A bolt from the blues

Brian Barry-Murphy left his post as first-team manager.

There was a strange feeling of shock when it was announced that Rochdale AFC manager Brian Barry-Murphy had left the post last night.

The shock being that, while such a thing may have been expected months ago due to the team’s form, the vast majority of supporters and the newly formed board of directors were now very much accepting of him leading the team in League Two this coming campaign.

Despite enduring a relegation campaign last season, the late rally of the side gave cause for some optimism. There was a feeling that Barry-Murphy would go into this season no longer carrying the tag of an inexperienced manager, with his newly acquired UEFA Pro Licence, and put the battle scars he accrued last time out to good use.

Any internal issues of the old regime that hampered the manager last season, the new directors had promised to remove, so that he may flourish to the best of his ability. A clean slate.

In addition, several of the players we expected to lose this summer signed new deals, citing Barry-Murphy as a key reason for doing so.

He himself had a new deal until the summer of 2022.

So yes, it was a shock when his representative contacted the club and asked for him to be released.

If the media speculation around him now going on to head up Manchester City’s U-23 set-up is correct, then good luck to him. That is a job I believe he would flourish in. He recently gave a radio interview where he admitted his greatest joy in football is derived from developing players. He will certainly get that fulfilment at the elite end of the game.

So, it now only remains to look back wistfully at Barry-Murphy’s time as manager with Rochdale AFC.

My memories of him as a player 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.

Given the high praise given to Barry-Murphy, I was optimistic when he stepped into the shoes of Rochdale AFC’s greatest ever manager, albeit initially on a caretaker basis.

He had 11 games to keep Rochdale in League One. The bounce was instantaneous. Gone was the ponderous football that had cost Keith 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, Barry-Murphy 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 former chairman Chris Dunphy wanted the club to operate during his time, albeit the execution may have been different.

With Barry-Murphy’s permanent appointment, the atmosphere around the club felt good, too. His good character was evident in the way he engaged with the supporters. 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.

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.

No game better exemplifies Barry-Murphy’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. Barry-Murphy’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 wasn’t consistent enough to ensure long-term success or even safety.

This, for me, is where Barry-Murphy came unstuck last season. While we achieved safety on a points-per-game basis in 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world and ended football for months, the approach proved unsustainable over a full campaign and we paid with our place in League One second time round.

There are always mitigating factors. Always. Last summer we lost Ian Henderson, for example, 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 cracked Brighton’s first team last 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 Barry-Murphy’s groundwork.

Yet the early evidence I saw on the pitch told me that the players he had assembled 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 Barry-Murphy, he then had to endure a rough hand of luck when it came to injuries. His two main strikers barely spent any time on the pitch together (and looked good when they did), and his defence and midfield 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.

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.

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, last season, we won the least amount of home games of any team in the EFL.

It’s unfortunate that this will now be the legacy Barry-Murphy leaves behind. There were no guarantees he would have cracked League Two, of course not, but he had a chance to try if he wanted it.

We are now into pre-season, managerless and a good few players short of a competitive squad. The newly formed board of directors face one of the most important decisions they are likely to in their tenure – who to appoint next? I don’t envy them one bit.