Manager interviews: Paul Simpson

First published 2015

Paul Simpson

It shouldn’t be this way for a Rochdale manager. The post should always be taken on amidst an air of hope, not expectation.

Yet Paul Simpson, a virgin in the discipline, found himself in the bizarre situation of looking to replicate a play-off finish or better when he took on the job in the summer of 2002. He was, quite simply, a victim of his predecessors’ success.

Steve Parkin had been revolutionising the club since 1999, shaking off the long-ball shackles that had blighted it for most of that decade. This success eventually took Parkin to Barnsley in 2001, with Dale comfortably in second spot. His mantle was eventually handed to veteran gaffer John Hollins, whose instruction, from December onwards, was to keep the team on target. While he didn’t quite manage that, the club only missed out on automatic promotion by a solitary point.

Paul Simpson

One of Hollins’ most notable movements during his spell as Rochdale manager was to bring in Paul Simpson the player. A quality, technically gifted attacking footballer, he stood out a mile in the fourth tier, despite his advancing years. His former team-mate Gareth Griffiths said of him: ‘His left foot was a joke. It was astounding. Simpson was the best left footer I ever played with and I’d played with some decent people. What a player.’

Simpson was a product of Manchester City’s youth system and had enjoyed a decent career representing clubs such as Wolves and Derby before making the switch to Rochdale from Blackpool.

‘I was coming to the end of my contract at Blackpool and the manager at the time, Steve McMahon, said he’d had an approach from Rochdale,’ Simpson remembers. ‘He asked if I would be interested. I wanted to continue playing, so I met John Hollins and was very impressed with his ideas going forward. It was no problem to agree to join.

‘Rochdale is obviously a small club but I was astounded by the staff and the players. The team was doing well when I joined, pushing for the play offs, so I enjoyed the challenge.’

Simpson’s arrival was seen as a real triumph for the club, reinforced by his goals and assists on the way to the season’s check-out. Simpson even scored as Rochdale fell to Rushden & Diamonds in the play-off semi-finals and, despite the disappointment, supporters were looking forward to having him in the Hollins-led ranks for a full season the following campaign.

Paul Simpson

Then things went awry.

Hollins wanted to negotiate an extension of his stay at Spotland, but his procrastination was deemed too much for then chairman David Kilpatrick. Hollins left and Simpson stepped in as player-manager. It was a move that was welcomed by many but was nonetheless seen as risky, given Simpson’s inexperience at a time when the club should have been looking to capitalise on the momentum generated over the previous years.

‘We all expected John to stay but the chairman told me the board ran out of patience with him, retracted their offer and he had left,’ Simpson says. ‘Coaching had always appealed to me. I had already undertaken coaching courses and was, at that time, doing my final year of a sports science degree. 

‘The chairman was aware of this and he asked me, at the Player of the Year Awards, if I would speak to the board about the vacancy. I was interviewed a couple of days later and, shortly afterwards, I was told the job was mine.

‘My plan had been to go into coaching at some point, but I didn’t expect it so soon. I had already signed up to play at least one more season and that was my plan if John had stayed. I still wanted to play, so it was agreed I could be a player-manager.’

In Simpson’s praise, the early days of his managerial reign provided this writer with some exhilarating memories – a 5-2 victory in Wrexham, a 4-3 triumph over Cambridge and a 2-1 win at Bristol Rovers (where Rochdale had to wear their hosts’ third kit due to their own being held up in traffic). In each game, the man himself led by example on the pitch – his superior ability visibly inspiring his team mates.

Despite a mauling by a rampant Manchester City over the summer, Simpson was pleased, in the main, with the squad he inherited and how they had prepared for the promotion push ahead.

‘We had an excellent pre-season,’ he says. ‘Our planning was spot on. We had a decent team left over from the previous season and carried that momentum into the start of the next.’

There is also, of course, Simpson’s main accomplishment during his time at Rochdale – leading the side to the fifth round of the FA Cup, an equal club record. The run also brought a figure reported to be around £700,000 into the coffers.

Paul Simpson

‘The FA Cup was a great experience for the players, club, fans and obviously the staff, too,’ Simpson recalls. ‘It gave the club a huge financial windfall and it left them with money in the bank for the first time in a long time!’

The cup run proved enough for Kilpatrick to offer Simpson a new two-year deal, live on TV, ahead of the fifth-round tie against Wolves.

‘I said to wait, though,’ Simpson adds. ‘We had too many games to concentrate on and I felt we could deal with all that later.’

