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.

A window of opportunity

Have Rochdale AFC done enough this January to ensure League One survival?

Kwadwo Baah agreed a pre-contract deal with Manchester City.

Last weekend, Rochdale AFC achieved something that has proven to be a rare commodity this season – three valuable league points.

It wasn’t attained during a high-scoring thriller either, as has been the trend in games involving Rochdale since the turn of the year, nor was it achieved by completely dominating weaker opposition. It was achieved, in fact, through the demonstration of gritty resilience.

The 2-1 win against Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Ground – Dale’s first victory in the league since December 15 – was vital, also, because the opposition is very much a direct rival in the battle to stay in League One.

But, while the win was extremely welcome, it did not disguise the fact that some issues were still in desperate need of being rectified in terms of squad depth. In fact, Rovers were very much the better side in the second half, Dale’s winner coming against the run of play.

In my last article, I laid out where I felt Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy (BBM) needed to address the first-team squad in order to help arrest the wealth of goals being conceded and thus give the club the best chance of pulling clear of the relegation zone around which it has been precariously hovering. As well as being makeshift on the pitch, our bench has also resembled a sparsely populated kindergarten. Not ideal.

At the time of writing that article, we had too many question marks or passengers in the squad. I identified that, while both Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are superb players, they are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. They have since continued to demonstrate both of those aspects. The issue was further exacerbated by a six-week injury to Eoghan O’Connell and the suspension of Jim McNulty following a ridiculous sending off for kicking out at an opponent. This left poor Haydon Roberts, young and on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, as the only fit and obvious centre half.

BBM clearly made rectifying this situation a priority in the January transfer window. Firstly, he managed to secure the loan signing of Luton Town’s Gabriel Osho for the remainder of the season. Osho had just returned from a brief spell on loan at Yeovil Town in National League and his manager, Nathan Jones, was keen to send him out again to get him games, albeit at a higher level. It’s fair to say that he has looked imperious. His no-nonsense, body-on-the-line display at Bristol Rovers was instrumental in Dale securing that first league win since mid-December. He is the type of player Rochdale have been screaming out for.

Conor Shaughnessy was BBM’s other target in this area and one he had to play a bit more of a waiting game with. The versatile Leeds United player had been told he was free to find another club and he wasn’t short of suitors. The Rochdale hierarchy did a good job of selling Dale to the 24-year-old by all accounts, and so he plumped for an 18-month deal at the Crown Oil Arena over moving elsewhere.

Shaughnessy certainly seems more of a typical BBM player than Osho. A silky ball player rather than an enforcer. He is a player I’m fortunate enough to have prior knowledge of too, having seen him play for Heart of Midlothian during a brief loan spell he had there in 2019. His versatility came to the fore at Tynecastle – being utilised in the centre of defence, at left back and even as a midfield anchor – during his 11-game spell. And, while a contact of mine who covers Hearts remarked: “For me, he lacked the necessary aggression to play in the Scottish top flight”, I certainly believe he possesses the technical prowess to thrive in League One. He was given a bounce game at Carlisle on Tuesday to get used Dale’s system, playing in front of the defence, before he is likely thrust into the first team proper against Charlton tomorrow. His versatility will help BBM counter injuries and suspensions in a number of defensive positions.

One area of the defence BBM failed to rectify during January, however, was the left back position – but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Tolaji Bola, brought in on loan from Arsenal at the beginning of the season, had not proved to be a success in the role and, as a result, BBM did not seek to extend this spell. BBM instead identified Blackpool’s Demetri Mitchell as a replacement and had hoped to land the former Man United player on loan from the Seasiders after he had fallen down the pecking order with Luke Garbutt and James Husband also on their books. Despite a pursuit that went deep into deadline day itself, it proved a fruitless chase – Blackpool just didn’t want to let him leave.

Eoghan O’Connell suffered a six-week injury.

With the transfer window closed, the only option now open to BBM before July is the free-agent market. Working with his head of recruitment Callum Jones, left-back targets were quickly identified and one has already been given a trial in the previously mentioned bounce game a Carlisle. Until this position is filled, however, the club must continue to make do with the unsatisfactory utilisation of either Matt Done or Jimmy Keohane.

The midfield overall had also been suffering a similar issue to that of the defence in that there is not so much a dearth of quality but of availability and depth. Jimmy Ryan is probably chief culprit here, through no fault of his own, I’m sure. BBM moved quickly to create an extra option by taking advantage of the availability of Sheffield Wednesday’s Conor Grant on a permanent deal. My knowledge of Grant prior to being tipped off about his journey across the Pennines was nil. However, BBM has since publicly spoken very highly of the Republic of Ireland Under-19 international midfielder, and a contact of mine described him thus: “He’s very good at set pieces, long-range efforts, through balls and arriving late in the box.” It remains to be seen if he will play any part in the game against Charlton tomorrow, but he looks a promising prospect.

The one area of Dale’s system that currently deserves more reward than the club’s current league position is attack. Stevie Humphrys has proven a quality acquisition and I say with confidence that I regard him as one of the best strikers in League One. With he and Jake Beesley on the pitch together, they have caused some real damage to opposition teams and are part of an attacking force that has seen Dale bang in 28 goals since December alone. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, ably assisted by 18-year-old Kwadwo Baah and midfield hitman Matt Lund.

However, with Beesley twice now succumbing to on-field misfortune on the injury front, BBM sought to bring in an addition here, too. Young Blackburn Rovers striker Jack Vale. This was pulled out of the hat late on deadline day – in fact BBM had to wait for Vale to finish an U23 match (in which he scored) before the deal could be concluded. Again, like Grant, this is a signing who lacks first-team experience but brings promise and provides options.

In order for the board to back BBM the way they did this window, as they did in the summer, current players had to be moved on – either to free up wages, generate a fee or, ideally, both. While this did indeed happen, it transpired that the two players departing were not those that were perhaps expected.

Fabio Tavares was the biggest surprise here. After failing to agree a new contract with Dale, he was sold to Coventry City on transfer deadline day. I think it’s fair to say that Tavares had been no more than a peripheral player in BBM’s plans (crucial winner against Fleetwood notwithstanding), so to achieve a fee for him has to go down as a tremendous result.

The other player to leave (who actually hasn’t left!) is Kwadwo Baah. The rapid, tricky, athletic teenager, who only signed his first pro contract in 2019, has had a visible impact this season – troubling tiring defenders, firing in absolute rockets and landing himself December’s Goal of the Month award into the bargain. It’s no surprise football clubs further up the pyramid started to take note.

Baah has made an impact in the Rochdale first team.

His journey to Rochdale was an unusual one too. Like so many youngsters thrust into professional football academies, it can be a case of too much too soon – and so it proved with young Baah. Released from Crystal Palace, but still keen to stay in the game, he was enrolled in the Kinetic Academy, the London-based football programme for talented young players who have lost their way.

It was here the dazzling forward was spotted by football agent Darryl La Victoire. “He just stood out a mile, y’know?” he told me. “I could tell he could easily cut it in the professional game. I took him on and started to get him trials at all the big London clubs. He could have easily gone on to sign for any of them, but then Rochdale got in touch. The manager, Brian Barry-Murphy, said to me, ‘If he comes to Rochdale, he won’t be in our under 18s, he will be with me, in the first team’. That was enough for me and Kwadwo. We knew this was the best decision for his development.”

