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.
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.
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.”
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.
When Gary Jones left Rochdale AFC in 2012 at the ripe old age of 35, it was a sad day.
Sad not just because he was the club’s record holder for most appearances – an amazing 531 of them – but sad also because he still had so much more to give.
Watching him lead League Two club Bradford City to a League Cup final at Wembley the following season only served to remind all onlookers of the qualities Jones still possessed, those that saw him become one of Rochdale’s most effective ever captains and those that saw him single-handedly drag the team over the line on too many occasions to remember.
The Gary Jones who played for Bradford that day was certainly a far cry from the Gary Jones who arrived at Spotland on loan from Swansea in 1998. Back then, the Birkenhead-born midfielder was an unknown, brought in to help bolster a Rochdale side that had already endured 18 months of struggle under the management of Graham Barrow and, as Jones explains, it wasn’t where he imagined himself ending up when making the transition from Sunday League to professional football.
“While there seems to be a myth that I was part of Liverpool’s Academy, I actually never did an apprenticeship with any club,” he says. “I learned the game playing Sunday League football and turning out for [Welsh League side] Caernarfon on a Saturday.
“Funnily enough Jan Molby, who was Swansea manager at the time, used to come and watch the Sunday League team I played for. I think he knew a couple of the people involved. After one particular match, he invited me to Swansea for a week’s trial. I went down there for a week, stayed in a hotel, and, at the end of it, they offered me a year’s contract. That’s where it all started for me, from a professional perspective.
“It was okay at Swansea but then Jan got the sack and Micky Adams came in. I was only young and still new to professional football. He never really took to me and so I never got a look in.
“Graham Barrow was aware of me, I believe, and asked if he could take me on loan to Rochdale. I went there and saw they had some really good players – Robbie Painter, Dave Bayliss, Mark Stuart, Andy Barlow – so I wasn’t sure why the team was struggling in the league. But then you realise that good individual players don’t necessarily guarantee team success. There has to be something else there. We were always at the wrong end of the table and that era is, sadly, synonymous with a really poor team.
“And, while my move had been made permanent, I was in and out of the side and was very close to being released – then Graham Barrow got sacked. I played in the last away game that season, against Brighton, and I had a really good game. I showed what I was capable of. On the strength of that, Dave Hamilton [caretaker manager] pleaded with the chairman [David Kilpatrick] to give me a new contract – and he did. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck in the game and that was my little bit of luck right there.”
It was under Barrow’s successor, Steve Parkin, that Jones really came into his own, coinciding with the formation of a Rochdale side that seriously looked like achieving promotion from English football’s fourth tier for the first time since 1969. Under Parkin’s leadership between 1999 and 2001, Jones eventually established himself as an essential first-team player, his box-to-box dynamism an integral part of a side that inched closer and closer to the play-offs with each passing season.
“It was funny when Steve first came in,” remembers Jones. “First day back for pre-season training and he’s calling all the players in to see him, one by one, to say hello and give them their squad numbers and what not. I didn’t get called in and I’m thinking, ‘what’s going on here, like?’
“I mentioned this to Dave Hamilton, who went in to see him and it turned out Steve didn’t even know who I was! I think he thought I’d been released. Needless to say, I wasn’t in his plans at all and players such as Jason Peake were ahead of me. But then I started to gradually improve in training, got noticed and I got my chance. I think my first start under Steve was at home against Exeter. I did enough to keep my shirt and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I became captain of the club aged 23, which was a massive honour. It was on the way to Chesterfield, I think, and current captain [goalkeeper] Neil Edwards was injured. Steve came up to me and said, ‘Gary, you’re going to be captain today.’ When a manager says that you, and puts his faith in you in such a public way, it’s like a massive shot in the arm. It raised my game to a level that I aspired to for the rest of my career.”
Jones believes that act is the perfect summary of Parkin’s attributes.
“Steve was a fantastic man manager,” he says. “When you talk about good players alone not being enough to create a good team, that’s what Steve offered – he knitted everybody together. Yes, he signed a lot of good players, and was given a lot of money to do that, but he created an unbreakable team spirit. He had a magnetism that drew people to him, even the lads who weren’t playing. He certainly knew how to get the best out of his players.”
Sadly, late in 2001, with Dale competing for the top spot in the division, Steve Parkin left for second-tier Barnsley and took Jones with him.
“The team that season was the pinnacle of what Steve and Tony [Ford, assistant manager] had been building since 1999,” confirms Jones. “It was good enough to take the title. When they left, it was a massive blow for all of us. Massive. I had no idea at that point that they wanted me to join them at Barnsley. I remember driving in for training a few weeks after they had left, I think it was a Thursday, and being told by Dave Hamilton that Rochdale had accepted a bid for me from Barnsley and I was to go over there right away to sort out terms. It felt strange, of course it did, but football is a short career and this was my chance to play two levels higher. I drove to training in the morning as a Rochdale player and came back Thursday night as a Barnsley player – that’s how quickly it happened.”
While John Hollins came in to replace Parkin, and gamely kept Rochdale in the hunt for promotion, the side fell at the first hurdle in the play-offs. It was to be the end of another era for the club and, for the next six years, normal business was resumed, with the team reacquainting itself with the tag of perennial fourth-tier strugglers.
During this period, in 2003 to be precise, Gary Jones returned to Rochdale on loan, after finding his Barnsley first-team appearance limited. The deal was made permanent once again in 2004, with Jones going on to re-establish himself as club captain, a role he didn’t relinquish until leaving the club in 2012.
“I did my metatarsal in training at Barnsley and so hadn’t been playing,” explains Jones. “I wasn’t really in the manager’s plans and Alan Buckley was manager of Rochdale at the time. He asked if I would be interested in coming back. I told him absolutely, but warned him I wasn’t the player I was due to me being out for so long with an injury. I was right. I was miles off, to be fair. I kept breaking down with scar tissue and so on. I just wasn’t doing myself justice. However, at Rochdale, I was given the time I needed to get myself fit and I did just that.”
In late 2006, with Steve Parkin, who replaced Buckley, leaving the club for a second time, youth academy coach Keith Hill stepped into the first-team manager role and led the club into the most successful era of its history, culminating, finally, in that long-awaited promotion from the fourth tier in 2010.
“Hilly came into management at just the right time for the club,” Jones remembers. “It needed that breath of fresh air and a new approach. Hilly brought sports science with him via John Lucas, and he brought in Dave Flitcroft as his assistant, who was previously part of the dressing room with me under Steve Parkin. It was the perfect combination. Dave acted brilliantly as that go-between with players and manager.
“I still remember Hilly’s first day in the job, as caretaker manager at that point. He got me and John Doolan into his office and told us that, as the elder statesmen of the dressing room, it was on us to get the players going and that’s what we did.
“Under Hilly’s leadership we just hit the ground running from day one. His training techniques were modern, new and interesting with short, sharp ball work – every single player was engaged. Revolution is not too strong a word. We knew something massive was happening. We began beating teams by four or five goals – I’m talking out of sight by half time. It was a no brainer to give him the job full time.”
Prior to Hill achieving that 2010 automatic promotion, he led Rochdale to a first Wembley appearance courtesy of the play-off final in 2008. While it would end in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Stockport County, Jones said he was proud to lead the team on such an occasion.
“What an amazing experience that was,” he says. “To captain a football club in its centenary season at England’s national stadium was unbelievable. I go back to the amazing semi-final win against Darlington when I remember this experience, too, because we came back from 1-0 down to win on penalties in front of nearly 10,000 supporters. I can still vividly see Ben Muirhead wheeling away after banging in the winning penalty that got us to Wembley. The result at Wembley wasn’t what we hoped for, but we dusted ourselves down and made the play-offs again the next season, albeit we didn’t do enough to get to Wembley again.”
In 2009/10, Rochdale’s eventual promotion season, the team looked set for the League Two title before a late wobble saw the team finish third – while it was enough to achieve a step up to League One, there was still a lingering sense of what might have been for Jones.
“I think our slump coincided with Notts County getting a boost from signing all these big-name players like Kasper Schmeichel, and us running out of steam. We didn’t take our foot off the gas, I think it was a mental thing. We were at the top of the table for a long time and we should have seen that through. It’s as if something got to us collectively and after one bad result, we couldn’t shake it – I recall getting absolutely smashed 5-0 down at Torquay and then we lost to Darlington at home, too. It was getting a bit daft. We got promotion in the end, though, and achieving that at home against Northampton, and the scenes it created with the supporters, with what it meant to them, will live long in my memory.”
Jones was a rare absentee through injury during the winter of that season, too, and he was forced to look on from the sidelines as Jasons Taylor and Kennedy swept all before them in the Rochdale midfield. He would still go on to make the PFA Team of the Year, however.
“I couldn’t get back in the team,” Jones recalls. “It was tough as captain but, if you’re winning football games, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can’t change a winning team. That was the situation I was in. I didn’t like it, but I understood it. If you’re smashing goals past all comers, then you don’t disrupt that. I just kept working hard and waited for my chance to come again.”
Jones would continue to excel during Rochdale’s first season in the third tier for 36 years and his performances are perhaps best encapsulated by a single moment of brilliance at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium. His 30-yard thunderbolt secured Rochdale a 2-0 league victory and is widely regarded as one of the best ever goals scored for the club by any player.
“I’ve got to be honest, I found the step up easy,” Jones says. “We all did. Hilly had been preparing us for this transition before it arrived, so we were ready. Everyone thought we would struggle, but we weren’t far off the play-offs by the time the season ended.
“For me to score 19 goals from midfield also made it a fantastic season personally. I’ve still got the DVD from that season and sometimes put it on to show my son that I wasn’t a bad player in my day!
“The goal against Southampton still looks good. Anthony Elding laid the ball off and I just concentrated on hitting it as best I could. Fortunately for me it flew right in. But that goal was just part of a terrific team performance. It was boiling hot that day and they had a fantastic team containing Rickie Lambert, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jason Puncheon – and we outplayed them.”
Like Steve Parkin a decade before, Keith Hill’s success at Rochdale took him to second-tier Barnsley, only this time Jones stayed behind. With Hill gone, the club slid back into League Two within a single season, under the guidance of Steve Eyre and then John Coleman. It was under the latter’s management that Jones ended his association with Rochdale.
“When Hilly left, Bradford wanted to sign me at that point,” Jones reveals. “Obviously, I was out of contract, so I went to speak to Bradford manager Peter Jackson, but it didn’t seem the right move for me at that time. Rochdale had just had a good season and, even though Hilly had gone, I didn’t see why we couldn’t do it again. I went on holiday and Steve Eyre phoned me up. I’d never heard of him, to be fair, but I liked what he had to say and he got me a new two-year deal at the club. Sadly, managing the youth team at Man City, which Steve did before getting the Rochdale job, is a big difference to managing seasoned professionals and he struggled with that. It didn’t work out for him.
“Then John Coleman came in and it started off really well with a good win over Bury. To be fair, and this might surprise you, I loved the way he wanted to play football, I really did. Where I had an issue was in the preparation. With Keith Hill, everything was done meticulously and on time. Everything. I needed that structure and it got the best out of me. With Coleman, that all changed – we were starting at different times and that discipline just wasn’t there. That didn’t suit me. We didn’t fall out or anything, we just didn’t see eye to eye. Don’t get me wrong, I had total respect for him and what he had done for Accrington, it just wasn’t for me.
“We were eventually relegated and the opportunity came around again for me to speak to Bradford after the club accepted an offer. John Coleman okayed it. By now, Bradford were being managed by Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin, and it was a much better proposition for me. That was that, my time at Rochdale was over. It was sad, especially on the back of such a poor season, but football works that way and you have to get on with it.”
And when Keith Hill retuned to the club in 2013, leading Rochdale back into League One, where they remain to this day, was there ever any chance of Jones returning?
“No, there wasn’t,” Jones says. “The opportunity never came around again. Hilly is an amazing manager and I would have loved to work for him again, but the chance just didn’t arise. It’s not just Hilly, though, it’s the club. It will always have a special place within me. It was the club that took a chance on me instead of discarding me, it allowed me to find my leadership qualities and it gave me time to get back to my best after injury. I would not have had the career I did were it not for Rochdale and for that I will be eternally grateful.”
Will Buckley emerged from the Rochdale youth team during a period that would become the most successful in the club’s history.
The winger made a gradual impact rather than an explosive one as he matured and learned his craft under the tutelage of manager Keith Hill and his assistant David Flitcroft. He would go on to cement his place as an integral part of a Rochdale side that would seal promotion in 2010 (although he left just before this was achieved), before going on to prove himself at the highest level. For the Dale, he became equally devastating out wide as he did through the middle, and was an integral component of a hugely successful attacking force.
Born and raised next door in Oldham, Buckley joined Rochdale as a youth scholar in 2006 before progressing to the reserves.
He explains how he came to that point.
‘I joined Oldham Athletic’s School of Excellence when I was about nine,’ he says. ‘I was there until the under-14s age group. I’d stopped enjoying it by then, though, and said to my mum and dad that I didn’t want to play anymore.
‘I felt there was too much pressure on me. With the way it was run, being a professional environment, football simply stopped being fun. My main position was a striker back then. As I hadn’t grown as much as some of my team mates and opponents, I felt my football suffered for it. I was still confident in my ability but in most games I was just not having the impact I would have wanted. The only thing you want to do at that age is play the game that you love. Unfortunately, at this time, I’d lost the enjoyment factor and therefore the best thing for me to do was leave Oldham in order to find the enjoyment again.
