be the legacy of this season, as much as it saddens me to say. We lost eight points from goals conceded in injury time alone.

Let’s put this under the microscope. Seventeen home league games without a win is a club record and not a desirable one. Add to that the Salford and Stockport cup games and it was 19 home games without a win. That beats the previous record of 16 from November 1931 to September 1932.

We also have the ignominy of achieving our joint-second lowest number of home league wins in an entire season and the lowest number of home points in a completed season under three points for a win – 21 points. In fact, this season, we have won the least amount of home games of any team in the EFL.

I am pointing all of this out because somebody who hasn’t witnessed every single one of our games this season is inevitably going to ask what the rumpus is all about. Well, there it is.

The manager himself, after relegation was confirmed last week against Doncaster, admitted, in so many words, that he thought things would eventually come good this season. It sounded more like in hope than in expectation. Barry-Murphy will go into next season no longer carrying the tag of an inexperienced manager. He needs to take the battle scars he has accrued and put them to good use. We simply cannot afford a similar fate this time next year. It’s frustrating, because his player recruitment, in the main, is sound. If he could just marry that with a game-to-game approach, we may just have something to cheer again.

Barry-Murphy will go into next season no longer carrying the tag of an inexperienced manager.

But while the external recruitment is something to be largely lauded, recruitment from within doesn’t seem to be a priority. The one ray of light that has penetrated this season has had the blinds pulled down upon it. Our Academy side won the EFL Youth Alliance Cup and narrowly missed out on the league title, yet we learn the entire tranche of second-year scholars is to be been released. The fact a number of these players have already secured trials with clubs higher up the football food chain makes this all the more eyebrow raising. Are none of these boys really deemed not good enough to progress at RAFC, or is this a financial decision? Are there internecine politics at play here? A schism between the Academy and first team management? I’m not suggesting it’s one thing or another, by the way, but without a statement from the club, these are the questions supporters are left asking. God help us if first years such as Peter Thomas don’t get a deal, that’s all I can say.

Anyway, it is what it is. Providing we can navigate the summer off the field, we face a League Two campaign on it. What can we expect? There will still be local derbies to be had, a chance to visit grounds for the first time in nearly a decade and some for the first time ever.

How we will fare is more difficult to assess. Of the current squad, we face losing a great many. Those who are out of contract may fancy more lucrative offers elsewhere and, of those under contract, well, the vultures are already circling the carcass of relegation. It looks as if a complete rebuild job is on the cards and the success of that will depend, to some extent, on how much budget is put forward. I say ‘to some extent’ because it’s not the be all and end all. Team spirit and sound management can carry you to great heights at this level, as Keith Hill proved with us once upon a time, and Derek Adams has with Morecambe during this season.

Come rain or shine, we will be behind whoever takes to the field wearing the colours of RAFC. But my overriding plea to those in charge is this. Never have I felt so disconnected from the club I have supported since I was a boy (and that’s, sadly, a long time ago now). I’m not alone in this. That has taken some doing. You need to start listening to supporters and, not only that, communicating with them with honesty. I mean, you wouldn’t even know we’d been relegated from the club’s official channels alone. There is no place for abuse and there never will be, but those who convey their dissatisfaction in a fair way, should be heard. We used to be a team – supporters, those in the boardroom, those working at the club and those on the pitch. Team Rochdale. A family. We are so far away from that right now, it hurts. There are deep wounds that need to be healed and that process can only begin when you acknowledge this fact and act accordingly. Not simply with words, but with actions too. Being back in League Two we are, essentially, back to square one. Let’s take that opportunity to build something together again – supporters and club as one – so that we may dream again of one day competing at the best level we possibly can.

See you at Harrogate. Hopefully.