And so it has proved. Despite much speculation, which included the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich being linked to the teenager, it was only Manchester City who submitted a concrete offer to Dale. With Baah’s contract due to expire in the summer anyway, the true riches that matched his potential were never realistically going to realised. However, rather than risk competing with other high-profile clubs for his signature in the summer, City opted to pay a fee to Rochdale to land Baah now, on a pre-contract deal. The initial bid was actually knocked back by the Dale board, who would have been due compensation regardless, but a deal was eventually struck with both club and player, which includes future sell-on clauses, and Baah will leave Rochdale for the Premier League giants in July.

The interesting thing here is that Manchester City have been very quiet about all of this, to the point that I hear there is genuine displeasure around the Etihad at the deal having been made public. As I write, the deal still hasn’t been confirmed officially by either club.

So, there we have it. Once again, the board and BBM have acquired the tools necessary, left-back aside, to ensure Rochdale AFC has the best chance of staying in the division. If the horrendous home form, which currently sits at one win in 16 games, can be turned around, there is every chance this can happen.

The first chance to do this is tomorrow against Charlton Athletic. Fingers crossed.

What now for Brian Barry-Murphy?

A turbulent run of results for the Rochdale AFC manager raises questions about the future

Let’s get one thing straight – Brian Barry-Murphy is not the Anti-Christ.

It’s easy in football, when dissecting a manager’s performance, for the lines separating their professional and personal make-up to become blurred.

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I know he’s 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 is also evident in the way he engages with the supporters. His communication is embracing and we are seen as part of the machine, whereas previous managers have viewed us as an irritant ranging from a tiny flea bite to a full blown rash.

It’s easy, too, to see why Brian appeals to the top brass of Rochdale AFC. Whereas previous managers 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.

So that’s established. Brian Barry-Murphy is a decent human being.

Sadly, this may also be a chink in his armour. It’s accepted wisdom that in football, to be a half-decent manager, you need to be, for want of a better expression, capable of being a bit of a twat. There needs to be an element of fear there. A boundary people know not to cross for trepidation of what lies on the other side. The creation of a shield that makes it impossible for people to second guess your motives.

I may be wrong, but I’m not sure Brian has it in him to be this way with his players. Before we discuss any tactical failings from the 4-1 defeat yesterday against Gillingham, I want to be clear that I am aware Brian’s players let him down. He will know it and they will know it. The question is, what will he do about it and, more importantly, will the players be bothered?

Those same football circles I mentioned above, also hold Brian’s coaching ability in very high regard. Again, not a bad word has been said. The way he talks about developing players makes that evident. It’s an education listening to him via the various platforms on which he appears. 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 so far.

Will supporters settle for Dale’s home record when they are allowed to return?

But that’s just part of being a manager. The ability to utilise a squad and set up a team that is flexible enough to adapt to in-game situations is another and, for me, that is where Brian is coming unstuck. Don’t get me wrong, his Plan A, when it works, can yield the right result, but, when it doesn’t, Rochdale have invariably faced defeat – and sometimes by big margins. There seems to be, in the main, no Plan B.

And here it is. For Plan A to work, it relies on several factors: something near a fully fit squad; weak or naïve opposition; and playing away from home, preferably on a Tuesday night.

“There seems to be, in the main, no Plan B.”

Okay, the last one is a bit of a gag, but it holds true. In fact, I’m going to say the only game I have seen this season where we have gone toe-to-toe with a decent team and come away with a win is the Fleetwood game back in October. Yes, I know we have thrashed Wigan and Plymouth since, but those teams were all at sea. Fleetwood were well-organised and strong on the day. We beat them with a direct approach from the first whistle, an unfaltering will to win and, dare I say it, a bit of nastiness. I haven’t seen that level of intensity since, to be quite honest, not even in the other victories we have ground out.

Brian the manager has potential. Other clubs can see it. In fact, I heard, via agent gossip, that he was recently on the managerial shortlist of a club that has three times the following of Rochdale. But his inexperience and tactical inflexibility meant the interest wasn’t pursued. That won’t always be the case.

Given time, Brian will learn these things through experience if nothing else. Sadly, Rochdale AFC doesn’t have time. The pandemic has seen to that. Our cash reserves have been well and truly eaten into and remaining in League One, once supporters can return en masse, is paramount. The board know this and the savvy among the supporters do, too.

Matty Done: time for him to move on?

We can talk about inexperience all day, and I know it’s not the be all and end all. It hasn’t hampered other managers – you only have to cast your mind back to 2006 and the start Keith Hill made to his managerial career to illustrate that. But Hill is an exception and he was doing the business at a level below Brian is being asked to, albeit with arguably more at stake initially.

Hill also had a similarly seasoned head in the dug-out next to him in Dave Flitcroft. While both were new to management, both had trod the same turf as professionals and knew the nuances of the game from that perspective.

Brian has Lee Riley, a well-respected coach, but one who has never played the game professionally.

Before I get ton of abuse for pointing that out, I want to clarify: I am fully aware that you don’t need to have played the game professionally to achieve greatness as a coach or manager. It was quite rightly highlighted to me on social media that Ariggo Sacchi, who has won two European Cups as a manager, was quoted as saying ‘to be a jockey one does not have to have been a horse’ . True indeed. Although let’s not forget that the Italian philosophy of football management is entirely different. Anyway, this piece is not about the evolution of Italian management, for that I recommend you get hold of Michael Cox’s excellent Zonal Marking.

I make the point of Lee’s lack of professional playing career not to criticise, but only to illustrate that, with he and Brian, Rochdale have a very inexperienced dug-out. I know Lee is a well-respected coach, and has been for a number of years, but he has been thrust from that into the world of management and is having to learn as he goes without a pro playing career to call on for reference – all in one of the harshest divisions in the EFL in terms of disparity.

The Rochdale board knew this when charging the pair with taking the club forward – and have backed them too, especially this season. Brian, using Dan Altman’s SmarterScout software as an aid, identified the players he wanted and the money was made available: More than £100k on two strikers, three Premier League loanees, free agents and Alex Newby. With the club being strapped for cash, or at least claiming to be so, I think it’s fair to say that this backing is significant and should be sufficient for the objective of staying in the division.

And here is the rub. Without looking any deeper, you could argue that that objective is currently on course to be met. We are not occupying any of the four relegation spots on offer, albeit by the grace of two points.

So what’s the problem?

There is a feeling of regression. Every time we manage to obtain three valuable points, we seem to revert to type and throw all points on offer away the following game or two. Most recently, and most worryingly, these defeats have been by considerable margins, sparked by an evident head drop after conceding the first goal. So, unless we score first, we’re done for.

Unchecked, this could become an unsalvageable trend.

Even more concerning is that our current home record boasts just one solitary win in 13 games. I cannot think of a previous Rochdale manager, other than perhaps Walter Joyce, who may have overseen such a spell. When supporters are allowed to return to the Crown Oil Arena, this will not be tolerated and an already dwindling fan base will get smaller. This is something we can ill afford.

Again, in immediate defence of Brian, he has had to endure a rough hand of luck when it comes to injuries. His two new strikers have barely spent any time on the pitch together (and have looked good when they have), his Premier League goalkeeper has been out for weeks and his defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room.

But it has long been the millstone of any man brave enough to take on the Rochdale manager’s job to handle a small squad. It’s part of the deal, sadly (unless you are Keith Hill in the final years of your tenure).

“His defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room.”