‘We approached Oldham to explain, but they didn’t want me to leave because I’d signed a four-year contract with them. They did eventually agree to let me leave, but said I couldn’t sign for another professional club. I ended up playing Sunday-league football for a couple of years. It was the best thing I could have done at that point because football started to be fun again. It was back to what it should have been for a lad my age – a kickabout with my mates.
‘I realised then, though, that I did want to have a career in football after all and so I eventually went back to Oldham, as I couldn’t go anywhere else. I was fifteen and they put me on a six-week trial. After that, they decided they didn’t want to offer me a Youth Training Scheme deal and they let me go.
‘I weighed up my options and decided to go to Hopwood Hall College, in Middleton [just outside Rochdale]. I was accepted into the football academy there. The course mirrored what youth scholars would be doing at local professional clubs – training and studying. Ironically, it’s where both Oldham and Rochdale sent their youth scholars after training each day. I think the qualification was equivalent to a BTEC National. You studied sports nutrition, sports psychology, stuff like that – anything that enhanced your knowledge of sport beyond just playing. It was really enjoyable.’
Buckley cites what happened next as the slice of luck that made his career.
‘Hopwood Hall’s academy was at quite a good level,’ he says. ‘Every year, they played the Rochdale youth team. I played in that year’s game  and we beat them 3-1. It just so happened that Keith Hill was there. It was not long before he was promoted to first-team manager at Rochdale. He spoke to me after the game and invited me and another lad, Ryan Morris, for a trial. I did the trial and was offered non-contract terms. It suited me because I didn’t want to tie myself to a two-year youth contract, as I would’ve been nineteen when it expired, which would have made me too old, in my opinion.
‘As Keith Hill had been the youth-team manager previously, there was a bit of upheaval when I arrived. Chris Beech eventually became my youth-team coach; I think he’d just arrived from Bury at that point. I got on really well with him and he helped me quite a lot. It was all very different to Oldham and I enjoyed my time in the Rochdale youth team. Part of that was down to the fact that they would use us in reserve games, which meant we could play with first-team squad players. It gave you a chance to show what you could do against full-time professionals. You got thrown in at the deep end. Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft would come to these games and watch everybody.’
Buckley’s introduction to the first team in 2008 was measured and he believes this is because his manager didn’t want to overexpose him to the rigours of league football.
‘I was still quite small and weak at that point, to be honest,’ he says. ‘I knew I had the ability to make it, but I didn’t know whether I would get the physicality. In some games I would get pushed off the ball too easily. Keith and David seemed to have faith in me, though, and they eventually selected me for a few first-team squads. I made my debut in the February of that year but only made eight more appearances that season. I was training with the first team every day by then, though. I think the management were looking out for me because, looking back, I wasn’t ready for too many games at that point.’
While Buckley would only make a handful of substitute appearances that season, one of them was in the play-off final against Stockport County at Wembley, which Dale lost 3-2.
‘I’d like to say Wembley was a defining experience for me, but, to be honest, when I think back to it, it’s a blur,’ he says. ‘I came on for the last twenty minutes but can’t remember it. I have to look at the DVD to remind me. I do remember being devastated at losing the game, of course, and I remember thinking it was ridiculous I was playing at Wembley aged eighteen. It did make me confident that I could kick on.’
After the Wembley disappointment, Rochdale once again made a tilt for promotion the following season and Buckley found himself with more game time, scoring his first professional goal in a 2-2 draw away at the nomadic Rotherham United and then again in the two subsequent games.
‘I had a really good pre-season and became a lot more regular in the first team when the season started,’ he says. ‘I got my first professional goal and I remember how good that felt. I remember the confidence it gave me. We were away against Rotherham, who were playing at Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium at the time. It was a shocking pitch and the game wasn’t the best, but I remember scoring and sprinting across the running track, which surrounded the pitch, to the Rochdale fans. It felt like they were half a mile away but I wanted to celebrate with them. At the end of the day, you can score twenty goals in the reserves but that first professional goal beats them all. That is one feeling you never forget.
‘It did feel special at Rochdale during that time. There was a buzz that was created by Keith and Dave and it was felt by everybody – not just the players, but other people at the club and the fans, too. After Wembley, everybody felt we had a chance to go one better. It was my first professional club in terms of being in a first team, so I guess I was spoilt looking back. I thought this is the way it was everywhere. Training was so enjoyable and both Keith and Dave maintained a closeness with the players that made them approachable. You knew both of them were your boss but you never felt you couldn’t go to them. If something ever needed to be said, you could say it to them. It just created a kind of harmony – a feeling that everyone was on the same side.
‘Since then, I’ve obviously learned some managers can be a lot more distant. That was never the case with Keith. It was a relaxed environment but nobody was ever in doubt of the job that needed to be done. Gary Jones, the captain, personified this. The way he trained and played was an inspiration to us all. It was great to be involved with him. We definitely had the right players at Rochdale, but Keith, Dave and Gary brought a steadiness and calmness that was needed to ensure everybody performed to their best.’
While Rochdale would again miss out on promotion via the play-offs, Buckley had established himself as a rising star. Rumours of his departure were rife. By the January of the following season, the one that would see Rochdale achieve promotion for the first time since 1969, Buckley was sold to Championship side Watford for a reported £250,000, with Rochdale sitting at the top of the League Two table.
‘My contract was coming to an end that season,’ he says. ‘It was January and I had six months left. My agent mentioned that Watford were interested and it was worth considering because it was an opportunity to play in the Championship. I didn’t expect it. I knew I was playing well, but I didn’t expect to leap up two divisions. Dave Flitcroft took me to one side and had a word. He wanted me to stay and experience a promotion with Rochdale. He promised I could leave at the end of the season if I still wanted to. I didn’t want to let the opportunity slip away, though. I think there was an element of Rochdale realising that if I left at the end of the season they wouldn’t get any money for me. I think it turned out well for both parties in the end. Rochdale still got promoted, so I was delighted.
‘This was my first experience of a transfer, so I was trusting my agent a fair bit. I didn’t really hear about Watford’s interest until a few days before it all happened. I was actually injured at the time. A few weeks earlier, we were away at Cheltenham and I felt my quad go in the warm up. I told Keith Hill about it and I think he thought I’d been told by my agent to throw one in. To this day, I still reckon he thinks I was at it! My dad sees Keith now and again and Keith always winds him up about it. Agents do ask players to chuck one in ahead of moves, I’m sure, but I genuinely was injured. I got to Watford and couldn’t play for a while because of it.’
Buckley, nursing his quadriceps injury, had to wait until March to make his Watford debut.
‘I arrived at Watford and was really impressed with the training facilities and the sessions,’ he says. ‘The pace of everything was that little bit quicker. No disrespect to League Two, which is a difficult league to play in, but everything here had to be done at extra pace – even thinking. It took me a while to get used to that. It took me five or six weeks to adapt to the step up. It was harder than I ever expected it to be. I had to set myself the goal of achieving the standard, or I knew I wouldn’t get a game.
‘The manager, Malky Mackay, helped me with this. He was patient and knew what I could offer. He was heavily involved in the team on a daily basis. Maybe he didn’t have the banter that Keith and Dave had, he was a different kind of manager, but I enjoyed working with him no less.’
With Watford struggling in the Championship by the end of the following season, Brighton & Hove Albion looked to boost their own promotion chances when entering the division and signed Buckley for a then club record fee of £1 million. Thanks to a sell-on clause insisted on by Rochdale, some of that money made its way to the Spotland coffers.
‘I went on to do well at Watford and played a lot of games for them during the next full season,’ Buckley says. ‘Personally, when the season ended, despite the club’s league position, I thought I had done alright. Brighton had just won promotion from League One and, unknown by me, they had been watching my games. I went on holiday with one of my best mates in the summer and got a phone call from my agent while I was away telling me I’d been sold to Brighton and that I had to sort out terms with them. They’d put in a few bids for me that had been rejected and I thought that was the end of it. Then they put in a record bid and it had gone through.
‘I never thought that would be the last time I’d be at Watford. I never got to say goodbye to half of the lads. The last I said to them was: “I’ll see you in six weeks for pre-season training”. It was a strange one and one of the harsh realities of football. You rarely get a leaving party.
‘The size of the fee Brighton paid for me surprised me, too. It was a record fee for them, well, until they signed Craig Mackail-Smith a week later. It made me feel wanted, though. For them to go back two or three times for me showed how much they wanted me.
‘Brighton were a new club to the Championship, true, but they had the big new stadium and big ambitions. Gus Poyet was the manager and obviously he was a great player in his day. I learned so much from him. My first season there, along with my Rochdale days, rank as my favourite in football.’
Brighton finished tenth in the league and reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, beating Newcastle United, and the third round of the League Cup, beating Sunderland.
‘The Amex Stadium was packed and created a buzz around the town,’ Buckley recalls. ‘It was a dream come true for Brighton, what with the league performance and the cups, turning Premier League teams over.’
The next season was even better for Buckley and Brighton, as the club finished fourth, where they then lost out to Crystal Palace in the play-offs. Two days later, manager Gus Poyet and his assistants were suspended. The Uruguayan was famously sacked live on air the following month while working as a pundit for the BBC.
‘We got into the play-offs and then it all ended quite badly between Gus and the owner,’ Buckley says. ‘I think he felt the owner wasn’t giving him the money to move the team forward. Gus wanted automatic promotion and had identified a few players. I don’t know what happened in any detail after that, but all the lads were gutted that he went, because the influence he had on the club was massive in the three or four years he was there.’
Buckley would stay on the south coast until 2014. During the August transfer window of that year, he finally got his Premier League move when Sunderland paid a fee for him reported to be £2.5 million. ‘I had another full season with Brighton, managed by Oscar Garcia now, and Sunderland, where Gus was now manager, put a last-minute bid in for me in the January. Brighton rejected it because they couldn’t get a replacement winger for me. I understood that. I finished the season at Brighton and we got into the play-offs again, losing to Derby this time. Sunderland came back in for me and I was allowed to leave at the end of that summer.
‘From when I was a boy I wanted to play in the Premier League and then I was there. I never once thought: “I can’t handle this”. The standard increased, obviously, but I felt ready for it this time. My debut was in an away game. I came on at West Brom for twenty minutes. I’d only signed a couple of days before and Gus put me straight in.
‘Did I feel pressure? Yes, but not in the way people might think. The TV cameras and the crowd don’t matter so much as the pressure you feel from the money. The money players are paid, the money clubs pay for you, and the money TV companies pay the clubs. There is a pressure to perform constantly as a result of that. I felt it. I was sat on the bench with the worst butterflies I’ve ever had.
‘The way the game is played in the Premier League is totally different to any division below it. There is a gulf in class within the league itself for a start, but I was surprised by how much things slow down. People talk about the pace of the Premier League, but you have a lot of time in your own half. Then you’re in the final third and it’s like: “Woah, what happened there?” All of a sudden, you need to make something happen fast and you’re up against the fittest, strongest, quickest left back around. Bang. It took some getting used to. You watch players every week on the TV and they make it look easy. Trust me, making something happen consistently in the final third, at that level, is so difficult. I’ve so much respect for the players that can do that time and time again.’
On 16 March 2015, Poyet was sacked by Sunderland after a run of just one victory in twelve Premier League games. Former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat replaced him and, as a result, Buckley found his opportunities limited. He has since spent a bit of time on loan at Championship clubs Leeds and Birmingham City.
‘I’ve been sent out on loan, but I look back and think: “I could be doing something else right now”. I played one game against Rochdale for a college side and the opposition manager happened to be there. What if he wasn’t? Would I have got the same chance somewhere else? Maybe not. Obviously you’ve got to have the ability, but you need that luck. You also need a thick skin. Some managers rate you, some don’t. You can’t take things personally. That’s what happened to me during my loan spell at Leeds. The manager preferred someone else in the end. That’s fine. You just prove yourself to a different manager.
‘I mention Dave Flitcroft frequently to this day because he spent a lot of time with me on the training pitch while I was developing at Rochdale. I needed that time and it’s time that a lot of players don’t get. The club gave Keith Hill the freedom to do things the way he wanted to, which gave players like me a chance to shine. A lot of teams don’t rate youth, or are too scared to put young players in. Rochdale did the opposite. They would take the young lads getting released from Man City, Man United and so on, and they would get played against other reserve sides. If they were good enough, they’d get signed. It didn’t matter where they’d been before or where they’d been rejected from − if they were good enough they were good enough. If it wasn’t for Rochdale, I wouldn’t be a Premier League footballer now and for that I’ll always be grateful.’
Rochdale AFC had lost one powerhouse in 2006, but fans were about to celebrate another.
With Grant Holt gone (and his strike partner Rickie Lambert too), manager Steve Parkin was once more forced to pan the murky waters of football’s wilderness. Against the odds, he found gold among the silt yet again when he signed the unfulfilled potential of Glenn Murray.
Like fellow Cumbrian Holt, it took Murray a little while to hit his stride in Dale colours and, as Parkin lamented when we last spoke, Murray only began to properly fire for Rochdale once Parkin had left the club.
Of course, Murray’s comparisons with Holt go beyond them merely sharing a county of origin. Their early careers followed a very similar path too, with stints at non-league sides Barrow and Workington Reds sandwiching a spell overseas.
‘I was on Carlisle’s books as a kid and the dream was always to be a professional footballer,’ Murray begins, with that Cumbrian lilt the uninitiated usually mistake for a Geordie accent.
‘It didn’t work out at Carlisle, though, and, by the time I was seventeen-eighteen, I was playing non-league football for Workington and was working as a plasterer’s labourer. I had given up on being a professional. I thought my chance had gone.’