But despite this, Simpson’s solitary season as Rochdale manager is regarded as a failure. Convincing cup victories over higher-league opposition in Preston and Coventry were at complete odds with the befuddling league form that saw the club eventually finish nineteenth, with home crowds noticeably dropping off.

Those exhilarating early games gave way to something much more pedestrian and, from late September, Rochdale went into a steady decline. A 1-0 defeat to previous season’s conquerors Rushden & Diamonds in November saw Rochdale drop into the bottom half of the table and the side would never again break into the top.

Formations seemed to vary from one game to the next, with the dreaded long ball even rearing its head on more than one occasion, though this seemed to be out of desperation rather than instruction. The players began to look lost. Kevin Townson, the young protégé of Steve Parkin’s era, was restricted to brief substitute appearances and, to the mystification of the Dale faithful, seemed to be on the periphery of Simpson’s plans.

‘There is no way I would say the players let me down,’ Simpson says adamantly. ‘They showed a great attitude towards me from day one and I know they did all they could to try to win games. 

‘The board showed faith in me to give me the job and, although they didn’t give me a lot of money to work with, they did what they could. We had some decent young players and a good set of senior players too. That said, I had to pick the teams I thought would win us games.’

Simpson instead cites a naivety with his available budget as his key error. He decided to spend the majority of it on what he thought would be three key players – Crewe centre back Steve Macauley, Huddersfield midfielder Chris Beech and Scunthorpe winger Lee Hodges. All three had performed well at a higher level but, for one reason or another, they would only play a handful of games for Simpson’s side.

‘I was given £3,000 per week to add to the squad I inherited,’ Simpson says. ‘My idea was to use that money to bring a spine to the team. I brought in three players, hoping they would be major additions to our squad. With hindsight, this was probably wrong and I should have used the money more wisely.’

Hodges arrived at the club unfit and, while Simpson won’t admit it publically, it clearly irked him. Someone who had been a leading light in the division previously, found himself shipped off to Bristol Rovers on loan and then out of Rochdale permanently. Meanwhile, Beech arrived as an obvious general for the midfield, a clear replacement for Gary Jones, who had followed Parkin to Barnsley. However, injury limited Beech’s impact to disappointing cameos and another of Simpson’s Rochdale vertebrae was dislodged. Macauley, like Hodges, was sent out on loan after a handful of appearances, this time to Macclesfield, who he would go on to join permanently.

‘I was new to the job and got no help from the board in terms of how to do it,’ Simpson says. ‘It was a very steep learning curve. 

‘I don’t think it would be right to say anything or anyone held me back, though. I made mistakes and this is all part of learning. In hindsight, I think we peaked as a group the season before, in the play-off games, and, although we did very well as a group for a long part of my season in charge, we were not well enough equipped to maintain it over the full season. The excitement of the cup took over, too, and the players struggled to reach those heights in some lesser league matches.’

It was a disappointing finish, given the previous season’s fifth place, but it wasn’t enough for the axe to fall cleanly. Kilpatrick’s enthusiastic verbal contract offer earlier in the season was not so keenly supported by the rest of his board at the season’s end and some felt that, while Simpson had something about him as a manager, he perhaps needed another, more experienced person brought in to hold his hand. 

Paul Simpson

‘When the season ended, David said he intended to step back as chairman and so the other directors met me. They said they wanted me to stay but they were going to choose an assistant to work with me.

‘In the last game of the season, away at Macclesfield, we lost in the last couple of minutes. This defeat caused us to drop a number of places in the final league table. The directors said that if we had won, and stayed higher up the table, all would have been fine but, as things stood, they had to be seen to do something.

‘I was told to remove either Jamie Hoyland, my assistant, or the youth coach Colin Greenall. It was ludicrous. Neither of these two were the problem. I said I was not prepared to accept those terms. I told them I would leave and that they could do what they wanted. So that’s what I did.’

Simpson’s spell at Rochdale hardly hindered his coaching career. In fact, it inspired him. Back-to-back promotions with Carlisle and almost getting Preston into the Premier League are fantastic achievements and perhaps vindicate Kilpatrick’s foresight when giving the fledgling manager his debut shot.

‘I learned a heck of a lot during my time at Spotland,’ Simpson says, frankly. ‘Some good things and some bad. The way some supporters turned on me, and my family, for example, was a massive eye opener into the life of a football manager and this helped thicken my skin for the future.