The Rochdale board, desperate to keep the club in League One and with the January window approaching, have three options: stick, twist or buy another card. For me, it’s the third option. Bring in an experienced head to support the management team, but also to provide a holistic view of the club’s entire football operation – from the Academy up. It was pointed out to me when I suggested this on social media that any such move would make Brian feel threatened and he would walk away. It may do, or he may embrace it, who knows? I know the last time the club mooted something like this, back in 2003, the manager of the time, Paul Simpson, flipped the directors the bird. But things have to change. We cannot continue to view things through Dale-tinted spectacles in the hope that it will be alright on the final day. I fear it won’t be. A move such as this is preferable to replacing Brian completely, in my opinion, and gives us the best chance of staying up that I don’t believe Brian alone will ultimately achieve.

So what needs to be done?

With support, Brian has to address our horrific home form as an absolute priority. Everything else flows from that. He then needs to look at how his philosophy can become more flexible – how do we deal with an opposition that presses us and, likewise, how do we put a team to the sword who lets us have lots of the ball. Make no mistake, opposition teams playing either of those styles against us do so because they know how to exploit us. I hate it when you hear a commentator say: “They’ve clearly done their homework”, when referring to the opposition. Of course they have. That’s basic preparation in modern football and we are very easy subjects at the minute.

Secondly, Brian needs to evaluate the current squad in January. We have too many question marks or passengers within it. Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. If they can’t manage a decent percentage of games, I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere. Tolaji Bola, on loan from Arsenal, has not been a success at left back and, as a result, we are having to play our best centre half there – the on-loan Haydon Roberts. This needs to be addressed urgently, or I fear Roberts will be loaned to another club sooner rather than later.

“We are very easy subjects at the minute.”

With Matt Done – availability isn’t the issue, it’s a lack of offering on the pitch that’s problematic. Having returned to the club under Keith Hill’s tenure, I don’t doubt he is a decent earner too – so I would be looking for someone to take him off us as soon as possible. The same could be said of Stephen Dooley, although he has at least shown a glimpse of what he could be capable of.

In goal, Jay Lynch is having to stand in for the injured on-loan Gavin Bazunu. Even if you hold the most optimistic outlook in the world, there is no comparison there – and I think the whole long-term goalkeeper situation needs to be reviewed, as it’s been a makeshift one long before Brian took charge.

But there are positives. Stevie Humphrys is a quality acquisition and, with he and Jake Beesley finally on the pitch together, you can see the potential for them to cause some damage. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, albeit his form is as erratic as the team’s as a whole. A midfield of Matt Lund, Jimmy Ryan and Ollie Rathbone, if all are fit, is a real engine room – but all of this hinges on Brian getting his instructions and approach right.

So, lots for he and the board of Rochdale AFC to consider in the coming days and weeks. Here’s hoping for a more successful new year on and off the pitch. Merry Christmas.

I’m an Englishman in New Lanark (well, about 23 miles away)

Hampden Park, the home of Scottish football.

I don’t take coffee, I take whisky, my dear. As an Englishman living in Scotland, I just want to say congratulations and slainte to the Scottish national team on qualifying for the European Championships next year.

Not only is it great to see our dearest rivals back on the big stage after an absence of 22 years, but the fact they will be in England’s group makes it even more special. International football needs these fixtures and if it’s anything like the meeting in Euro ’96, we are in for a treat.

There will be the usual cross-border banter flying around for sure, with England being expected to triumph, especially at our Wembley home – but write off the Scots at your peril. You only need to cast your mind back to the two sides’ last meeting in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, when Harry Kane spared England’s blushes very late on after Leigh Griffiths turned all Lionel Messi with the free-kicks.

You also have to factor in that, while England has an embarrassment of riches going forward, the days of Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry and David Seaman at the back are long gone. It’s a vulnerable position and one Gareth Southgate has still to satisfactorily address in my humble opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t about England, it’s about Scotland.

Manager Steve Clarke deserves credit, yes. He lofted West Brom to the peak of the Premier League for a time, he took Kilmarnock from relegation fodder to European football, and he has now taken Scotland to a first major tournament for 22 years.

However, he could have also cost them the latter. I was as amazed as my (Scottish) wife and children at the comfort with which Scotland handled Serbia for 80 minutes of the match last night. This was jeopardised when Clarke elected to take off Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie and John McGinn – all of who were instrumental in the ball sticking around in Serbia’s half – to replace them with Callum Paterson, Oli McBurnie and Kenny McLean. The likes of Paterson are fit and can run around, but the ball started coming back at Scotland more and more after their introduction and led to that inevitable last-minute equaliser from Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic.

It’s not just a Scottish thing to concede so late – I would be worried for any team having to face 30 minutes of extra time after that kind of gut punch. The worry was warranted. Serbia raised their game and David Marshall pulled off a magnificent save to ensure the match at least went to penalties.

As an Englishman, my aversion to penalties needs no introduction, and perhaps that’s something the Scots can teach us when it comes to football! Marshall’s save from Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović was magnificent. And here’s a lesson for you – don’t watch a shootout with the volume on mute. Why was it on mute? Too long and boring to explain, but it was on mute and, consequently, it initially appeared to me that David Marshall was amusingly unaware of the feat he had just pulled off in saving that final penalty. As it transpired, he was merely waiting for that bloody VAR thing to confirm he hadn’t committed any tomfoolery away from his goal line. Once again, technology delaying a reaction that should be immediate and natural. Not that anyone in Scotland will care about that now. I can still hear the good people of Cambuslang cheering.

Dan Altman: What’s his next move in this uncertain climate?

Dan Altman

The ambitious plans laid out for Rochdale AFC by new shareholders Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli look to have been put on hold as the pair have turned tight-lipped on how their investment proposition is progressing.

As exclusively revealed in June, former Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy, along with former director Bill Goodwin and a representative of former director the late Paul Hazlehurst, sold his shares privately to Altman and Marcelli, managers of investment group NYK Capital Management LLC.

Upon being contacted by this writer, Altman was very open about his purchase and issued a statement outlining his grand vision for the League One club, which involved attaining Championship football.

However, during a routine follow up to see how his planned route to investment funds was progressing –at a time when football’s finances are being strangled by the global pandemic –Altman declined numerous invitations from this writer to reassure supporters.

Altman, who is behind the SmarterScout player analysis software, initially said his primary aim was to guarantee the club’s long-term financial stability and success on the pitch.

“We are not billionaires, nor are we fronting for one,” he said. “Rather, we believe that with some prudent investments and carefully attentive management, the club can grow in a sustainable way.”

Altman said in June that his group had proposed an initial investment, principally for these purposes:

  • a permanent training ground to include facilities for the academy 
  • replacement of the pitch at the Crown Oil Arena 
  • a full-time sporting director 
  • funds to bolster the squad 
  • additional commercial staff

He added: “Together with the implementation of our analytical tools and the resources of our global network in professional football, we hope that these investments might equip the club to rise up the table in League One and eventually compete for a place in the Championship.”

Despite not yet investing financially in Rochdale AFC, it is believed that Altman had allowed the club to use his SmarterScout software free of charge for a short period. This arrangement is now understood to have ceased, however.

With so much uncertainty surrounding football and its finances at present, there is a genuine concern that Altman and Marcelli may seek to sell their shares on – and possibly not to somebody currently affiliated to the club.

The combined shares purchased by the Americans equal around 15% of those currently issued by Rochdale AFC, and Altman’s statement of ambition back in June prompted a response from director Andrew Kelly, who, via the club’s official website, said he feared an “attempt at a Glazer Manchester United style takeover bid”. 