There was a glimmer of hope for Murray when he was invited to play in the USA in the summer of 2004. His destination was North Carolina, where he would represent USL Pro Soccer League side Wilmington Hammerheads.
‘I did alright there but was unsure where it would lead,’ he says. ‘It was really hot and so you had to play a lot differently than in the UK. You had to keep the ball a lot more. By chance, Sunderland had come out to North Carolina on a pre-season tour. Mick McCarthy was in charge at the time. I played in a couple of games against Sunderland out there and Mick invited me to train with them back in the UK. I jumped at that and spent three or four weeks with them. In the end, Mick decided not to offer me anything but said he would put a word in with anybody I wanted. I asked him to contact Carlisle because it was my local club. [Former Rochdale boss] Paul Simpson was the manager at the time and Mick said he knew him. He said he’d give him a call to recommend me.
‘I left Sunderland with my tail between my legs to some degree and I had to go back to work as a labourer. The weeks went by and I heard nothing from Carlisle. I was quite disillusioned and began to think Mick might not have made the call. Six weeks on and I hadn’t kicked a football.
‘Then, just like that, I got a call out of the blue asking if I could play in a reserve game for Carlisle the next day. I said: “Of course I can”. I went through there determined, played the game (I can’t remember who it was against) and managed to get myself on the score sheet. That goal got me a trial period.
‘At the time, though, Carlisle weren’t in great shape as a club. I used to watch them, as they were my local team, and I’d seen them relegated to the Conference the previous season. Still, just to be asked to go on trial with them was great. I was there a good few weeks and Paul Simpson said to me: “I’ve not made my mind up about you, but I’ve had Barrow FC on the phone, would you like to play for them but train with us during the week?” The idea was that Barrow would pay me enough money to get by. So that was the arrangement; I trained with a Conference National club during the week and played for a Conference North team at the weekend. I scored ten in ten for Barrow and Paul decided to offer me a deal at Carlisle until the end of the season.’
From there, Carlisle were promoted from the Conference via the play-offs, back into the football league.
‘I got my contract extended and, the next season, we got promoted again,’ Murray remembers. ‘We won promotion from League Two at Rochdale, funnily enough. Despite the success of the club, I was very much a substitute player. I was the impact sub who came on for the last twenty minutes to freshen a game up. I was eager and had the legs, and felt I very much played my part.
‘Then we were in League One, Paul Simpson left to manage Preston North End in the Championship, and the club just moved too fast for me. Coming from non-league, with back-to-back promotions, I was struggling with the standard. Neil McDonald took over as Carlisle manager and he saw that. To help me, I was sent on loan back to League Two with Stockport. That step back helped me, to be honest.
‘While I was at Stockport, Rochdale manager Steve Parkin sent Keith Hill to watch me. Hilly was youth-team manager at that time, but would obviously go on to take over the first-team. He recommended me to Steve. Rochdale came in for me, but then Accrington Stanley did as well, and both were offering very similar deals. The idea was that I would join one of them on loan and sign permanently when the transfer window reopened in January. I told Neil McDonald I wanted to sign for Accrington because it was a bit nearer to where I lived. Neil, to his credit, told me that I had to change my way of thinking if I was going to carve out a career in the game. He felt that Rochdale was a much better club for me and pointed out that it had launched the careers of players like Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert. With his guidance, I signed for Rochdale.’
Unfortunately for Murray, he joined Rochdale at a time when the side was struggling in League Two and it has to be noted that he made his first start in a 7-1 hammering by Lincoln City.
‘Steve Parkin was brilliant with me as soon as I got there,’ he says. ‘He told me I would be starting against Lincoln at the weekend. Then we got battered 7-1. I, personally, didn’t do very well over the next few games, nor did the rest of the team, and Parkin ended up getting the sack.’
But far from fading back into a substitute, Murray began to establish himself as not only a goal threat but a great outlet for his team-mates, too. He could play the targetman as if he had been daubed with a Pritt Stick – a focal point from which his fellow attackers could feed. It wasn’t realised quickly enough to save Parkin’s job, true, but Murray’s talent was fully utilised by the man who replaced him, youth-team boss Keith Hill.
‘We were all low at the time Steve Parkin left, but then Keith Hill stepped in, brought David Flitcroft in as his assistant, and the transformation was incredible,’ Murray recalls. ‘Steve signed me, though, and gave me my chance, so I’ll be forever grateful for that. However, Hilly and Flitcroft brought a new level of enthusiasm with them. From the way they spoke, to the drills we did in training – everything was new. It swept you along. It was a special time for the club.
‘I think the way they showed me attention, and focused on my strengths, brought the best out of me. I’d stay behind after training and Dave Flitcroft would bring out all these new finishing drills. As I say, it was new, exciting and a fun time to be at the club. It brought everyone together, too. We all got on with each other brilliantly. The camaraderie was strong.’
Murray believes the mix of youth and experience was just right, too. Whereas traditionally older professionals may not buy into a young, new manager’s philosophy, this didn’t appear to be the case at Rochdale.
‘Adam Le Fondre came in, and we already had Chris Dagnall,’ Murrays says. ‘We all played well up front together. It wasn’t just about the young lads either. The older lads, like John Doolan, Gary Jones, Dave Perkins and Lee Crooks, were brilliant for us, too. They fed off the energy from Hilly and Flitcroft. Crooks had played for Man City, for example, but he didn’t think he was better than anyone else. He was as enthusiastic about Hilly’s vision as anyone.’
Including his loan spell, Murray made thirty-three appearances for Rochdale that season, scoring sixteen goals. He was an integral part of a side that transformed from one which looked nailed on for relegation into one which narrowly missed the play-offs.
The following was Hill’s first full season as Rochdale boss and Murray was a player in fine form. He had found the net ten times when the January transfer window of the 2007/08 season had opened and, when he looked through it, the Seagulls were circling. They finally deemed it fit to swoop on the twenty-fifth of the month and Murray departed for Brighton & Hove Albion leaving Rochdale in the region of £300,000 better off.
‘I was scoring for Rochdale and the rumours were out there,’ Murray says. ‘Even over the summer people had been saying clubs were interested in me, but nothing happened. I just got on with my football. Then, one day in January 2008, I got called into the office and was told the club had accepted a bid for me from Brighton. It felt a bit strange. Brighton was a club I’d never paid much attention to, being a northern boy. I think Hilly really wanted me to stay, but Brighton were offering me really good money to step up a division and that’s what I knew I had to work towards. I felt I wasn’t good enough for League One when I was last there with Carlisle but I felt ready for it at that point. Rochdale had made me ready for it. My skills had been honed and I was used to playing more than just a bit part with a team.’
Murray spent three-and-a-half seasons in League One with Brighton, each season becoming more prolific. In 2011, after helping himself to twenty-two goals in fifty outings, it was enough for Championship side Crystal Palace to take a punt on him.
‘My time at Brighton was a bit up and down,’ Murray says. ‘My first year was good, my second year saw me in and out of the side due to injuries, and my last year was special. I knuckled down after I got over the injuries, did really well, and it coincided with the club’s promotion.’
With Brighton and Crystal Palace being arch-rivals, it’s perhaps understandable that Murray was reluctant to discuss his switch in any great detail. One can only assume that, with Murray under freedom of contract, he felt Palace showed a greater interest in acquiring him than Brighton did in keeping him.
Regardless, Murray described the move as an ‘opportunity to take on a new challenge’. And it took him just two seasons to reach the Premier League with Palace – with him smashing an incredible thirty-one goals in forty-five appearances during the promotion season. He also scored a memorable extra-time winner at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the League Cup quarter-finals.
‘My first season at Palace was not good at all, though,’ Murray says. ‘I was playing in a very defensive-minded team under Dougie Freedman. I only managed seven goals. I felt comfortable in the division but didn’t feel like I had completely gotten to grips with it. That said, we did go to Man United in the cup and win. I’ve played against them since and only matched that result once. We were buzzing. They had players like Paul Pogba and Dimitar Berbatov playing. It was a great night for us. I scored the winner and Darren Ambrose scored that wonder goal of an equaliser. We were so close to the final that year, too, eventually getting beat by Cardiff on penalties.
‘The next season saw us really kick on. Dougie tweaked the way we played to give me more support up front. I had Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie on either wing firing balls in. For a striker like myself, it was perfect. Two wingers who wanted to carry the ball to the by-line and cross it. While Dougie left us to manage Bolton in the October, Ian Holloway came in, maintained that playing style and guided us to the play-offs.’
Sadly, Murray’s season was cut short a game early by a serious knee injury and he wasn’t able to take part in the play-off final. In fact, the injury would delay his experience of the Premier League until the following February.
‘I snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Brighton. I remember going for the ball in the penalty box and twisting in agony. I missed the next leg and then the final, which was obviously gutting, but the lads took us over the line. I’m at peace with it now. If we had lost, and I felt that my playing would have made a difference, that would have been much harder to take.
‘It hindered me for a while did that injury, but I guess the only positive was the period I sustained it − right at the end of the season. It was a nine or ten-month injury, but I knew I had three months before every other player would kick another competitive ball. I would be well into my rehab by then and that was the positive spin I put on it to get me back. The fact I was now a Premier League player was an added incentive.’
When Murray did return, he found the step up in class a formidable one.
‘The obvious thing about the step up is there are a lot less mistakes at Premier League level and the players are much more athletic,’ he says. ‘Instead of stepping out and engaging strikers, the defenders tend to stay in their line and, if one does decide to engage, then their team mates cover round. All the teams are well drilled and become hard to break down.’
The change of managers at Palace was also a difficult transition for Murray to handle. He feels Neil Warnock, who had replaced Tony Pulis, who in turn had replaced Ian Holloway, didn’t see him as a Premier League striker.
‘He had six strikers and, in his opinion, I was the sixth,’ Murray says. ‘When a manager says that to me, at thirty years old, I’m going to look elsewhere to get games. I wanted to show people that I was fit again and was capable of playing game after game after game. It wasn’t even about scoring goals at that point; it was about proving I could play games consistently. I told him I wanted to leave and he said okay.’
Murray moved to Championship club Reading on loan in September 2014, scoring twice on his debut. He went on to score six more times for the Royals before returning to Palace in January 2015.
‘Reading was good for me because I played week in, week out and scored goals. It removed all doubt as far as I was concerned.’
Murray returned to Palace under yet another new manager, Alan Pardew, and scored seven times in fifteen league appearances. His value as a Premiership force was reignited. After several bids, newcomers Bournemouth lured him to the south coast on a three-year deal, the fee to Palace a not insignificant £4 million. At the time of our interview, Murray had already scored a late headed goal to clinch a famous win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
‘Palace felt the bid from Bournemouth was a good one and let me go,’ Murray says. ‘I haven’t played as much as I’d have liked at Bournemouth, but to be part of a squad that everyone thought would be relegated, and wasn’t, is a great feeling.’
As we round off our chat, Murray once again reiterates the fondness with which he recalls his time at Rochdale.
‘Rochdale was a massive point in my career,’ he says. ‘The perfect club at the perfect time. Like those strikers before me, Holt and Lambert, the club made my career. It sounds daft, but I wouldn’t be a Premier League striker now if it wasn’t for Rochdale, Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft.’
Rickie Lambert is probably sick of hearing the word ‘beetroot’. It’s not because he’s dismissive of his time working in a factory that packed the said vegetable, but more because there doesn’t seem to be an article in the press concerning his rise to fame that fails to mention it.
The beetroot, however, is as much a part of the Rickie Lambert story as his time at Rochdale AFC, where yet another visionary move from then manager Steve Parkin transformed the life of a footballer forever. He saw in Lambert an intelligent player and natural goal scorer, something everybody else up to that point had inexplicably missed.
In my previous book, The Rochdale Division, Parkin told me: ‘Rickie Lambert was even more pleasing [than Grant Holt]. I’d only ever seen him play in midfield. I never thought he had the legs to play there, to be perfectly truthful. He did have a terrific shot, however. I started thinking, if he’s a bit further up the pitch, he could create the kind of space in the box that he does in midfield. I sold this idea to him, I said: “I want you up front with Holty”. He snapped my hand off because it meant less running for him.’
Lambert, in this new role, teamed up with Holt to form one of the best strike partnerships ever seen at Spotland. But, like Holt, Lambert had been around the block before his football career finally clicked under Parkin at the age of twenty-three.
In a relaxed manner, and with a softly-spoken Liverpudlian accent, he recounts the formative years that took him to that point.
‘It was the early 1990s,’ he says. ‘I was ten years old, playing for a local youth team, and I was spotted by a Liverpool scout. I was invited in for a trial and ended up getting a contract. My dad was so proud. That contract stayed in a frame until I was in my early twenties.
‘I joined the ten and elevens age group and stayed at Liverpool until I was fifteen. I was mostly playing on the right of midfield, which, as you know, isn’t really my position. Steve Heighway was the director of the youth team at the time and he called me in with my dad and said bluntly: “I don’t think you’re good enough. It’s not going to work out”. I was devastated. It was like my world had ended.’
Despite being discarded by the club he loved, spells at Blackpool, Macclesfield Town and Stockport County would follow, punctuated by that oft-reported spell in a beetroot factory. Lambert describes these years as frustrating.
‘I didn’t know what to do with myself after Liverpool got rid of me. Then I heard from Danny Coid, who I had grown up with. He had been let go by Liverpool, too, and was now trying out at Blackpool. He invited me to go down there with another mate and all three of us went on to get a Youth Training Scheme deal at sixteen.