‘I also discovered that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and so chose to do my job to the best of my ability, work as hard as I could and stick to my beliefs. Unfortunately, supporters are not party to all that goes on behind the scenes and make their assumptions on part of the facts. As a manager, you are totally judged on results. If they are not good, like ours towards the end, then the rest normally takes care of itself. 

‘I learned a lot in terms of planning, coaching and setting up a team to get results, which you don’t learn on any coaching course. Another huge one for me was delegation. I thought that I should do everything myself in my first job but found out by Christmas that I was burning out. It was only when I left and reflected on the season that I realised this, and took the lesson into my next job.

‘Overall, managing Rochdale was a good experience, although I expect not many people will agree with that. It was a job I have no regrets about taking but I am also glad I chose to leave when I did. It was a season which helped the club for the next few years, due to the cup money, but also helped me to move on to better things.’

Photos: Mark Wilbraham and Dan Youngs

Manager Interviews: Steve Parkin

First published 2015

Steve Parkin

Of all those to manage Rochdale in the past twenty years or so, Steve Parkin is easily the most unfairly maligned.

He took the almightiest of risks according to football cliché parlance − he came back.

After an incredible first spell, where he transformed the club over a single summer from perennial strugglers to play-off challengers, anticipation was high among the Rochdale support that Parkin would be firing the kind of lightning that strikes the same place twice.

That’s not to say his return following the sacking of Alan Buckley was universally welcomed. Some sections of the support still harboured ill feeling at the way Parkin left Rochdale to join Barnsley in 2001.

That aside, the reputation he earned for what he achieved over his first two-and-half seasons at Spotland, despite failing to match that success at Barnsley, was sound. 

‘First and foremost there was a basis of a decent squad when I first got to the club in 1999,’ Parkin says. ‘I spoke to Graham Barrow about the job and he told me he thought the players he had left behind were decent but had merely underachieved. He was right.

‘It wasn’t so much a case of me revolutionising the club, it was just a case of bringing a few more players in. I had a lot of help from David Kilpatrick [then chairman] and the board in that regard. There was a strict wage structure in place, which reflected the gates we were getting at the time, but it was still very useful in attracting the players I wanted. I’d been working in that division for two-and-a-half years with Mansfield, so I had a good idea of the standard and the type of players that we needed to bring in to improve us. I evolved it season by season from there, really.’

Parkin’s initial stint as Rochdale manager gave this writer his first experience of the team performing admirably against Premier League opposition (prior to that, my only encounter had been a trip to Anfield in January 1996 for an FA Cup third-round tie. A hat-trick from Stan Collymore, a debut goal for Jason McAteer and Ian Rush overtaking Denis Law’s FA Cup scoring record made sure the day was all about Liverpool. Mick Docherty’s odd team selection on the afternoon failed to make any kind of impact in a 7-0 defeat).

Fast forward to September 2001 and Parkin’s Rochdale, despite eventually losing to Fulham on penalties after a 2-2 draw, made sure the Premier League side knew they had been in a match. The League Cup tie belonged to young substitute striker Kevin Townson, who made an experienced back line look ordinary throughout as he bagged a brace.

Sadly, the game went ahead not long after news had broken about the 9/11 atrocity in New York City. 

‘I remember it quite vividly, really,’ Parkin says. ‘Me and Tony [Ford] were heading back from training ahead of the game. I turned the car radio on and there was all these news bulletins about a bomb that had gone off in New York. We got back to Spotland and we had a little TV in our office. We turned it on and we saw the pictures and realised it was aeroplanes, not bombs, that had hit the World Trade Centre. Me and Tony sat and watched this for ages and ages and ages. It took our mind − everyone’s mind − off the game.

‘In hindsight, as a mark of respect, that game shouldn’t have gone ahead. But we were so far down the line in terms of arrangements that we couldn’t postpone. Fulham were already in the Lancashire area and so on.

‘We had to be professional and, as it turned out, it was a great game. Kev Townson was fantastic. He made a name for himself that night, but it was a team performance. We deserved to go through for sure. We were very unlucky.’

More spectacular results followed that season and, in November 2001, with Rochdale riding high, the lure of second-tier football management at Barnsley took Parkin and Ford over the Pennines.

Steve Parkin

‘In hindsight, it wasn’t the right decision to go to Barnsley,’ Parkin reflects. ‘It was too early. Rochdale were almost top of the league at the time, just behind Plymouth. We had a great little squad, a squad that me and Tony had built. The ideal time to move on would have been at the end of the season. The squad was good enough to go up and I should have seen that through. We should have got that first promotion since 1969.’