Kelly revealed that he and the board had too been in negotiations with Altman with regards to direct investment, but declined his proposal as it was “not acceptable”.

Kelly outlined that Altman wanted 51% of the club and the promise of what is contained in the above statement. 

“The loan agreements and their repayment conditions, along with a potential exit agreement, were not acceptable,” Kelly said. “Had we accepted their offer, we would, in my opinion, have been ridiculed for giving the club away.”

Kelly, fearing Altman would attempt to buy up other shares privately, said he tested the water by offering his own shares to the American in a bid to see how much he was prepared to pay.

The response from Altman was as follows:“Emre and I have today placed negotiations with the Board on hold since we are far apart on a price for the authorised shares. As such we are not increasing our investment right now. If, however, we are in a position to go forward in the future, we will likely to make an offer to the club’s significant shareholders, naturally including yourself.”

Kelly said: “This reply left me very unsure about their future strategy or intentions. I scoured the shareholder list to try to establish where the club may be vulnerable. As a result of my actions, I purchased Leods Construction shares (22,500). I am now the second largest individual shareholder in the club, owning approximately 12% (58,250). Our Chairman has 110,000 shares (approximately 22%).”

He added: “Any future share issue will dilute their voting power. We need to be 100% clear that reducing it does not allow an influx of money today which could signal problems for future fans. My ambition is very simple, when I leave the club, I want it to be a better state than when I joined, and I look forward to a continued long-term existence in the Football League.

“In conclusion, let me make it clear, my shares are NOT FOR SALE.”

However, Chris Dunphy still believes Altman was the right man to sell his shares to. He had previously met the American when he was exploring investment opportunities while in post as chairman.

He said: “Some years earlier, Dan had contacted the club about potential investment, which was put to the board. At that time, however, we decided not to go ahead as we were already in discussion with developers regarding the Bowlee site. There was no figure put forward. Dan and Emre were more concerned about the team and how their analytics would benefit the club, so we did not get as far as discussing money. However, I did speak to a representative of Swansea City about them, where they had worked previously, and did not receive an adverse reaction.

“When I stepped down as chairman, I approached Dan and asked if he was still interested in buying shares in the club. I believed, and still do, that he would be good for the football club.”

He added: “I had been on the board for more than 30 years and every application for share transfer came before the board and new share certificates were signed by a board member. 

“Even shares that had belonged to a deceased relative could not be passed to another without board approval. If the board did not agree with a proposed transfer, they were at liberty to reject it and purchase the shares for the club. I do not know how the board chose to deal with share transfers once I left.”

ANALYSIS: Where are Rochdale AFC now?

Alex Newby

Last night’s game between Rochdale AFC and Oxford United marked the former’s 11th league match of the season. The 3-1 defeat at the Kassam Stadium, for me at least, perfectly encapsulates the current squad in the wider context of League One.

Manager Brian Barry-Murphy said after the match that he was “in awe” of his team for the first 60 minutes. By this he means that, in general, the passing and forward momentum of his players had been too much for Oxford to handle. I would agree with him. Where the problem lies, however, is that by the 60-minute mark we should have been out of sight. We weren’t. We were drawing a goal apiece – and having had to come from behind at that.

This has been Rochdale’s problem all campaign – no consistent cutting edge. Midfielder Matthew Lund, on five goals, is currently the club’s top scorer, with the man leading the line, Jake Beesley, yet to register a single one. He is also being supported in the current system by Alex Newby, who has at least found the net, and Ollie Rathbone, who, in my opinion, is more a facilitator of goals than a scorer of them.

This is no criticism of Beesley outright. His tireless running and pressing of the opposition defence pulls them all over the place, but there is no one to take advantage – yet.

You see, I believe that Barry-Murphy’s recruitment is based heavily on analytics rather than old-school scouting. He uses stats to identify players that fit his ideas and who fall into the club’s budget. Beesley was very definitely purchased from Solihull Moors to complete a couplet with Southend United’s Stephen Humphrys, who Rochdale also outlaid upon. He would be the man to take advantage of Beesley’s endeavours. The issue is, Humphrys was injured just half an hour into his debut and has been missing for more than a month now. Based on the prognosis of his knee injury at the time, I don’t believe we will see him feature again until at least Charlton Athletic away, on November 14. And this is the problem. At times, it feels almost like Dale are waiting for that date to get the season properly going. Like they are almost making do until then.

Perhaps this is a touch unfair. The side overall has shown its capability to compete. The first half displays against Fleetwood Town and Sunderland – the best two performances from Dale this season – demonstrated that the side can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights. These displays yielded four points.

Matty Lund

However, if I can go back to the Oxford game as an example, there is a trend that was prevalent in the two above games that cost Rochdale dear last night. Often, the side’s second-half performances have not matched the first. Last night’s turning point was obvious. Beesley missed a golden opportunity to put Dale ahead from six yards after the keeper had spilled. He put the ball wide when it was easier to score. This was compounded when Oxford advanced right up the other end and took the lead. A complete gut punch that seemed to be felt by the entire team. While last night’s dip in performance could be attributed to these psychological factors – it hasn’t always been so easy to nail down in other games. Against Bristol Rovers last weekend, Dale went in at the break the dominant side but allowed the visitors back into the game second half and only came away with a point. A point is not to be sniffed at, granted, but there was a feeling among the support that this may have been a case of two points dropped. There have been other occasions this season where this has been the situation – or worse.

It was always going to be a risk with a small squad. Numbers are understandably light amidst a global pandemic that has football’s finances in a stranglehold, but you have to also consider that Barry-Murphy might not have 100 per cent faith in the options sat on the bench, further constraining his ability to change a game when his charges on the field tire or the game begins to ebb away from them.

This may seem like a negative outpouring, but it is merely intended to be an analysis of a side that Barry-Murphy has made his own by this point of the season. Overall, the side has been crafted into a solid state, which is merely lacking a consistent cutting edge.

The defensive unit, which had become a major weakness of Dale sides in recent years, finally looks to be moving in the right direction, despite still being fallible to set pieces. There will be comparisons between last season’s loan goalkeeper, Robert Sanchez, and this season’s, Gavin Bazunu, but the truth is that they are both supremely talented and only with us because of their age and lack of experience. Because of this, Bazunu will make mistakes. See last night versus Oxford as an example (albeit he was impeded before placing the ball at the feet of Oxford’s Elliot Moore to open the scoring). In the main, though, the Manchester City man is capable of pulling off incomparable saves (such as his match-winning one against Shrewsbury) and is adept at playing the ball with his feet. And this latter trait is shared by the side’s current two central defenders, Eoghan O’Connell and the on-loan Hayden Roberts. There is no route one by default here. These two are so good that I don’t imagine O’Connell will renew his contract with us this season and Roberts will go on to become a Premier League star. For this season, though, they are Dale’s and keeping them both fit is a priority as the back-up options, while decent, are entering the twilight of their careers.

The full back slots have been addressed to some degree, too, which was vital after the sublime Rhys Norrington-Davies returned to Sheffield United last season. At left-back, on-loan Arsenal youngster Tolaji Bola looks quick and strong, and, while his end product is sometimes lacking, he is a much sturdier option in the role than the makeshift Matt Done. The right side is perhaps not as cut and dried. The role swaps between Ryan McLaughlin and Jimmy Keohane, both of who are able in the position, if perhaps not completely dominant. 