‘It went okay for a while. When Nigel Worthington was manager, I was doing well and it looked promising that I might break into the first team, but then he resigned just before I was about to turn pro. Steve McMahon took over and gave me a month-to-month pro contract when I turned eighteen. Again, though, it wasn’t long before I got that call to the office to be told it wasn’t working out. Steve wasn’t even playing me in reserve games, which I wasn’t happy with.
‘It was the middle of the season when Blackpool let me go and I found myself training at Macclesfield, who were in the old Third Division. They wanted to sign me but couldn’t afford to. When it came to the summer I had no money coming in, so I took a job on a farm near Kirby, where I grew up. I had lots of things to do there, including working at the beetroot-packing factory. It reminded me what was waiting for me if the football didn’t work out. It made me more determined.
‘As it happened, Macclesfield signed me the next season and I did really well there. That led to Stockport coming in to buy me for £300,000 when I was twenty-one. I thought things were going to progress from then on but my first season there, under Carlton Palmer, didn’t go very well at all. He wanted me to play as a deep-lying midfielder and I found it hard, to be honest. I very rarely played and, when I did play, I was subbed. It was a very frustrating time.
‘Then Sammy McIlroy took over and he played me as a central midfielder. I liked Sammy and things picked up. I was the leading goal scorer and Player of the Season. But again, things went backwards. My third season at Stockport was one of the worst I’ve had personally. We were bottom or near the bottom of the league most of the time. I don’t know why we were so poor, but it cost Sammy his job. The crowd was on our backs because we weren’t performing. It was really hard mentally. Chris Turner came in but things didn’t improve and the minute Rochdale enquired about me I was allowed to speak to them.’
The lure of regular football was enough to persuade Lambert to drop down a division in 2005 and the Liverpudlian committed to Rochdale just a day after his twenty-third birthday.
‘When I met him, Steve Parkin said to me: “Rickie, I need goals”, but we had an agreement that I would play the remainder of that season, which was about three months, as a centre midfielder. He needed somebody there. Sometimes he would push me up as an attacking midfielder or as a number ten, if the game needed it. The following summer, during pre-season, he pulled me to one side and offered me the chance to play as a forward. He’s right in what he told you; I did bite his hand off.
‘Things really changed for me at this point. I came to Rochdale off the back of Stockport, where I’d really not enjoyed myself. I had no confidence. In making me a forward, Steve Parkin brought my confidence back and he got me scoring goals. I loved playing with Holty, too, even though he wouldn’t pass to me! We were in competition with each other as to who could score the most goals, but he tried to grab all the penalties, so I had no chance. Seriously though, I loved the guy.’
Lambert quickly established himself as dead-ball specialist at Rochdale. Free kicks won around the edge of the opposition penalty area were quickly greeted by rapturous cheers from the Spotland faithful. They knew what was coming from his malevolent boot.
‘I’ve always been good at set pieces, even when I was kid. I’ve never been as prolific at them as I was at Rochdale, though. The secret is practice. When I was kid, I would get rows of balls and just practice that technique over and over. I was always good at striking a ball, but the free-kick technique is different. It has to be practised and it comes with time. At Rochdale, I hit a purple patch where every one I took seemed to end up in the back of the net. It got to a stage where the opposition was terrified to concede a free kick anywhere near their own area. To see the ball bend over the wall right into the top corner; it’s a perfect thing.’
Lambert recalls his favourite game for Rochdale, which saw him score two goals past a goalkeeper who would himself rise to the elite level of the game.
‘It was the 4-3 win against Shrewsbury,’ Lambert says. ‘In fact, it’s one the best games of football I’ve been involved in full stop. We came back from 3-1 down. Holty scored two and I scored two, including the winner, against Joe Hart.’
The freight-train Rochdale had become with its unstoppable strike force wasn’t quite derailed when Holt was sold to Nottingham Forest, but it certainly lost more than a few wheels. Lambert without Holt was like an Empire biscuit without a jelly tot.
‘I was gutted when Holty was sold,’ Lambert says. ‘We were in contention for the play-offs and the two of us were on fire. I think everyone felt it when he left. Our league position deteriorated. Listen, though, I know that that’s football. It’s money to the club and it was a good move for Holty. Personally, I was disappointed, as I really enjoyed playing football with him and he was a great lad around the club.’
It was perhaps inevitable that Lambert would follow his strike partner through the door eventually, although his destination, Bristol Rovers, surprised many, as they were in the same division as Rochdale at the time. The reported £200,000 fee was considered somewhat meagre too, but the added clauses of that deal have gone on to make Rochdale a lot of money in the years since.
‘I was offered a new contract by Rochdale,’ Lambert says. ‘I wasn’t saying no, but I was holding off. I wanted to progress up the leagues and I wasn’t too sure Rochdale were going to do it. I didn’t want to tie my future down at that time. It was the August transfer deadline day and Steve Parkin took me into his office to tell me Bristol Rovers had come in for me. I had three or four hours to decide the next three or four years of my career. It was very stressful. There were a few things in my private life that were stopping me being as professional as I needed to be. They were holding me back. It was nothing to do with Rochdale. I loved Rochdale. It was my own issue. I thought if I took the Bristol move, it would force me to leave Liverpool, where I still lived, and the comfort of home. That’s what I felt I needed to do. It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I wasn’t quite isolated in Bristol, but I was by myself a lot and everything became solely about my football career for the first time.’
Lambert’s continued success with Bristol Rovers led Southampton − themselves in League One at the time – to pay £1million for his services. The fee raised a lot of eyebrows but it was more than justified. Lambert fired Southampton to back-to-back promotions and quickly established himself as a very able Premier League striker.
‘I progressed into a better player at Bristol Rovers,’ he recalls. ‘We got promoted out of League Two through the play-offs and did okay in League One. I had scored twenty-nine goals in my third season. In my head, I was ready to progress and play Championship football. In many ways, it was like Rochdale all over again. I didn’t think Bristol Rovers were going to make that step up to the Championship.
‘I loved it there, though. I would never have put in a transfer request or anything like that. For me to leave, someone would have to come in for me. I remember that summer came and went and nobody came in for me. I felt disappointed. Not because I was still at Bristol Rovers, but because it felt like nobody believed in me. The season started and then Southampton came in for me after the first game. Straight away, I knew I had to go there. They had just been relegated to League One, but when I met the chairman and spoke to the manager, Alan Pardew, and heard their plans for promotion and beyond, I said: “This has to happen”. There were a few scary moments when Bristol Rovers were, quite rightly, trying to get as much money for me as they could, but I was doing my best to get the move pushed through.
‘Again, the move to Southampton forced me on further as a professional. I remember Pardew called me into his office a few months after the move and he gave me a right dressing down. He said: “You’re not fit enough. You’re not looking after yourself. You should be ashamed.” I was banging in the goals at the time, so I was in shock. It was a proper eye opener. From that moment on, I thrived on working hard and doing extra training and being in the gym. Suddenly, I was as fit as everyone else. I was going into games and everything started to feel really easy. That’s when I would say I became a proper professional footballer.
‘We just missed out on the play-offs in the first season in League One, but we won the LDV Trophy. Then we started the next season badly and Alan Pardew got the sack. Nigel Adkins came in and it took us all six months to get to grips with the league. Then we went on an unbelievable run and finished second behind Brighton. Full credit to Nigel for that. He got us into a style of playing, and instilled a belief in us, that other teams couldn’t cope with. Behind the scenes, the club was being run like a Premier League side. We had the best medical advice, all the stats you could imagine, the best transport. So, when we got into the Championship, we were more than ready for it. We absolutely destroyed the league that season. It was superb. We were promoted to the Premier League in style.
‘Once there, it took us a while to get used to the Premier League. We carried on playing like we did in the Championship. We would open up, pass, and wait for teams to get tired, break them down and score. In the Premier League, people don’t get tired. People don’t make mistakes. People don’t open up. They wait until they get the ball, or until you make a mistake, and, straight away, they’re through on goal and they score. In the Championship, you would lose it two or three times for them to score one. In the Premier League, you lose it once and they score. I was like: “Wow.” So we changed our style to suit and we stabilised in the league.
‘Then Mauricio Pochettino came in when Nigel left and took us up another level. He was a proper eye opener. He’s easily the best manager I’ve played under. I remember he started running us on a Monday in training. We all went to see him afterwards and said: “You shouldn’t be doing this. We’ve just played ninety minutes on a Saturday. You shouldn’t be running us on a Monday.” He was all relaxed and said: “Okay, yeah, that’s fine.” The next Monday, he doubled the running. We just looked at each other and decided to keep our mouths shut from then on.’
Lambert’s rise to the top wasn’t finished yet. At the age of thirty-one he finally fulfilled an ambition harboured by almost every boy in England − he wore the Three Lions. The fact that it was a game against Scotland, the Auld Enemy, made it all the more special. By this stage, Lambert had scored one-hundred-and-three goals in just one-hundred-and-ninety-six appearances across three divisions for Southampton. His call-up by Roy Hodgson was surprising only to those who still didn’t fully appreciate what he was capable of. Needless to say, he scored on his international debut − with his first touch. It proved to be the decisive goal as England saw off Scotland 3-2 at Wembley in the first meeting between the two nations for fourteen years.
‘My call up was surreal,’ he says. ‘I’d been in hospital all that night with my wife, who was giving birth to my baby girl. I went home and went straight to bed in the morning. I woke up at midday to fifty missed calls and one-hundred-and-twenty messages. I thought that’s a hell of a lot of well-wishers for the birth of my daughter. One of the first messages said: “Please call the Gaffer”. I was like: “Shit, what’s this?” So I called him and was told I was in the England squad. I didn’t even know the squad was being named that day. I thought I was being wound up.
‘I’ve had a lot of great moments playing for my league clubs, but that probably is the best moment of my career. It felt like everything had been building up to it. I remember sitting on the bench at the game itself, being absolutely desperate to get on. I was like a tiger in a cage. I knew if I didn’t get on and do something, I might never have the chance to represent England again. It felt a bit like I got a call up because of my league form, but I didn’t feel established, if you know what I mean? I felt it would just take another player to start scoring goals again and my place would be gone. Still, I didn’t envisage my impact being as extreme as scoring the winning goal with my first touch. That was something else. It was indescribable.’
It was about to get better for Lambert. Following selection for the England squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Liverpool, the club that released him as a teenager, wanted him back.
‘I had just been called up to the World Cup squad, which was amazing enough, and then my agent phoned to tell me Liverpool had come in for me,’ he says. ‘It was turning into an incredible year for me. The club I supported as a boy, and still do, wanted to pay money for me. I was very emotional, though. I saw myself retiring at Southampton, but the pull of Liverpool was too strong and I was never going to say no to them. Obviously, the training facilities were all new compared to when I was there as a kid, but the ground, Anfield, was exactly the same and inspired the same emotions in me.’
As it transpired, England bombed out of the World Cup in the group stages that summer without registering a single win. Lambert himself was given a mere three minutes of game time against Uruguay. It was disappointing Hodgson then failed to play him in the final game against Costa Rica, which was nothing more than a dead rubber.
After the dissatisfaction of Brazil, Lambert was keen to get back to domestic action.
‘Because I was so excited to join Liverpool, I joined up with them two weeks earlier than I should have done after the World Cup. I wanted to make sure I started well for them, but it backfired. I needed more rest, if I’m being honest. I didn’t feel as sharp as I did the season before. It took me a while to get a run of games. To be honest, it’s a period I don’t want to go into too much.’
While Lambert feels disappointed about how his return to Liverpool panned out, he was given the chance to continue his Premier League career at West Bromwich Albion, where he is currently playing at the time of our interview. I ask him about his future.
‘Long term, who knows?’ he says. ‘I know I’ve not got long left to play. I don’t want to cut my Premier League career short, but playing football is what it’s all about for me. I’d like to think I could be a manager one day, though. That said, if I did it, I would need the same hunger as I have as a player. I would want to learn properly how to do it rather than jumping straight into it.’
As we round off our chat, Lambert is quick to enthuse about the bearing Rochdale had on his vocation.
‘Rochdale had a massive impact on me because I wasn’t enjoying football and my career was going nowhere,’ he says. ‘Rochdale brought enjoyment back to football for me. Most importantly, I started scoring goals there. When I was a kid, before I first went to Liverpool, I was striker. I used to score hundreds of goals a season. All those instincts came back to me at Rochdale. That feeling of hitting the back of the net can’t be compared to anything else in the game. That’s why I started playing football.’
Football fans take great delight in chanting ‘He’s one of our own’ when a home-grown player performs admirably on the field of play.
It’s no different within the stands at Rochdale AFC, where there have been few local players to attract the native pride Craig Dawson has.
It’s easy to understand how a great many that have played for nearby Manchester United or Liverpool have grown up supporting these clubs and claim to have fulfilled a boyhood dream when stepping out in their colours.
It’s not so easy to recall many Rochdale players who have made the equivalent claim.
But when Dawson delivers such an assertion, there’s no doubting him. Here is an affable, genuine fellow whose love of the club, and football in general, is palpable. He entered the professional game the less fashionable way and his career trajectory since has all the substance of a Roy of the Rovers comic strip.
It’s a cliché, granted, but there is no denying the involuntary double take one performs when considering Dawson went from playing non-league football to the Premier League in just two years, before going on to win England Under-21 caps and represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games.
Not that the man himself is in any way thunderstruck. There is no arrogance or showy cockiness here, just a quiet self-confidence in his ability and an unwavering dedication to the biggest factor of all in achieving success – hard work.
Born in Rochdale in 1990, Dawson was raised in the Spotland area of the town, just half a mile along the road from the stadium of the same name. He attended Meanwood Primary School and Oulder Hill High School during his seminal years.
‘When I was at Meanwood, Rochdale’s football-in-the-community coach, Keith Hicks, used to come in a couple of times a week to run a soccer school,’ Dawson recalls. ‘I got involved and, as part of that, we’d get invited to Rochdale games. A lot of my school friends were big Rochdale fans anyway, so there was a good few of us used to go when we were young. I remember Kevin Townson was playing up front around that time and Steve Parkin was manager. Rochdale were doing quite well and it was good to watch. I collected quite a few replica shirts growing up.
‘It was definitely always my dream to be a professional footballer, but I had never signed for a club’s centre of excellence or academy. I just didn’t get that opportunity. Nothing came of the Rochdale soccer schools or anything that I tried anywhere else. It didn’t look like it was ever going to happen. As I went through high school, I kept myself fit by running a lot and I played other sports, too. I was a batsman for Rochdale Cricket Club in the summer months, but it was always football that interested me the most.’
A teenage Dawson kept himself in pocket as a glass collector at the Dog and Partridge pub on Bury Road, and kept himself fit by turning out for Rochdale St Clements, a local amateur side.
‘I suppose I got my first proper taste of “men’s football” when I was playing for St Clements’ first team,’ he says. ‘My brother Andy is four years older than me and he had been playing for them for a while. He was in the first team and I had started out in the fourth team. I got a lucky break when the first team was a player short one day and I found myself drafted in just because I was there. I did well and got a run of games after that. I know I’m a defender now, but I was playing right wing, up front, everywhere, back then. It was my first experience of adult football, and it was a steep learning curve, but I loved it. I stayed in the first team for the rest of that season and we won the league and cup double.
‘That was my life at that point. I was working in the Dog on a Thursday and Friday night, glass collecting, as I wasn’t old enough to serve beer, and playing for St Clements on a Saturday, before going back to the Dog to do another shift at night.
‘By this time, I was at Hopwood Hall College, too, studying for my A-levels. I was studying PE, IT and sociology, of all things. I suppose I eventually saw myself going to university to study sports science or coaching.’
In 2007, with Dawson aged seventeen, a well-known representative from Northern Premier League side Radcliffe Borough saw potential in the teenager and, before long, he was an integral part of their starting XI. It was here he established his reputation as a goal-scoring centre-half, notching fifteen times in ninety-five appearances.
‘Bernard Manning Junior was the chairman of Radcliffe at the time,’ says Dawson. ‘I went to high school with his son, Ben. He knew of me because both me and Ben played football for Oulder Hill and he would watch the games. He’d seen me play for St Clements a few times, too. He was in the Dog one Friday night and he said: “Are you coming down to Radcliffe for training?” I laughed it off. I thought he was joking. He kept on at me, though, and then I knew he was serious. I agreed and he took me down there. Initially it was just for pre-season training. I did okay and they put me in the team for a friendly against Salford. The manager at the time, Kevin Glendon, was worried about me because I was only seventeen and I was playing in an adult league. I ended up making a tackle on the halfway line and took this guy right out. I remember seeing Bernard and Kevin on the sideline laughing and nodding in approval. Radcliffe signed me on the basis of that match.
‘The standard in the Northern Premier was way higher than I’d experienced at St Clements up to that point, but I really liked the challenge of playing centre-half. There were a lot of ex-pros there – such as Mike Flynn who had been at Stockport. They all looked after me and taught me quite a lot.
‘When I was at St Clements I had played higher up the pitch and scored a few goals. My brother was a centre-half and always used to score from corners, so I tried to copy him. It became a habit. Everybody wants to score a goal in a game but it’s harder for defenders, obviously. I guess I got the knack from having played in different positions while I was developing as a player at St Clements.’
By now, Rochdale manager Keith Hill, in his first spell in charge of the club, was developing a reputation for bringing on promising young players. Word of Dawson’s Radcliffe performances reached Spotland. However, it took Hill a while to decide that the teenager would be more than capable of making the step up from non-league to League Two.
‘I’d played a good six months at Radcliffe and was doing well,’ Dawson remembers. ‘I was on £50 a week and was made up that someone was paying me to play football. I really enjoyed the laugh I had with my team mates and the experience on the pitch. I’d gone from playing on fields and parks to a tidy little ground. It was still a far cry from the professional environments I’ve played at since, but I wasn’t really thinking about anything else too far into the future. Then I got told Accrington Stanley were interested in me and then Rochdale and Crewe Alexandra shortly after.
‘Rochdale invited me down to train with them and I couldn’t believe it − my home-town club. I went there for a month and trained with the first team, but it was a massive step up. Massive. After the month was up, I was told they weren’t interested. I was gutted. Then Crewe put a decent bid in, which was accepted by Radcliffe. I went down to speak to them but I turned Crewe down. I felt it wasn’t the right decision for me. It was a huge decision to do that, being a part-time footballer, but it didn’t feel right. A week later, [Rochdale assistant manager] Dave Flitcroft phoned me up and said: “We want to sign you if you still want to be part of what we’re doing here.” He told me they were willing to take a chance on me. I was over the moon. Radcliffe accepted their bid and I went straight over there and signed. It was funny, because all my mates were still watching Rochdale every week. I didn’t tell them I’d been training with the club. When I told them I’d actually signed for Dale they were all well chuffed. They couldn’t believe it.’
Dawson signed a two-year contract with Rochdale in February 2009 but was allowed to see out the season with Radcliffe as part of the deal. He left the club in style, too, being named their Player of the Year.
‘Hilly decided I could still play for Radcliffe at the weekends and train with the Rochdale first team during the week, getting to know the lads and so on. I wasn’t going to walk straight into the first team, so he wanted me playing competitive games. During the week, Hilly and Dave Flitcroft put a lot of work into me. I think they saw me as their little project. They wanted to make me a success. They were doing one-on-one drills with me − a lot of extra work. I took that into my games for Radcliffe and felt I improved massively. The difference training every day made to me was immense.
‘I had a good year at Radcliffe and was sad to leave. It was a good club and I made a lot of friends. It was great to be honoured the way I was, being named Player of the Year, and everybody there wished me well now I’d achieved what I’d wanted to do since I was a boy. I was a full-time footballer.
‘I remember walking into the office at Rochdale with Colin Garlick [the club’s chief executive] to sign my contract and Kevin Glendon was with me. He said: “Everything you want is right here. This is just the start. You need to crack on and work hard. This is your opportunity.” I knew he was right. I thought: “I’m finally on the ladder.”
‘Rochdale gave me a programme to work on over the summer to get me ready for a full-time pre-season. I was the fittest I’d ever been after that. I met up with everyone for pre-season and we went away to Spain for a week of intense training. I was welcomed fully into the fold and very much felt part of the squad.
‘Nathan Stanton and Rory McArdle had formed a great partnership the previous season in the centre of Rochdale’s defence. I accepted that it would be a very difficult partnership to break. Part of the deal that saw me move to Rochdale was that Radcliffe got a friendly out of it. I started that game alongside Rory but then he dislocated his shoulder. We were only a couple of weeks away from the first league game. I was given my chance a lot earlier than expected because of Rory’s injury and I found myself starting against Port Vale away to start the season. I remember Joey Thompson scored for us in a one-all draw and the away end going mad. It was incredible. I would have been stood in there myself a few years ago. I remember going back to Rochdale Cricket Club after the game, because my brother had been playing for them that day, and the attention I got was amazing.
‘Everybody wanted to speak to me about the game and how it felt to play.’
Dawson’s first season at Spotland was a rousing success. His goals from centre-half and his ability to play the ball out from the back contributed to Rochdale’s first promotion since 1969. Quite rightly, he was named in the League Two PFA Team of the Year.
‘To establish myself and get that much success in my first full season as a professional footballer was unbelievable. I owe so much to Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft for that. I joined a very well-organised, talented side that was already well on the way to being successful. I felt like I slotted straight in and, even to this day, I’m still in touch with a lot of lads from that time.
‘The morale was superb. Rory McArdle was a big character in the dressing room and Tom Kennedy was the biggest joker when I was there. I got on best with Jason Kennedy, I would say, though. We were both quite quiet in the dressing room, so we seemed to gravitate towards each other. Joey Thompson was a Rochdale lad as well, so we shared car journeys. We were both the focus of extra training, too, so we spent a lot of time together.’
However, just as his performances for Radcliffe had attracted Rochdale, his performances at Rochdale enticed the Premier League. As the summer transfer window was about to close, West Bromwich Albion snapped up Dawson for an undisclosed fee on a three-year contract. The Dale faithful were not to be deprived of seeing the star defender continue to light up League One, however, as the Baggies loaned Dawson back to the club for the remainder of the 2010/11 season.
‘I was aware of the interest from West Brom and was conscious that Rochdale had turned down a few bids,’ says Dawson. ‘In the end, the club decided to let me go and it was a chance for me to go to the Premier League, which nobody would ever turn down. From a football point of view I was excited but, emotionally, I was very sad to leave Rochdale. I knew I’d be coming back on loan for the rest of the season as part of the deal, so that made it easier. The best place for me to keep developing at that time was at Rochdale as I wouldn’t have gone straight into West Brom’s first team.
‘Having finished the season strongly with Rochdale, I arrived at West Brom in the summer of 2011. I did a full pre-season with the club. I felt ready, but the step up was incredible. Roberto Di Matteo and Dan Ashworth had been the ones to sign me, but, by the time I arrived at West Brom, they’d gone and Roy Hodgson was in charge. He was a great coach, but, in hindsight, I maybe should have had a spell in the Championship first, as I can’t overstate the increase in standard enough. That said, I learned so much by training with Premiership players. It’s an experience you can’t beat. Yes, I had two frustrating years at West Brom where I didn’t play enough games, but I never stopped learning. Learning was all well and good, but not playing games did hinder my development. Looking back on it, I should definitely have gone out on loan sooner.
‘You see, you get away with so much more in League One and Two. Here, in the Premier League, every tiny mistake costs you – and the pace the game is played at doesn’t give you any time. It was difficult to get in the team.
‘I was given my debut against Bournemouth in the League Cup in August. They weren’t a Premier League team back then and we won 4-1. I remember I was then given an opportunity in the Premier League at Swansea a few weeks later. We were 2-0 down after twenty-five minutes and lost the game 3-0. After that, Roy Hodgson decided to go with Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson and they formed a great partnership.’
One positive that did follow Dawson’s Baggies debut was him being called up into the England Under-21 squad by Stuart Pearce.
‘It was out of the blue,’ Dawson recalls. ‘I remember the car picked me up at the house to take me to training. It was an England-branded car and everyone on the street was out looking at me. I didn’t even think I would make the bench for the qualifying game against Azerbaijan, never mind start. I scored with my first touch down at Watford wearing an England shirt. It was very special.
‘We won almost every game in that qualifying campaign and then went to Israel for the European Championship finals in 2013, but we simply didn’t perform out there and finished bottom of the group. It was great for me to experience an international tournament, though. I had so many texts of support after each appearance for the under-21s. It was great.’
Clearly impressing while with the national under-21 side, Dawson was also selected by Pearce for the Great Britain 2012 Olympic football team; where he went on to score a penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out defeat to South Korea.
‘I was doing some running ahead of pre-season and had my phone buried in my bag somewhere when the Olympic squad was announced,’ Dawson says. ‘I didn’t have a clue I was part of it. I dug my phone out later and had so many missed calls and text messages from friends and colleagues. Loads of media people were trying to get hold of me, too. I thought: “Wow, I’d better go home!”
‘To be a part of Team GB in London was a huge honour. I played alongside Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy, who were absolute perfectionists. Stuart Pearce is a very passionate man, too, but he’s really calm in the dressing room, which is probably not what people would expect to hear. He puts a lot of work into developing his players. He was brilliant during the Olympics. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be part of something like that. The Opening Ceremony alone was breath taking.’
On the domestic front, Dawson had committed his next three years to West Brom but further management changes hampered his first-team progress. Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers all vied to exploit the situation, with the latter managing to get Dawson in on loan. While it meant dropping down a level to the Championship for a while, Dawson was simply happy to play regular football again, scoring four goals in his first six appearances.
‘I just needed to play games and it was only the England Under-21s that had kept me going in that regard. Bolton provided an opportunity to play on a more regular basis. They needed a centre-half and I was it. My time there gave me the confidence I needed to reaffirm I was more than capable at a higher level.
‘I want to play at as high a level as I can for as long as I can. I’ll just keep working as hard as I can every day with the ultimate aim of making the senior England squad. Look at the career Rickie Lambert had after leaving Rochdale. That’s what I aim to do. If I look after myself, hopefully I’ll keep improving.
‘You know, when I look back, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft made Rochdale an unbelievable experience for me. They made the place like one big a family. If it wasn’t for the work they put into me during and after training, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’
Ask any Rochdale fan over the age of thirty-five to name a former player who personifies the term ‘reliable centre half’ and the majority would give you Alan Reeves − and with good reason, too.
The curtain-haired marvel from Birkenhead was an integral part of a Spotland backline that repelled frequent bombardment in the early 1990s. Reeves was much more than a mere stopper, however. He was that rare sort of lower-league defender who looked comfortable on the ball, who could carry it forward rather than hoof it upfield, and who could contribute to an attack through consideration rather than by fluke. As a result, he quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite and a consistent Player of the Year award winner.
Nonetheless, it was a bittersweet day when his assured displays − in well over one hundred appearances for the Dale − led Premier League side Wimbledon to sign him in 1994 for £200,000, believed to be the largest fee Rochdale had received up to that point when considering the additional £1,000 paid for each appearance. As a spotty teenager in those days, this writer mourned the loss of the player rather than celebrated the financial windfall.