Jimmy Ryan

In midfield, Jimmy Ryan and Matt Lund have proven very adept, albeit Ryan’s inability to last an entire match causes an unnecessary reshuffling at times. When he is on the pitch, though, his driving runs, combined with Lund’s aerial prowess, have allowed the ball to stay in the opposition half for longer than in past seasons. The one question mark, I suppose, is Aaron Morley. A very talented product of the club’s youth system, he seems somewhat wasted and uncomfortable in the deeper holding role, with a number of his ambitious passes going astray. It’s a shame for Morley, who I feel would be better utilised further up the park if there was a viable option to replace him in the anchor role.

And this takes me back to both Ollie Rathbone and Alex Newby. In my humble opinion, neither are suited to playing either side of Beesley. Rathbone is an absolute Dynamo. His strength lies in taking the ball in a deeper position with his back to goal, turning his marker around and then driving forward. He’s brilliant at it. 

Newby, considering he has just stepped up from non-league football, has really impressed me. He is the type of player we have missed recently – one who is prepared to run at the opposition and take them on. He is, for my money, a natural No.10 or winger. We have seen numerous times the lovely drag back he performs before delivering a cross. If there was one criticism, it’s that he perhaps holds on to the ball too long on occasions. I believe, as he gains league experience game after game, that timing will improve.

And perhaps by the time Humphrys does return, he may initially come in to the side in place of Beesley, for a game or two at least, in order to let the forward recover his confidence and energy levels, before we see what Barry-Murphy’s grand plan really is.

So, there is still much to be optimistic about. When both Humphrys and Kwadwo Baah resume full fitness, there will be plenty more options for Barry-Murphy to deploy and perhaps that missing cutting edge will be found razor sharp.

Player interviews: Matt Gilks

First published: 2016

Matt Gilks

With injuries blighting the latter stages of regular goalkeeper Neil Edwards’ time at Rochdale, the responsibility of custodian would fall permanently on understudy Matt Gilks. 

Stood between the sticks, Gilks was everything the Welshman wasn’t. He was tall and thin, as opposed to short and stout, and could only draw experience from a clutch of cameos, whereas Edwards had played nigh over four-hundred career games. 

As it transpired, none of this actually mattered. While Edwards will rightly be remembered as one of Dale’s best goalkeepers, Gilks proved equally adept during his twelve-year spell at the club − as both deputy and sheriff − and his performances elsewhere would eventually take him to the Premier League and international football.

While not an agile, gifted shot-stopper myself, this writer remembers identifying with Gilks more than any other Rochdale player at the time of his emergence due to us being of a similar age. There is an added pride in meeting Gilks, though. Like Craig Dawson, he is a Rochdale-born lad who represented his hometown club and flourished. Even so, Gilks does his best to dampen the mood by revealing it was near neighbours Oldham Athletic who held his football affections as a youngster.

‘Although I was born in Rochdale, I lived in Chadderton and then Royton, so I grew up an Oldham Athletic supporter,’ he says. ‘They were in the Premier League at the time. I was always aware of Rochdale AFC, of course, but I was a season-ticket holder at Oldham for years.’

Gilks then adds with a laugh: ‘I came to love Rochdale eventually.’

A thoroughly likeable and level-headed fellow, I speak to Gilks while he is studying for his coaching badges; the staple of every player nowadays, it seems, who is entering the twilight of their career. This isn’t true of Gilks, however, who, not long after our chat, signed a two-year contract with one of Scotland’s biggest clubs, Rangers, having left Burnley.

But it is at the very beginning where I’m interested in Gilks picking up, and he does so by explaining the origins of his goalkeeping obsession.

‘I always wanted to be a goalie, but I didn’t get the chance when I was a kid,’ he says. ‘When I was playing at primary school I was always a centre half or a striker – every outfield position, really. When I was about twelve, I finally got the chance. I got shoved in goal for a game and I loved it. It stuck from there on in. I was a good outfield player, sure, but that was it for me. I wanted to stay in goals. 

‘We used to have a kickabout on the street up near my mam and dad’s house and I used to dive about on the concrete to save all the shots. People said I was mental, but you need to be to be a goalie.

‘I then played for local side Heyside Juniors, with my brother, in the year above my age group. It was there I got spotted. Dave Bywater was Rochdale’s scout for the local area at the time. He came to watch me and then Rochdale made a move. My mam and dad said “no” to them, though. They wanted me to keep playing with my friends and win trophies. They wanted me to keep on enjoying football. I would have been thirteen at the time, I think. A year later, Rochdale came back for me and I joined their youth team on a Youth Training Scheme, which was what scholarships were called back then.

‘I was straight out of school and did a three-year apprenticeship with Rochdale. The club didn’t have its own goalkeeper coach back then, so they had former Walsall ’keeper Fred Barber come in on a Tuesday and me and Neil Edwards used to train with him. I realised at that point just how hard it was to be a professional goalie. I used to get battered. I kept going, though, and worked hard.

‘When you’re a YTS, you’re new to the inside of football and most of your time between training and games is spent doing all the crappy jobs that need doing. I remember one of my jobs was scrubbing the grout between the tiles in the dressing-room showers, getting the white bits white again. It sounds awful, I know, but I really enjoyed it. You’re not doing it alone, you’re doing it with a good bunch of lads and you’re all in the same boat. It teaches you respect and the importance of graft. The scholars don’t do anything like that anymore, which is a shame.’

Matt Gilks

Gilks remembers when he was initially flung into first-team action while still a raw trainee in 2001. 


‘I remember my Rochdale first-team debut like it was yesterday. It was Chesterfield away at Saltergate and we drew 1-1. Paul Connor scored for us and they scored right at the end of the match. I got told I was playing and remember being really nervous before the game. Chesterfield were doing really well in the league − in fact I think they were top − but I think they were struggling financially at the time, too, because people were throwing brown envelopes about outside and inside the ground. 

‘Anyway, the match kicked off and I got to a through ball before the attacker. It gave me the early touch of the ball I needed to settle me down. To be honest, I realise now how much the back four that day protected me. It was during Steve Parkin’s first spell as manager and he had the defence well drilled. Funnily enough, [former manager] Keith Hill was playing in the defence that day, too.

‘For me, Parkin was the best manager I had at Rochdale, with Tony Ford as his assistant. I played under Alan Buckley, John Hollins, Paul Simpson, and Keith Hill, too, but Parkin was the best. He was a tough manager but he was fair at the same time. If you worked hard for him, you were treated fairly. If you let standards drop, he was on your case. I needed that. It showed me how hard you had to work to be a successful footballer.

‘Parkin aside, the biggest influence on me at Rochdale was Neil Edwards. I absolutely loved the guy. Being in his shadow was the best thing to happen to me. He is the best ’keeper I’ve trained with on a daily basis. He was so quick and agile. He had such a spring for a small guy. I was a young lad at this point, remember, and I’m looking at this fully grown man throwing himself about. I thought: “Will I still be able to do that at his age?” We called him The Machine because he never, ever stopped. His quality in training gave me the best teaching I could have asked for.

‘When Taffy [Edwards] left, I took over as number one. I believe it was my worst season as a Rochdale player, simply because he wasn’t there. Obviously we both wanted to be playing every week, and I got that wish, but to not have him there with me on a daily basis really affected my game. I didn’t enjoy that year at all. I missed watching him and I missed having him there to talk to. I still felt I needed another couple of years with Taffy.’

Matt Gilks

With Keith Hill preparing for his first full season in charge of Rochdale in the summer of 2007, Gilks decided his future lay elsewhere and signed a two-year contract with Championship club Norwich City.