Reeves’ Premiership move certainly couldn’t have been forecast when he first arrived at Spotland as a blond twenty-four-year-old from Chester City in the summer of 1991, having already been on Norwich City’s books without making a single appearance.
Smiling, he tells me how growing up on the Wirral, and constant competition with his twin brother David – who himself would become a Rochdale nemesis during his years with Chesterfield and Carlisle United – shaped his footballing attitude.
‘Me and my brother were Liverpool fans growing up, but we never really aspired to play for them,’ Reeves says. ‘We started out playing properly, I suppose, when we both signed for a club called Heswall FC in the West Cheshire League. [Former Rochdale striker] Steve Whitehall played for them, too. It was a pretty good standard, as a lot of non-league was back then. David got spotted by Sheffield Wednesday when we were both eighteen. He was a lot more developed than I was at that age, even though we were twins. He was six-foot-one and imposing; me, well, I was five-foot-nine and ten-and-a-half stone wet.
‘I didn’t set out to be a defender but that’s the way it always seemed to be. I was always defending because David was always attacking. Even at school, I remember he picked one wall in the playground and I had the other. He was always at my wall because he was so quick, so I found myself defending it with my life. We were very competitive growing up, me and David. I think that helped us both.
‘Anyway, David had moved on to Wednesday, which was great, but I was still at Heswall. I was doing well and I remember I got Player of the Year in 1988. Numerous scouts had been watching me, or so I’d been told, but nothing happened. I knew the time was right to go professional, so I wrote to half-a-dozen league clubs, pretending to be my twin brother recommending me for a trial. Amazingly, Norwich replied and invited me down. The manager of the reserves at the time was Mike Walker, who would go on to manage the first team and Everton, of course. Mike called me up and asked me to play a game for the Norwich reserves. He liked what he saw and invited me back. After my second trial game, he said to me: “Don’t go on holiday in the summer, because I’ll want you in for pre-season training”. He said he’d be in touch with the details but I didn’t hear from him again, so I thought: “Bollocks to it, I’m going on holiday to Spain with the lads”. I was twenty years old at the time, so why not? While I was in Spain, I phoned home and my mam said: “Norwich City’s reserve manager has been on and he wants you down there next week for training!” So I had to rummage through my suitcase, find my trainers and go running every day while I was still in Spain. It was crazy.’
Despite the madness of tearing along the strip on the Costa Del Sol while his friends soaked up the sunshine and local beer, Reeves made it back to blighty in time for his make-or-break chance in Norfolk.
‘So I get back to England, do a two-week training trial at Norwich, play two games for them and get offered a one-year contract,’ he says. ‘It was great. But while I was mulling that over, Chester City offered me a trial, too. Norwich were in the top tier, though, and Chester, despite being very local to Birkenhead, were in the third tier. I thought I’d give it a go at the higher level, but I didn’t realise just how homesick I would be. I was quite a shy boy at the time, especially around people I didn’t know, and ended up staying in digs with a family down in Norfolk. As a result, I was coming home most weekends, which didn’t help my development as a player. By Christmas, I still hadn’t made the first team, so I went on loan to Gillingham where the old Tottenham boss, Keith Burkinshaw, was in charge. He’d seen me play for the Norwich reserves and said he liked the look of me. I spent three months in Kent but I still missed home. That issue was still there and it was affecting me.
‘When the season ended, Gillingham offered me a two-year contract, Norwich offered me another year and Chester City came back in for me with a two-year deal. That was it for me. I signed for Chester so I could go back home. It was half an hour away from Birkenhead. That’s all I wanted. I know what you’re thinking: I should’ve stayed at Norwich. I know that now, but you live and learn, eh?’
While being closer to home was great on a personal level for Reeves, a footballing issue would come to the fore.
‘I quickly found out that Chester wanted to play me at right wing-back, which just isn’t me,’ he says. ‘I did okay there but didn’t enjoy playing. During my first season, I played in most games, but over the next season I found myself in and out of the side. Then I had an altercation during a team meeting with the manager Harry McNally. He’s passed away now, God rest his soul, but he could be a lunatic. I disagreed with him over something or other and he lost it with me. He basically said: “I’m telling you now, you’re getting a free transfer at the end of the season – you’ll be at a Conference club next season.” I thought that was it. I was facing the scrap heap.’
Reeves would never end up on the scrap heap, however. His Rochdale arrival came at the beginning of Dave Sutton’s full managerial reign in the summer of 1991, following the departure of Terry Dolan to Hull the season previous. Goalkeeper Keith Welch had been sold to Bristol City for a six-figure sum and this gave Sutton the ability to perform a desired overhaul of Dolan’s squad. While Reeves arrived on a free transfer alongside the likes of then record signing Andy Flounders, he was easily just as valuable to the club.
‘Two weeks after Harry had binned me, I got a call from Dave Sutton asking if I wanted to play a reserve game for him,’ Reeves recalls. ‘He couldn’t believe Harry was going to let me go. I played the game and Dave offered me a contract right away. However, the Professional Footballers Association at the time were doing a thing were they took out-of-contract players over to Hong Kong for trial games. I’d already agreed to go out there and Dave understood that.
‘I went over to Hong Kong with twenty other lads. I was the only one that was offered a contract. I can’t even remember the name of the club now, but they offered me twice as much money as Rochdale were offering, plus an apartment. I was twenty-four at the time. If I was eight or nine years older, I would’ve gone. But I liked Dave Sutton and Mick Docherty [Rochdale assistant manager] when I met them, and I had a sour year at Chester. I wanted to prove I still had it in England. So I signed for Rochdale and loved it. I was Player of the Year every year I was there. Funnily enough, during the first year, I missed about two months because I got injured against Barnet in a home game, so I won that year’s award by just one vote from Tony Brown [his fellow centre half], or so Tony claimed any way.
‘When I first joined, Steve Whitehall signed about the same time, so I was travelling in with him every day for three years, and later Shaun Reid. Me and Whitey, we were both from Birkenhead. We used to pick Reidy up from the Rocket [junction] on the M62 and then Dave Bayliss joined us later on. We used to have a right laugh.
‘Sutty was a great manager but the Doc [Mick Docherty] was the big character. He was a proper player’s coach. These days, he’d be classed as being too close to the players, but in the old days that’s what we had. He was more than just a good laugh, of course. He was a great coach. When I first signed for Rochdale, I was totally right footed. My left foot was just for standing on. The Doc identified that and picked certain days where, if I transferred the ball from my left foot to my right, he’d fine me a pound every time. Within six months of that, I was transformed. It was highlighted during my second pre-season at Rochdale, when we played Chester in a friendly. A lot of the Chester players were ex-team-mates of mine. They were astounded by the difference in my left foot. That’s testament to the Doc.
‘We had some great characters in the dressing room at Rochdale, like Jon Bowden and John Ryan. We were all mates and we all got on really well. It was a really friendly place.
‘I think that our relationship counted for a lot of our success. We had no training ground for a start. We were training on parks, mud baths and artificial surfaces. How my knees weren’t fucked by the time I left Rochdale, I don’t know. It was bags for goalposts at times, which wasn’t great. The 3G and 4G pitches players have now are carpets compared to what we trained on back then. But, hey, look how well we competed. We almost made the play-offs in my first season.’
Reeves believes players were a lot tougher back in his day, through necessity as much as anything else.
‘I remember training on a Friday morning, before travelling to London for a game against Barnet on the Saturday, and I broke my nose. The club doctor, I can’t remember his name, was a big old fellah who worked in the Rochdale Infirmary. I went down there to see him. My nose was pointing east to west instead of north to south. He got his knuckle and pushed my nose right back in. It was like something cracked in my brain. Then he said: “That’s you sorted”. Nowadays, if a player breaks his nose, he can’t play for weeks and has to wear a mask and so on. I played against Barnet the next day and broke my nose again. There was no health and safety back then, but they were great days.’
After Tony Brown retired, Reeves formed a formidable defensive partnership with Paul Butler.
‘Butts started as an understudy, but was a very early developer,’ Reeves says. ‘He was built like a brick shithouse, even at the age of eighteen. I tell you what though; he could shift for a fellah his size. I doubt there was a better centre-half partnership than me and him at that level at that time. He went on to have a career as good, if not better, than mine.’
Reeves’ performances had not gone unnoticed higher up the food chain, but his level-headedness kept him focused.
‘The entire time I was at Rochdale it was always in the paper that “X, Y or Z scout was watching Alan Reeves of Rochdale”. I didn’t have an agent but other players’ agents would say I was being watched. I never heard anything directly, though. I just wanted to keep my head down and keep playing. I had the attitude of what will be, will be, y’know?’
And then, in September 1994, it finally happened for him.
‘One Saturday, we were playing Hereford at Spotland. Sutty pulled me to one side before the game and said: “Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear’s here to watch you. Unless you have an absolute disaster, you’ll be signing for Wimbledon next week.” I played the match and did well, despite the result [Rochdale lost 3-1]. After the game, Joe and Sam Hammam [Wimbledon’s then owner] came and spoke to me. They told me to be ready to travel south on Monday. I got a phone call on the Monday which told me to travel to Coventry. I met Joe and Sam in a hotel just off the M6 and it was done within half an hour. As quickly as that, I was a Premier League player. I went home, packed my bag, trained with the Wimbledon first team on Thursday and Friday and played for them on the Saturday. I went from playing against Hereford in the fourth tier one Saturday to playing against Leicester in the Premier League at Selhurst Park the next. It was surreal.’
And Reeves revealed his career got its timely boost with a little help from a football legend.
‘Joe Kinnear would later tell me that he became aware of me because he’d sold John Scales to Liverpool for £3.5 million and wanted a replacement centre-half that the club could progress. So he phoned up Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United looking for a recommendation from the North West of England. Apparently, Fergie told him: “There’s a lad at Rochdale that, if he was a few years younger, I’d have him myself.” He gave Joe my name.’
Reeves was initially in awe of his new Premier League surroundings.
‘What I found so surprising, was how big and quick everyone was in the Premier League,’ he says. ‘I was quick and big enough at Rochdale’s level, but I walked into that dressing room at Wimbledon and thought: “Christ”. I couldn’t believe how big Vinnie Jones was, how big Mick Harford was. Honestly, they were huge. I went out and trained with them and they were so quick and strong, I was gobsmacked. You see them play on TV and don’t appreciate the size and speed of them, but when you stand next to them in the tunnel, it’s overwhelming. It was quite daunting, to be honest. Once I got on the pitch though, I blocked that out. I was just playing against other men. That’s how I had to look at it. I blocked out the crowds, too. I had to. If you step back from it all and look at forty-thousand people, and all these elite footballers around you, you panic. I just focused on what was in front of me and got on with my job.’
And what a job he did.
‘My first year at Wimbledon was the best of my career,’ Reeves beams. ‘I played against the best players in England week in and week out and I didn’t look out of place. I was getting praise from the manager and the press. It was a great place to be and it was the right place for me at that time. A lot is said about the comradeship among the “Crazy Gang” players of that era, and it’s all true. It was sensational. I still meet up with most of the lads for a Christmas night out twenty-five years later in London. Vinnie Jones doesn’t join us, mind you. He’s gone on to pastures new. Hah.
‘We finished eighth in my first season at Wimbledon. Better than we had any right to. I went straight into the first team. I played pretty much every game. I remember when I truly knew the manager rated me. Yellow cards got you disciplinary points back then and, if you reached twenty-one, you got a three-game ban. I reached that threshold just before Christmas that season. I knew I was going to miss three games and was worried about losing my place. I was playing at Maine Road against Man City. I was wound up by Paul Walsh during the game and I punched him off the ball. The linesman saw it, so I got a six-game ban. I got some stick for that, I’ll tell you. I was just thinking about my place in the team. When I became available again, Joe Kinnear stuck me straight back in against Everton. He dropped Andy Thorn. That was the vote of confidence I needed.
‘But it didn’t get that good again. The second year, I probably only played seventy per cent of the games, the third I hardly played at all and the fourth year you can write off. I think Joe had decided he was looking elsewhere by then. We had younger players like Chris Perry and Dean Blackwell establishing themselves. It was obvious I would be moving on.’
After Wimbledon, Reeves moved to Swindon Town where he played over two-hundred times before calling time on his playing career in 2006. The move would see him make a daily two-hundred-mile round trip from Epsom to Swindon − for eight years!
‘I think I was thirty when I left Wimbledon,’ Reeves says. ‘I didn’t think it was the end of my career by any means. I signed a three-year contract with Swindon, who were in the second tier at the time, and Steve McMahon was the manager. I was living near Epsom race course. My then partner had gotten pregnant with my first daughter, so I didn’t want to uproot her. I thought I’d make the commute for the three years. “Three years”, I thought. “I can handle that”. After those three years, I ended up signing five one-year contracts. I made that commute for eight bloody years. It turned out that I played most of my career games at Swindon − almost two-hundred-and-fifty. I enjoyed my time there. I played under numerous managers, I was captain, then, while I was still playing, I was reserve-team manager and then assistant manager. Politics in football being what they are, I ended up getting the sack from there eventually. It was a sad end considering how long I’d been there.’
This led Reeves to team up with an old pal.
‘My fellow Wimbledon centre half Scott Fitzgerald was youth-team manager at Brentford,’ Reeves recalls. ‘Leroy Rosenior, who was manager at that time, got the sack and they offered Fitz the job on a caretaker basis. He asked me to help him out. We did okay for a few games and we got offered the post full time. However, Brentford were relegated at the end of that season and we lost our jobs. That’s the way football goes.’
At the time of our interview, Reeves is managing AFC Wimbledon’s under-21 side as well as coaching the academy players. He’s relaxed and happy with his lot when we speak, although he doesn’t rule out future upheaval.
‘Back when I went to Wimbledon, there was nothing like the money flying about that there is in the Premier League now,’ he says. ‘I actually earned more money at Swindon than I did at Wimbledon. Players like Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp will have been on decent money, but I was on peanuts in comparison. Nowadays, if you sign for a decent Championship club, you can retire after playing. It wasn’t like that for us back then.
‘For the past two seasons I’ve been the under-21 coach at AFC Wimbledon and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m happy where I am, but you never know what’s around the corner. If you work in football you need to be flexible. Right now, though, I’ve got a lot of good young lads to work with on a daily basis. We’re getting a few into the first team, too. My former Wimbledon team-mate Neal Ardley is the first-team manager here. He was a former academy manager at Cardiff, so he’s really open to getting youth into the first team. He’s not one of these managers that looks to buy people all the time. He believes that if the youth players are good enough, they’re old enough and he chucks them right into the mix. In fact, I’ve got an 18-year-old centre half who’s been in the first team for the past seven games. That said, he got sent off last week, so I obviously taught him well. Hah!
‘But if I got offered a first-team manager’s job in the league elsewhere? Yeah, why not?’
As we conclude our chat, Reeves reflects on the importance of his time at Spotland.
‘Rochdale were a major factor in my career,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have an agent and Chester were going to put me on the scrap heap. If Dave Sutton hadn’t made that call, who knows where I would’ve ended up? As good as Hong Kong might have been for me at that point in time, it would have taken me away from the UK and away from people’s thoughts. Rochdale kept me there, gave me the chance to show what I could do in my true position and they looked after me.
‘I tell the young lads now, though, that it’s always down to the player. You can give them as much help, coaching and direction as you can, but, at the end of the day, they’re judged as a footballer. All a footballer needs from someone else is a chance to show what they’re good at. That’s what Rochdale gave to me and I’ll never forget it.
‘Even now, as a coach, I’m a very enthusiastic person and a very competitive one. I want to win everything I do. While I was at Wimbledon, I saw a picture of me in a magazine. Under it was a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson. It said: “He’s a determined so-and-so.” I think that’s me in a nutshell. I was bloody minded. It didn’t matter who I was playing against − a striker for Mansfield or Hereford, or Bergkamp or Cantona. Whoever it was, I was determined they weren’t getting past me. Obviously you’ve got to look after yourself and keep fit, but it was my desire that made me as a player. I think being a defender is a natural instinct that cannot be taught. You can hone your little skills and traits, yes, but I believe only certain people are born to be a defender. Those who will do anything to keep the ball out their net. I think I had that as a player and, with my desire, I think it got me to the top.’
If Steve Eyre was an attempt by the Rochdale board to maintain the modern approach implemented by Keith Hill, John Coleman was an appointment that harked back to the Dale of old.
Here was an old-school lower-league manager who had enjoyed relative success on a miniscule budget at Accrington Stanley, and he couldn’t have asked for a tougher challenge as he attempted to prevent a deflated and demoralised Rochdale squad from hurtling out of League One after just two seasons.
Following Steve Eyre’s departure in December 2011, Director of Youth Football Chris Beech was given a chance to arrest the slump on a caretaker basis. A 5-1 defeat to Stevenage at Spotland helped put paid to that brief stint and the board knew they needed a seasoned hand to steer the wheel – and fast.
After much speculation, the club eventually announced the appointment of Coleman in January 2012, and his assistant Jimmy Bell, bringing to an end the Liverpudlian’s thirteen-year association with Accrington.
During that time, Coleman had led the Lancashire club from the Northern Premier League First Division back into the Football League, reaching the League Two play-offs in 2011.
He left Stanley sitting tenth in League Two, just two points off the play-off places, and arrived at Spotland with Rochdale lying twenty-third in League One, four points from safety.
Like Eyre before him, he chose to leave his comfort zone for an altogether bigger challenge laden with pressure.
‘I made it known the first time round that I was interested in the Rochdale job, when Keith Hill first left,’ Coleman says. ‘There had been a bit of dialogue and I had been asked if I was genuinely interested, I said yes, but the club didn’t pursue it at the time.
‘Six or seven months later, Rochdale came back to me.
‘The chairman told us he expected the club to go down, but it would be seen as a bonus if we kept the club up. They were looking more towards reshaping the club for the next season, which, to be honest, myself and Jimmy were too.’
Despite a first-game derby win over local rivals Bury, Coleman was unable to arrest the form he had inherited and Rochdale were relegated from League One.
‘We did our best to keep the club up,’ Coleman says adamantly. ‘We won our first game against Bury, we were on a crest of a wave, but we couldn’t build on it because the weather turned terrible and we didn’t play for two or three weeks. After that, we just couldn’t generate the momentum.’ Coleman wasn’t perturbed by the challenge.
‘Yes, there were lots of differences between Rochdale and Accrington,’ he says. ‘It’s a bigger club for one. Spotland looks much more like a league ground than Accrington does for a start, no disrespect to Accrington. It didn’t daunt me or Jimmy at all, though. It’s what we wanted.
‘The hardest part was that there was a division in the camp when we arrived. That was evident from day one. That never really left us, to be honest. We did our best to try to get that away but it never left.
‘Some players embraced our methods and some didn’t. They weren’t necessarily against me and Jimmy, though, they were against each other. It was always going to be a problem. We introduced a meeting before and after training in an attempt to improve the relationship but there was a set mentality there. As far as that issue was concerned, we knew we could do our best work over the summer.’
With a pre-season to make the team his own, plus being back in the more familiar surroundings of League Two, hopes were high that Coleman would get Rochdale firing again.
‘During pre-season we went to Austria,’ he says. ‘We worked really hard for six days and implemented how we wanted to play during the coming season. It was bought into by the players and morale was high. We were supposed to end the trip with a match but it got rained off. Instead, one of the players had a birthday, so I let the squad go out to celebrate, for a drink. But there were too many high jinks for my liking and it soured the trip in the end. A few of the boys got into a bit of trouble and I wasn’t happy. They abused my trust. I felt a lot of hard work had gone to waste.’
Coleman’s strength at Stanley was that he was able to tap into Liverpool’s non-league scene, in which he himself was a decent striker during his playing days. His eye for a player was not in doubt, demonstrated by the fact he launched the league careers of talented footballers such as Gary Roberts and Bobby Grant.
While this worked brilliantly for Stanley, it led to Coleman being on the receiving end of criticism at Rochdale, similar to that levelled at his predecessor Steve Eyre, in that he was only prepared to sign players he had worked with previously.
Some supporters labelled the Dale squad under Coleman as the “Scouse Mafia”, due to the fact most of his signings hailed from his hometown of Liverpool.
‘I think that’s a bit unfair,’ Coleman says. ‘Of the players I signed, I had never worked with Rhys Bennet before, or Joe Rafferty or Matty Pearson. I had never worked with Dele Adebola or George Donnelly either. I did sign some of my former players, yes. I tried to give some of them another lease of life − a last chance in the game because they’d done well for me before. I got them in on shit money and a short deal. Ian Craney, for example. It didn’t pan out the way I wanted, but it wasn’t an old-pal’s act, I just wanted to get them going again, to the benefit of them, me and Rochdale.
‘I got Bobby Grant into the club for next to nothing and the club made money on him. You’ll not hear any complaints about that. I’m the first to admit that not all my signings worked out, but that happens to every manager at every club.’
It was during Coleman’s time as manager that Gary Jones’ second spell at Rochdale came to an end. It was a poignant moment for all, given he had made more appearances for the club than any other player (five-hundred-and-thirty-one) and was the first to captain the club at Wembley.
What was worse is that Jones left under a cloud.
‘Gary Jones went through a rocky spell and we dropped him for a game,’ says Coleman. ‘He was thirty-five years old and, naturally, we said to him in passing, “what are your long-term plans? Have you ever thought about coaching?” I wanted to bring him onto my coaching staff. I think he got the wrong end of the stick and thought that I was suggesting he was done as a player. I wasn’t. Gary then asked to leave the club. We didn’t ask him to. I wanted him to stay and join my staff. I had no problem with him at all. People can believe what they like.’
During the season, there was criticism from sections of the support about Coleman’s methods. There was a general feeling that the free-flowing football and sportsmanship that had been built up since 2007 had given way to something more primal. Following a 3-2 home defeat to Exeter, Coleman decided to issue an open invite for fans to meet him.
‘We were three-nil down but shouldn’t have been,’ he says. ‘We were outstanding in the game and got it back to three-two but couldn’t equalise. It was a tremendous effort but we got booed off the pitch. I didn’t like that. Someone shouted at me from the crowd and I said, “don’t shout at me from up there, speak to me outside”. It eventually led to a meet-the-fans event at the stadium. It was like a doctor’s surgery. I was there for three-and-a-half hours. Not one person was aggressive. Nobody left dissatisfied either. I can empathise with fans, I really can, and I enjoyed talking to each and every one of them. I was open and honest with them throughout.’
Coleman says internet message boards caused him more mischief than any supporter in the stands.
‘If you read internet message boards you’ll go mad,’ he says. ‘They’re negative by nature and not representative of an entire fan base. It’s the same fifteen or twenty usernames that crop up. The message board I looked at would have you believe we had a disastrous spell in charge at Rochdale. Look at the stats, though. Gillingham, Rotherham, Port Vale and Bradford were promoted from League Two that season. We went to Rotherham, Gillingham and Bradford and won at all of them. We drew at Port Vale. Is that disastrous?
‘The problem with message boards is that quite a few senior people at Rochdale pay attention to them. I think they’re frightened of them. I also had someone in my dressing room that couldn’t be trusted. They were posting things on there that were exaggerations of the truth. Some of the things posted were outright lies, too. I heard claims that myself and Jimmy turned up to training late and drunk. That really angered me. I never found out who it was, but it was very, very disappointing.
‘I’m the first to admit that I made quite a few mistakes at Rochdale. I know I didn’t ingratiate myself with the fans, but it sickens me when I see players and managers wave a club’s scarf about when they have no affinity to that club. I wanted to wave the Rochdale scarf when I’d done something for the club – promotion or a trophy. Maybe that backfired on me. One of my problems is I’m not from Manchester and I’m not Keith Hill. That’s not my fault, but I shouldn’t have pushed that down the fans’ throats. I’m my own man and have a lot of belief in my own ability. I know I’m a good football-league manager. I felt I got unfair criticism but I know I should have tried to ingratiate myself more.’
Coleman also believes he should have been more assertive with the Rochdale board.
‘I should have brought in my own staff,’ he says. ‘I was only allowed to bring in Jimmy Bell. I should have stood firm. The training ground was unacceptable, too. I should have made that a deal breaker but I didn’t have the power at Rochdale that I had at Accrington. I believe these things ultimately weakened my position.’
Over December 2012 and into the New Year, Dale went on to lose eight out of ten games, dropping from the upper echelons of League Two into mid-table. It was enough for Chris Dunphy to call time on Coleman’s reign.
‘The end, for me, was bizarre,’ he says. ‘It was January and I needed a centre half and a left back to help us push on. The board said it had to be a one-in-one-out policy. I got a £30,000 offer for Jason Kennedy. He didn’t want to stay and had already tried to leave at the start of the season. I recommended we sell him because he was going to go for nothing in the summer. I had also arranged for Dele Adebola to move on. Ashley Grimes wanted to leave too, and Rotherham would have given us £30,000 for him. That would have got me £60,000 into my budget and three wages off the payroll. We were only four or five points outside the play-offs at this time. The board dragged their feet, though. I knew something wasn’t quite right.
‘I was then summoned to a board meeting and had to go through all this again. I went home, had a nap and woke up to a phone call from the chairman telling me I’d been relieved of my duties. I was really gutted. Why could they have not told me at the board meeting instead of letting me outline my plans again? It was all wrong. I told the chairman this. I thought we were about to turn a corner. I just needed those players.’
Meanwhile, Keith Hill, like Steve Parkin before him, had found the transition from Rochdale to Barnsley an ill-fated one. He returned for a second spell at Rochdale. Coleman believes Hill’s sudden availability ultimately forced the Chris Dunphy’s hand.
‘Listen, as soon as Keith Hill became available, I was a dead man walking,’ Coleman says. ‘I’m a realist. When he was sacked at Barnsley, because of what he’d done previously at Rochdale, of course he was going to get pointed in that direction and, of course, Rochdale were going to look in his.
‘I attach no blame to Keith Hill for going back. What does annoy me is that he was allowed to sign a load of players when I couldn’t sign two. He didn’t let Adebola go till near the end of the season. He didn’t sell Grimes or Kennedy, so where did the money come from? The club got what they wanted, though. They got back into League One with Hill. Perhaps they would have got there a season earlier had they kept me and Jimmy, but we’ll never know.’
Now Coleman is back at Accrington Stanley as manager.
‘I love Accrington Stanley and it was a big wrench to leave in the first place,’ he says. ‘I’m glad to be back here as I feel I got Accrington to this level. I wouldn’t say they’re the only club I can manage, though. I’m still ambitious. Myself and Jimmy could do a job higher up. Again, I mean no disrespect to Accrington, but we’ve been good to them and they’ve been good to us.
‘Don’t misconstrue my feelings towards Rochdale, either. They’re a fantastic club. They’re well run and do things the right way. Okay, it ended a bit sourly for me, but I have no animosity towards the club. At the end of the day, it’s a smashing place with good people.’