‘As it happened, I got through my initial concerns about Taffy not being around and had a good career at Rochdale. I had played almost two-hundred games by the time I reached twenty-four. I felt it was the right time to move on and develop elsewhere. I felt I’d reached my level at Rochdale. I needed a full-time goalie coach with me every day. Rochdale still hadn’t addressed that and I was having to go to Bolton Wanderers on a Wednesday to train with Fred Barber. I wanted something that was all inclusive.

‘Norwich were offering me all of that and I couldn’t turn it down. Even though I didn’t make a first-team appearance for them, I found the move fantastic. The place blew my mind. I was still living with my parents, so had to buy my own house down there. I was travelling into a training ground that was state of the art. They had more than one physio, more than one first-team coach and they even had a goalie coach. I was in the dressing room and I had Dion Dublin on my left, Luke Chadwick on my right. Darren Huckerby was in the corner next to big David Marshall the goalie, and Lee Croft. I was sat thinking: “Christ, I’ve just rocked up here from little old Rochdale.”

‘So, despite not playing a first-team game, that year at Norwich was my best in terms of development as a goalkeeper. That is purely because I had a full-time goalie coach who was brilliant with me on a brilliant training ground. I just loved pulling the gloves on and stepping out there and training. I pushed David Marshall all the way. We’re still good mates now and still talk about Norwich. He said I made him a better ’keeper because I was training so hard and doing so well. Marshall is one of the best ’keepers out there, so for me to push him all the way gave me confidence.’

Matt Gilks

In 2008, Norwich signed former Livingston starlet Wes Hoolahan from Blackpool. Part of the deal required Gilks to move in the opposite direction.

‘Glen Roeder came in at Norwich and didn’t fancy me at all,’ Gilks remembers. ‘I found myself at Blackpool as part of the Wes Hoolahan deal. Simon Grayson was their manager and they already had Paul Rachubka there. He’d been at Man United and was set in stone as the number one goalkeeper. As a result, my first year was very frustrating. I ended up going on loan to Shrewsbury for a bit. I did okay there and came back hoping to get my chance.

‘I remember getting that chance in a game against Crystal Palace, which we won 1-0. I’d just sat down on the bench with a cup of tea when Chubs [Rachubka] got sent off. On I went for my introduction into Championship football. I did well. I was coming for crosses and getting them. I was playing with lads I’d only trained with for half a season up to the point, but we clicked.’

With new-found confidence, Gilks still found opportunities between the sticks hard to come by in the Championship, but he was to be aided by the entrance of enigmatic manager Ian Holloway, who, within nine months of arriving, took the Seasiders to the Premier League.

‘Ollie is the best manager I’ve had at any club. It didn’t start so well between us, though. He came in at the end of the season, so I didn’t meet him until the summer. I remember waiting for him to finish a meeting, as I was on my way to speak to another club about a transfer. I said: “Nice to meet you, Ollie, but I need to go.” He just looked at me and said: “I haven’t seen you play. You’re not going anywhere. Get your kit on and get out there.” I was fuming at that point, thinking: “Here we go again.” I went out there and trained as hard as I’ve ever trained. Eventually, Ollie said: “I can’t ignore you any longer. I’m going to put you in.” That was it. I became Blackpool’s number one.

‘He comes across as a joker, but Ollie was such a driven man. I remember us being given the bonus sheet by the club at the start of the next season. It had two options on it. We could choose £1 million pro rata to stay in the league or £5 million pro rata to get promoted. All the players were going to choose the million. Ollie said: “No, you’re not getting rewarded for failure, so take the five.” We all looked at him blankly at the time, but then we went on to get promoted to the Premier League.

‘I had a lot of self-doubt early on at Blackpool − working hard in training for no reward. Ollie sorted that. I think he liked me as a person. We were similar. We liked a laugh and a joke but both believed in hard work. He gave me the platform I needed to go and do my job. We were successful together the whole time he was at Blackpool.’

Matt Gilks

Gilks had achieved a lifelong dream in reaching the Premier League, but the standard was to surprise even him.

‘Any player wants to play at as high a level as he can. You do set yourself goals. To play in the Premier League was mine. It’s every boy’s dream. Playing at Wembley, in the play-off final, was fantastic, sure, but the Premier League is a special league – all the media, the hype, the talk, the TV. It was magic for a hard-working goalkeeper from Rochdale to reach those heights.

‘The first thing I noticed about the standard, from a goalkeeping point of view, was how hard Premier League players hit the ball. Trust me, it’s hard. The other funny thing I noticed was how little you can go out to catch crosses. The quality of the crosses tends to be so good, that there is no point. It’s going onto the forward’s head and that’s all there is to it. They know the exact pace and angle to put on the crosses, too. You’re best setting yourself to save the resultant header or volley, rather than trying to claim the cross. The quality in that final third is so good in that league that, if a team breaks, they’re probably going to score. You train for so long to be a goalie that you do need to rely on your instincts a lot more at that level. In the lower divisions, you invariably know where a striker is going to put the ball when he shoots. You can just tell. In the Premier League, a striker can hit the ball while he’s still running, without even setting himself up for the shot. You can find yourself out of position quite quickly when that happens.’

Sadly, as Gilks was still acclimatising, his Premier League adventure was to be cut short.

‘I broke my kneecap in the November of that season,’ he said. ‘I ended up playing only the final five games after that. I was in turmoil the whole time in between. I had to have an operation and it felt a little bit like I was starting all over again. You train to play, not sit on your arse. Then, when you’re finally able to train again, it takes time to get fit and sharp – and, in the Premier League, you’re having to get fit and sharp to an even higher standard. It’s a horrible process. Luckily for me, I found a guy called Mick Clegg, who had been Man United’s strength and conditioning coach for twelve years. He’d set up on his own. He helped me get back into better shape than I was in before the injury.’

Unfortunately for Gilks, Blackpool were relegated at the end of the season, mainly due to a continued poor run after the festive period. Holloway led the team to the play-offs once again the following season, but there was to be no repeat promotion. When Holloway left for Crystal Palace early the subsequent season, Gilks said the entire club felt his departure.

‘I stayed at Blackpool for another three years after relegation from the Premier League,’ he says. ‘We had such a good bunch of lads and players, but, when Ollie left, that was it. The lads wanted Ollie. That was the bond. When that bond is broken, other clubs come in and dismantle your squad player by player. On and on it went. I was the last one remaining from the promotion season when I left. Other people coming in didn’t understand how hard we’d worked to achieve what we did the season we got promoted. I think they thought we could do it again, no problem. It was too much for me, so, when my contract was up, I went to Burnley.’

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Gilks has international experience. However, it isn’t the Three Lions on his chest, as one might expect of a Rochdale lad, but the Lion Rampant of Scotland.

Yes, in August 2010, the Scotland manager at the time, Craig Levein, was looking for cover for Allan McGregor and was tipped off about Gilks’ familial links to Caledonia.

He told STV: ‘[Gilks] is one we became aware of a while ago and have kept track of his progress. Obviously, he was a key figure in Blackpool’s promotion to the Barclays Premier League and while I will not name my squad until tomorrow, he is one I think we need to take a closer look at. He comes highly recommended, is playing regularly for his club and the next logical step is for our goalkeeping coach to work closely with him.’

Matt Gilks

The goalkeeper himself explains his Scottish heritage.