If Paul Simpson had big shoes to fill following the departure of John Hollins, then Steve Eyre had to plug those that would have fit a fairy-tale giant.
Keith Hill, the Director of Youth Football who had taken over from Steve Parkin with so little expectation in 2007, had gone on to lead the club to a first Wembley appearance and, two seasons later, a first promotion since 1969.
At the end of the 2010/2011 season, he had led Rochdale to an equal best finish, ninth in League One.
That Hill had, just a week earlier, ruled out leaving the club made the blow all the more bitter when he made the move to Championship side Barnsley during a bleak June in 2011. The club felt rudderless without him, left to float down the perilous waters of a League One pre-season without its enigmatic admiral.
Without wanting to sound too dramatic, the supporters sensed the club’s very soul had been stolen.
Chris Dunphy was faced with his toughest decision as chairman. Appointing a successor to the club’s most efficacious manager was a decision he could not afford to get wrong. Hill had revolutionised the club from top to bottom. His emphasis on sports science and youth, and the infrastructure that went with this, needed to be protected.
Perhaps that is why he sought to appoint a man with a similar ethos to Hill’s. Steve Eyre was approached for the job with more than two decades of coaching the juniors and reserves at Manchester City behind him.
‘That’s true, I was just starting my twenty-first year at City when I was approached to speak to the Rochdale board,’ Eyre recalls. ‘Management was something I wanted to do one day, yes, but this opportunity came to me out of the blue.
‘I was interested, of course, flattered even, but at that point I only wanted to go to the initial interview for the experience. To see what it was like.
‘I was up front with the City staff. I told them about the approach and went to the interview with their blessing.
‘I spoke to my father [former Manchester City player Fred Eyre], I spoke to the people at City, nobody wanted me to leave but they said I should go to have the discussion. They knew I was ambitious and they didn’t want to stand in my way. In football, opportunities can be rare.
‘It was very informal with Rochdale at first, but I wasn’t casual. I made it clear I was up for the challenge and that the time was right for me to perhaps try something new in working with a first team.
‘I was then asked to go for an official interview with the chairman and the chief executive, Colin Garlick. Quickly afterwards, I was invited for a second interview and, at that point, it started to get a bit more serious. I realised I could actually be leaving City. I was offered the Rochdale job the same evening.
‘I was proud and torn at the same time. For the first time in two decades I had to make a decision about my career for myself. At City, I’d been steered and led by older, more experienced people such as Alex Gibson, Jim Cassell and Paul Power but, at that moment in time, there was only one person that could decide where my career was going and that person was me. I wasn’t shy in doing it, I’m a competitor after all, but leaving a club I loved after twenty-one years was hard, yes.’
Despite Rochdale having achieved, at that point, its joint-highest league finish the previous season, Eyre found he had inherited a host of problems when he got behind his new desk.
‘Keith Hill, who is a friend of mine, had a great trust with the team, with the chairman, with the board and with the supporters,’ Eyre says. ‘They were big shoes to fill, of course they were. But I’m not sure people fully appreciate the size of the task that awaited me.
‘I didn’t have a first-team goalkeeper, I didn’t have a training ground and I didn’t have any staff. Eventually, we ended up renting Stockport County’s training ground, having to share with them each morning. It was a free-for-all and, at times, we were even sharing the same pitch. It was far from ideal.
‘There were other challenges, too. I had a captain [Gary Jones] at thirty-five years old holding out for a two-year deal when the club was only offering him one year. I only had seven players to work with that were signed on. Two of them got injured on the first day of training [Joe Thompson and Brian Barry-Murphy]. We lost Craig Dawson, Matty Done and Scott Wiseman to other clubs. There was also someone at the club who wanted the manager’s job and didn’t get it, which was another challenge I had to handle. As a novice manager in my first job, it was a tough start.
‘I had to meet it head on, though. I had chosen to do it. I arrived at Rochdale with a fanfare of well-wishers from Man City and elsewhere in the game; all of who were saying I would be a success, which was nice, but with it came added pressure. It built the expectation from the supporters and the board.
‘My biggest challenge, though, was recruitment within the budget. I have no complaints about the budget itself. It was set before I accepted the job, so I knew what it was, but I made mistakes with it. As a young manager with no scouting-network support, it was tough. My signings ranged from good, to bad, to indifferent. We had a respectable youth academy in place but, at that time, there was nothing to tap into. Now, it has produced the likes of Callum Camps, Scott Tanser and Jamie Allen, but it was in its infancy when I arrived. There was nothing there to use.
‘A lot of my recruits were gambles and, perhaps, too young. I had five goalkeepers on trial during pre-season. None worked out. It was a real problem position for me. It was very much fingers in the dam. You would sort one problem and another appeared.’
Of the three ’keepers Eyre did use for competitive games, none of Jake Keane, David Lucas or Matt Edwards worked out.
‘I honestly think I was cursed as far as goalkeepers went,’ Eyre says. ‘I remember we were due to play Aldershot in the League Cup and David Lucas’s knee locked in match prep. I had to stick Matty Edwards in goal and ask a seventeen-year-old youth ’keeper to drive down to Aldershot with his dad, just to sit on the bench. We lost and Aldershot drew Manchester United in the next round. To say that blow was felt would be an understatement. Then there was a time, against Sheffield United, when David Lucas got knocked-out cold during the game and, another occasion, against Colchester I think, when he was violently sick in the changing room just before kick-off. I know managers have to deal with injuries and setbacks but, where goalkeepers are concerned, I was especially unlucky.’
Goalkeepers aside, Eyre’s on-field signings, in all fairness, will be his legacy – the general consensus being that there was an over reliance on former City youth players – and the centre half Neal Trotman.
Trotman came to Spotland with a decent record behind him but a series of calamitous performances saw him ushered out on loan by November. There was Marc Twaddle, too. A player who had played on the left of defence or midfield in Scotland for both Partick Thistle and Falkirk, but found himself playing a seemingly alien role at centre half for Rochdale.
Ashley Grimes and Andrew Tutte were two of the former City youngsters of note that Eyre brought to Spotland over the summer, the latter having previously played for Rochdale on loan and being part of Eyre’s side that beat Chelsea in the 2008 FA Youth Cup final.
Grimes, having been prolific during a loan spell at relegated Lincoln City the previous season, seemed a real capture for Rochdale at the time of his signing, but supporters failed to see an acceptable attitude on the pitch and Grimes’ goal return wasn’t what it should have been for a main striker.
‘Grimes and Tutte were good players for Rochdale,’ Eyre says. ‘I said at the time that Tutte was a future Rochdale captain and so it proved. Grimes is a talented goal scorer. But, it’s fair to say, Neal Trotman wasn’t a success for me.’
Eventually, Eyre brought in Frank Bunn, a former reserve-team coach at City, as his assistant but was still far from convinced his side was ready for the challenges ahead.
‘I managed to convince the team that we were ready to start the season,’ Eyre confides. ‘We trained very hard. We went to Spain. We beat Southport and West Brom. The team was ready in terms of organisation and fitness, but at the front of my mind I knew we were short on personnel.’
Things were about to get worse on that front. Having lost to Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day, Rochdale then sold Chris O’Grady, the main striker at the time, to the Owls for a reported £300,000.
‘My team was planned around Gary Jones and Chris O’Grady,’ Eyre admits. ‘I supported Jones with his two-year contract wish. He was important to me, as a first-time manager, and he was good for the club, legend that he is. Added to that, the chairman promised me no bid would prise Chris O’Grady away and that I could plan for the team with him in it.
‘We were entering the final stages of the summer transfer window and I remember Mr Dunphy phoning me to say, “I know we said Chris O’Grady was Plan A, but now you need to look for a Plan B. He’s going.” I had to find an identical player, a focal point for the entire team, in three weeks. That phone call from the chairman left me with a dry mouth and a knot in my stomach. Even if I had months it would have been difficult to replace Chris.’
Instead, as attacking options, Eyre ended up with Matthew Barnes-Homer on loan from Luton (non-league at the time), David Ball on loan from Peterborough and Ahmed Benali on loan from Man City. Of those, only Ball looked worthy of the shirt but he was recalled early by Posh.
Eyre had his eye on a bigger prize, however.
‘With just a day remaining of the transfer window, I was swimming against the tide,’ Eyre says. ‘I spent the whole day offering terms back and forth with Shefki Kuqi [a free agent after leaving Newcastle United]. He was exactly the type of the player we needed. He eventually gave me an answer at 11.30pm to tell me he was signing for Oldham. It was gutting. It wasn’t the only time I was scuppered late on with players either. Both defenders Miguel Llera and Jean-Yves M’voto were going to sign for me before going elsewhere for more money.’
Despite the constant set-backs, Eyre still feels he got the desired response from his players on occasion.
‘We had the expected opening-day defeat at Sheffield Wednesday,’ he says. ‘The scoreline was fair. Then we had a galvanising draw against Huddersfield where we came back from two down. We rallied in the second half and, I still believe, if that game had gone on another five minutes we would have won it.
‘That type of guts and determination was what I wanted in every game. It’s what I strive to get from any player I coach or that plays under me.’
Then there were wins against Premiership outfit QPR in the League Cup, and local rivals Bury and Preston in the league. Eyre cites these performances as the best of his tenure.
‘There was adversity attached to some of those games, though,’ Eyre says. ‘On the way back from London following the QPR win [an evening midweek fixture], the coach broke down at 3am. We didn’t get back to the club until quarter-to-seven in the morning.
‘And that Preston game, for me, really sticks in my mind. The term “a week is a long time in football” was never more apt than here. We went out of the FA Cup the previous Saturday to an eighty-third-minute screamer scored by Bradford’s Nahki Wells. It was a real blow. Seven days later, to the minute, Nicky Adams scored at Deepdale to give us a morale-boosting win and lift us out of the relegation zone. It summed up the topsy-turvy nature of things at the time.
‘And that’s the thing. I had reliable players like Andrew Tutte, Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy. On any given day we could tear teams apart, like we did Bury in the derby 4-2. We could give it going forward, without a doubt. But when we went a goal behind, we didn’t have a middle and we had a fragile back line and a novice goalkeeper. We could never get a foothold in a game on a regular basis. Over time, I believe we would have done. We didn’t find our identity often enough.’
Eyre was eventually sacked six months into his contract following a draw with Yeovil, a game he says Rochdale should have won 8-0, but, despite this, he harbours neither grudge nor regret about his time at the club. It’s also worth noting that the side didn’t climb any higher up the table following his departure.
Chris Dunphy told the BBC at the time: ‘We currently have a squad of 28 players which is the biggest Rochdale Football Club’s ever had by a long way − Keith’s squad was about 18 or 19. We’re also on the biggest budget we’ve ever done at Rochdale, which is not a fortune but it is a big clump.
‘You add them all together and I feel that I’ve done everything I can as chairman to support the management team, and if we’re not getting results the only thing I can do is change the management team.’
‘I know what was good, I know what would have been good and I know what was bad,’ Eyre says of his time at Rochdale. ‘I’ve dissected it, I’ve unpicked it and I’ve moved on. I would have liked to have stayed longer and done better for Rochdale. It would have been slow progress but we would have moved forward, I know it.
‘The chairman was disappointed, though, as the fans wanted instant success. Taking the Rochdale job took me out of my comfort zone, but has turned me into a stronger coach with a stronger skillset in terms of what I can bring to football for the rest of my life. I don’t regret taking the job. I regret losing my job, but I’m proud I did it. I felt saddened to learn my fate over the telephone and not in person, but, thankfully, that practice isn’t generally commonplace in football. I only ever wish Rochdale success in the future. I still love going to watch them when I get chance.’
However, one thing that still irks Eyre is that he feels rumours had deliberately been fed to supporters concerning his ability to manage first-team players.
‘I was disappointed with the rumours circulating about me,’ he says. ‘It was put out there that I was just some Under-12s coach and that I exaggerated my credentials. I think the Rochdale supporters were unaware of my wider responsibilities at City. I was working as manager of the Under-18s at the club and as a coach to the reserves. I was also overseeing the entire youth programme. Because I loved the club that much, and because I love coaching, I spread myself around all the age groups from Under-12s up to the reserves. I chose to go in on a Sunday morning with the Under-12s and to stay on a Thursday night to work with the U-15s. Those were my choices.
‘There was a long spell when, through the working week, I coached every player from the Under-10s to reserve level, always with four or five fixtures. Eighteen-hour days were normal. I won the FA Youth Cup at such a young age with great players and great staff around me. Those are my credentials. I coached the City reserves to victories over Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and, of course, Rochdale, which is when Mr Dunphy became aware of me. For anyone to think Mr Dunphy didn’t carry out due diligence on me is ridiculous. I know who put these rumours out there, but I have enough dignity not to start mudslinging. It was an attempt to undermine my genuine achievements and to make an already granite-like challenge even harder.’
Eyre next became head coach at Championship side Huddersfield, a club he joined at League One level not long after leaving Rochdale in 2011.
‘I was lucky enough to have ended up at Huddersfield, who picked me up when I was down,’ he says. ‘I was welcomed immediately and, by the end of the same season I left Rochdale, I was in the semi-circle at Wembley, leaving the division through the top end of it. I believe I can stand tall and proud. Winning the play-off final at Wembley was a justified achievement for twenty-plus years of coaching.’
And his spell at Rochdale hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for another crack at management one day.
‘I love developing players. I’m a student of the game and try to bring that to those I coach. I wouldn’t shy away from management in the future. I would like the chance again but certainly not in the short term.’