‘When you get to the Premier League, you appear on more people’s radars. My grandmother was Scottish. She was born in Perth. So, through that link, Craig Levein knew I qualified for Scotland. I think they wanted another Premier League goalie in the Scotland squad.

‘I got the usual stick off the English lads when I declared for Scotland. You know, like: “Did you have a tartan blanket when you were a kid?” or “How you doing, Scottish?” The Scottish lads, strangely, didn’t bother about me being from England.

‘I went along to training, not knowing what to expect, but it was a proper eye opener. All of a sudden, Blackpool seemed like a walk in the park. The standard was so high. I remember my first training exercise was with Darren Fletcher and Kenny Miller – seasoned pros at massive clubs – and they trained like it meant everything to them. They didn’t take their foot off the gas until the gaffer called time. It made me think: “Jeez, if that’s where I’ve got to be to get on in this game, I’d better pull my socks up.” I thought I was doing well at Blackpool, but clearly there was an extra level to aspire to. 

‘My Scotland debut was in a friendly against Australia at Easter Road in 2012. I was on the bench with David Marshall. Allan McGregor started but got injured quite early, so I went on. We won the game 3-1 and had already conceded before I came on, so to keep a clean sheet was very pleasing.

‘What weighs on your mind when you make your international debut is that it isn’t a club you’re playing for, but an entire country. It’s quite daunting. At the same time, it’s a very special feeling. It meant so much to my mam, whose own mother was my Scottish grandmother, who had sadly passed away and didn’t get to see me play for Scotland.’

As we round off our chat, Gilks underlines the key qualities he believes are required to make an elite goalkeeper and also the role Rochdale played in helping him become one.

‘Hard work makes an elite goalkeeper. You cannot get away from not working hard. Any coach that believes this isn’t the case is wrong. You also need to have desire and you need to love the job. You can’t be half-hearted in that regard. You need self-belief and a thick skin, too. You are the one that is closest to the crowd taking abuse all game. I’ve seen a lot of sports psychologists over the years to help me deal with that.

‘Rochdale gave me the opportunity to learn what it is to be a professional goalkeeper. They put me in the first team when I was needed and took me back out so I wasn’t overwhelmed. They built me up.

‘Players like Gareth Griffiths, Wayne Evans and Neil Edwards were top, seasoned pros who did everything they could to help me out. It’s funny, because now I’m the one advising the youngsters, saying: “Enjoy it, it’s a short career, you’ve got to do more than he’s doing or he’ll take your place, etcetera”. I got that from the advice I received at Rochdale.

‘The fact I did an old-fashioned YTS there was character building, too. It was a harsher world than the one footballers enter into now, but I’d never have wanted it any other way.’

Photos: Mark Wilbraham

INVESTIGATION: Radio Ga Ga

The sporting arm of a regional BBC radio station has been accused of bias by licence-fee payers.

Listeners have accused BBC Radio Manchester Sport of disproportionately featuring Bolton Wanderers games for whole-match live commentary when compared to other clubs in the Greater Manchester area. 

Fans are angry that, during the current ban on supporters attending football stadiums, they need to pay £5 to private supplier iFollow for audio commentary for each match, while Bolton supporters can listen to their games on the radio for the sum of their licence fee – which other supporters still have to pay.

While supporters don’t need a BBC licence to listen to the radio, latest figures published by the BBC show that £2.17 of the compulsory monthly £12.54 television fee is spent on its radio stations.

Bolton Wanderers have already featured in the live commentary game six consecutive times this season, despite other local sides – Manchester United, Manchester City, Rochdale AFC, Oldham Athletic, Salford FC and Wigan Athletic – all playing matches during this period.

The trend was picked up by supporters last season and led to growing frustration. A Freedom of Information request from this writer for exact figures of coverage for all the above teams over the past five seasons was repelled by the BBC.

However, a manual countback shows Bolton Wanderers have featured in the live commentary game a staggering 18 times out of a possible 20 this calendar year alone. On 16 of those occasions at least two other Greater Manchester teams were also in action. 
The two times Bolton weren’t featured as the main game when playing, was when Manchester City played Crystal Palace, and when Rochdale had an FA Cup tie at Newcastle. The Man City game aside, the only occasions where Bolton haven’t featured as the main commentary game at 3pm on a Saturday have been when they haven’t been playing. 

Fans of other Greater Manchester clubs, who have taken to calling the station ‘Radio Bolton’, took to Twitter to challenge the trend of lopsided coverage – and met with responses that lacked consistency.

Bill Rice, who works for Radio Manchester, was quick to deny that Bolton featured more than any other team. “It isn’t Bolton week after week,” he tweeted.

Liam Bradford, who also works for the station, at least seemed to acknowledge Bolton featured more heavily than other local teams when he replied to further challenges on the social media channel, saying: “There’s always an evidence-based reason” and “I understand the frustration, but there is no ‘Bolton Bias’ just well-researched editorial decision making”.

However, his response was at odds with an email response direct from the BBC, issued to another complainant, which read: “Editorial decisions are more of a judgement call, than an exact science…”

Rice also challenged one disputing supporter, saying: “You want to be featured every week?” To which the supporter replied: “No, just on an equitable basis instead of it being Bolton week after week. Your station knows how fans feel; they’ve had plenty of communication about it and there are regular comments online.”

Another supporter said he would cease to pay his TV licence unless the balance was redressed. The trend of consistent Bolton Wanderers coverage has even given rise to a parody Twitter account dubbed ‘BBC Radio BWFC Sport.

However, BBC Radio Manchester denies it has any form of contractual arrangement with Bolton Wanderers, claiming it has no commercial agreement with any club and rights are negotiated at the beginning of each season.

When pressed for an official statement on the Bolton coverage specifically, a BBC spokesperson said: “BBC Radio Manchester provides coverage on all football clubs in the Greater Manchester area, including live match commentaries of all our local clubs in the EFL plus Manchester City in the Premier League. Commentary games are carefully selected, factoring in a number of considerations such as fan base as well as derby, relegation and promotion matches. Radio Manchester also has reporters at every single game of the season, keeping fans up-to-date with all the latest action through match reports, interviews and analysis, plus regular updates across social media.”

BBC RADIO MANCHESTER SPORT MAIN COMMENTARY GAMES IN 2020:

• January 1st: Bolton vs Burton Albion 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 11th: Rochdale vs Bolton 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 14th: Newcastle vs Rochdale 
Other games: Bolton, Oldham

• January 18th: Man City vs Crystal Palace  
Other games: Bolton, Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 25th: Salford vs Oldham (Bolton not playing) 
Other games: Rochdale 

• January 28th: Bolton vs Bristol Rovers 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 1st: Bolton vs Tranmere 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 8th: Coventry vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 11th: Doncaster vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 15th: Bolton vs Wycombe 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 22nd: MK Dons vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 25th: Blackpool vs Bolton 
No other games

• February 29th: Bolton vs Accrington 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• March 7th: Wimbledon vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• March 10th: Burton vs Bolton  
No other games

(NEW SEASON) 
• September 5th: Bolton vs Bradford 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 12th: Bolton vs Forest Green  
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 19th: Colchester vs Bolton 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 26th: Bolton vs Newport 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• October 3rd: Harrogate vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• October 10th: Bolton v Grimsby 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

EXCLUSIVE: New investor promises good times ahead for Dale

Dan Altman

Former Swansea City FC analyst Dan Altman has acquired a stake in Rochdale AFC – promising a tilt at the Championship for the League One club. 

Altman, along with Emre Marcelli, managers of an investment group NYK Capital Management LLC, have been in confidential discussions with the Rochdale board for some time regarding a possible purchase of the club’s unissued shares. In the midst of these discussions, they were privately offered shares owned by three of the club’s major backers – former chairman Chris Dunphy, former director Bill Goodwin and former director the late Paul Hazlehurst. 

Altman said his primary aim is to guarantee the club’s long-term financial stability and success on the pitch. 

“We are not billionaires, nor are we fronting for one,” he said. “Rather, we believe that with some prudent investments and carefully attentive management, the club can grow in a sustainable way.

“We believe the board, Trust, and all of our fellow supporters share these goals, and we would like to put on record our profound respect for the men and women who have safeguarded the club until now.”

Altman said that after visits to the club’s facilities and meetings with the board, his group has proposed an initial investment, principally for these purposes:

– a permanent training ground to include facilities for the academy 
– replacement of the pitch at the Crown Oil Arena 
– a full-time sporting director 
– funds to bolster the squad 
– additional commercial staff

He added: “Together with the implementation of our analytical tools and the resources of our global network in professional football, we hoped that these investments might equip the club to rise up the table in League One and eventually compete for a place in the Championship.

“These are unprecedented times, and the club already faces a challenging environment in League One.

“We strongly believe that the club could benefit from full-time management on the sporting side, especially by people with deep expertise in professional football. We are still in contact with members of the board and maintain our interest in helping the club to succeed.

“We have had the great pleasure of watching matches at the Crown Oil Arena and have witnessed first hand the affection and passion that the supporters have for this club. We are proud to be among you and will be cheering the squad along with you when play resumes. Up the Dale!”

Dan Altman has been working in professional football since 2014. He is the creator of 
smarterscout.com, an online scouting platform covering dozens of leagues with advanced player and squad analytics. He has advised multiple clubs in the Premier League, Major League Soccer, and other competitions around the world. He holds a PhD in economics from Harvard University.

Emre Marcelli is a fund manager and credit risk expert. After a lengthy career in commercial and investment banking, he opened his own fund in New York. He also has significant experience in financial due diligence of lower-division football clubs in Europe. He holds an MBA from Columbia University.

Player interviews: Stephen Humphrys

Stephen Humphrys

It’s not that Southend’s sea front doesn’t have its charms, with its pier, Adventure Island and the Sea Life aquarium appealing to the British traditionalist. 

It’s more that there is a lure to the north west of England that only someone who hails from that part of the land ever truly feels. It’s so much more than Hollands Pies, mithering and cruckled ankles on cobbled entries.

As Stephen Humphrys stared out of his hotel room window, bags packed behind him, he desperately awaited the call that would reunite him with that place and his family. As the setting sun cast its final rays over the Thames Estuary, finally, it came. Southend United had accepted a bid from Rochdale AFC and he was free to discuss terms. This was a no brainer for Humphrys, who had been well aware of Rochdale’s courtship for several weeks, with Shrimpers chairman Ron Martin already having repelled two previous bids.

He didn’t need to be told twice. Humphrys was ploughing up the A1 in less time than it takes to say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night. Personally, it hadn’t been an unhappy experience at Southend after Fulham agreed to let him leave in 2019. His goal against Sunderland kept them in League One at the end of that season. Sadly, despite thriving in a struggling team the next, he was unable to keep Southend up a second time – and relegation triggered a 50% pay-cut clause in his contract that meant he had to give up his apartment and adopt a Travel-Tavern-style existence made popular by a certain Mr Partridge. Although born and bred in the Royton area of the Oldham/Rochdale border, Humphrys was used to being away from home, having been snapped up by Fulham at an early age. But, with a full-blown coronavirus pandemic providing the backdrop to Southend’s much publicised financial woes, home was now calling more loudly than ever before.

Stephen Humphrys

And it wasn’t a case of any old North West club fitting the bill. No. Humphrys had enjoyed a loan spell at Rochdale in 2018, which saw him net a memorable goal at Wembley in an FA Cup replay against Tottenham. It was a return to this club, and happy memories made there, upon which he had set his heart.

“I felt like I had unfinished business at Rochdale,” he says. “I showed glimpses of what I could do here last time, but I was only 20% of the player I know I can be. The fact I would be playing under BBM [manager, Brian Barry Murphy] was massive. He’s a coach who I think will go to the very top and I want to be a part of what he brings to the club. The fans also played a massive part in my desire to return here.

“I’ll never forget when I returned to Rochdale with Southend. I was out of action due to my facial injury but still went out on the pitch. The Rochdale fans all stood up and applauded me and I instantly felt the kind of love from a group of supporters that I hadn’t felt since I was here the first time – I knew I had to come back. I’m a northern lad, I live 10 minutes away from Spotland, so, for me, this was also about coming home.”

And Humphrys very openly revealed that the club helped him tackle some personal demons when he was last at Rochdale. 

“I was extremely distracted off the pitch when I was here on loan and was going through a lot of personal struggles, which affected my mental health,” he says. “This, in turn, affected my performances. The club were great with me though, and I spoke to Keith [Hill, then manager] about the issues I was facing off the pitch. He understood and gave me the option to either be part of the squad or to take time off. I chose to keep training and made myself available for selection. Thankfully we managed to stay up. I’m grateful to Keith for being understanding and helping me at that time.”

But could he have returned to Spotland sooner?

“I don’t think so,” he says. “My Southend move came about so quickly. I got a call and a contract offer on the same day. I agreed and signed within 24 hours. Looking back, I rushed my decision and I think if Rochdale had come in for me, I would’ve gone for it. But, at the time, there was just Southend and another League One club who offered me deals on the day, and I didn’t wait long enough to explore other options.”  


So, what are Rochdale getting this time around? Just what was it that made Brian Barry Murphy and the club pursue Humphrys through protracted negotiations with Southend and part with a decent fee in a time in which many clubs are cutting back?

“I’m a more confident player as well as person now,” Humphrys says. “When I came to Rochdale the first time, I was still just a boy with little experience.

“I’ve had to come through a few hardships since then and I feel like a man with a lot more to offer. I want the ball all the time. I don’t shy away from receiving the ball in tight areas. I back myself to take on defenders and score all types of goals. Also, before I joined Rochdale the first time, I had only trained for five days and hadn’t played a game in six months due to a hamstring injury. I was 97 kilograms of pure muscle and struggled to last longer than 65 minutes at full throttle. I’m around 87kg now. I’m fitter, faster and more confident than ever. I’ll maintain my fitness throughout the rehab of my current injury and I’ll be back stronger and better than ever.

“I think Brian knows how much I want to be at the club. He knows I’m a player with untapped potential and some players just need a bit of time to develop in to what they really are. Ivan Toney took a while to become the top goal scorer he is and now he’s at a top championship club. I think myself and Brian see that in me. I believe in myself enough to reach those levels and I know Brian does too.”

Stephen Humphrys

Humphrys mentions the Championship. Is that his ambition? Or even higher?

“Every young lad’s dream is to play for England,” he says. “But for me, I don’t like setting targets that are more than a year ahead. I just want to get my head down, work hard and score goals at Rochdale. Whatever happens after that is out of my hands, but I’d like to be a Rochdale player and ultimately help Rochdale climb the league table over the years and, if possible, get promotions.”

More importantly, a return to the North West means access to quality pies and, with that, perhaps the most important question Humphrys has ever been asked.

“My favourite?” he says. “Steak and kidney.”

Photos: Dan Youngs and Mark Wilbraham