Parkin also asserts that his departure was not financially motivated.

‘The move to Barnsley wasn’t about money,’ he says. ‘People will say that, but it wasn’t. We constantly had a real problem of where to train at Rochdale. The club didn’t have its own training facilities and so we were like bloody nomads, going from one ground to another, one area to another. We were always looking for decent facilities or pitches that weren’t waterlogged. I’d done it for two-and-a-half years and it had taken its toll. One thing I knew about Barnsley, because I’d been there a few times with the Rochdale reserves, is that their training facilities were fantastic. That was a big sway for me. It was still tough to leave, though. I had a great relationship with David Kilpatrick and the board and, I’ll say again, it was the wrong decision.’

Parkin says he endured a turbulent twelve months in South Yorkshire.

‘I wasn’t given any time at Barnsley. They had a squad that was too big for starters. I think there were forty-six players when I arrived. I managed to get rid of sixteen of them in twelve months. The squad needed to become a manageable size. While I was doing this, the ITV Digital money stopped [the digital platform had paid £315 million to screen lower-league football in 2001 but collapsed in 2002 due to lack of interest from the paying public]. That had a massive impact on the club as we had a lot of players on big wages. This became unsustainable, even with our trimming. We were relegated and the board couldn’t prevent the club going into administration. The writing was on the wall for me and Tony from then on to be honest.’

It wasn’t long before Steve got back into football, however.

‘I went to work with Billy Dearden at Notts County six months later,’ he says. ‘I had a couple of job offers prior to that but they didn’t appeal. I’d been lifelong friends with Billy, so it was a pleasure to work with him. Notts, despite being in administration themselves, were a nice friendly club. I was enjoying football again.

‘Then, one day, I had a missed call from David Kilpatrick on my phone. I knew Alan Buckley had left Rochdale, but I still wasn’t sure what David wanted. I called him back and he said straight away, “will you come back?” I said I’d give it some thought, but, to be honest, it didn’t take long. I knew most of the staff and players that were still there. I wanted to do it again.

‘I went back, met the board, and they told me the club had to stay up. That was my only objective. We managed it by the skin of our teeth. Beyond that, my brief was to consolidate and get the club back to some kind of stability again. There was no further pressure other than that.’

On his return in January 2004, Parkin worked hard to restore some pride to the demoralised unit left behind by Buckley and, the following season, it looked like the magic touch had returned when he guided Rochdale to a ninth-place finish. 

This was due, in part, to a particular gift he possessed. Parkin, during both of his spells at Rochdale, had an exceptional eye for a striker. Under his watch, supporters enjoyed goals from Kevin Townson, Clive Platt, Paul Connor, Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Chris Dagnall and Glenn Murray. Only Platt and Connor cost the club a significant sum, while Holt, Lambert and Murray have gone on to make Rochdale over seven figures between them.

‘I’ve not got a bad eye as a former defender, eh?’ Parkin laughs. ‘It goes back to my Mansfield days. I’d always watch strikers for the runs they made into the box. I wasn’t so bothered about those who could crack it in from thirty yards, they tended to be one offs. I was more concerned with how strikers got themselves free in the box, the intuition they showed, the way they beat a defender to the ball. At Mansfield, I signed Steve Whitehall from Rochdale and he got me twenty-odd goals before he moved to Oldham. Then there was Tony Lormor, who gave me a decent goal return, and Lee Peacock, who I bought from Carlisle for £75,000 and the club sold for £500,000.

‘I carried this on at Rochdale.

‘During my first spell, I found Clive Platt, who would get me goals but would create them too, which was vital to that team at the time.

‘Kevin Townson didn’t fulfil his potential, which is sad. He was probably managed in the wrong way after I left. He got a hefty three-year contract thrown at him and that probably wasn’t the way to nurture him along and keep him hungry. He had a great eye for goal and was a natural finisher. He was very instinctive.

‘Paul Connor was a real talent, too. I really felt for him because he got some nasty injuries and that held him back. He could have gone all the way. He still did the business for Rochdale, though. I enjoyed working with him. He was a really good lad.

‘I saw Chris Dagnall loads of times at Tranmere. He was tenacious and quicker than he looked over twenty yards. He always created chances for himself. He wasn’t the perfect finisher by any means, but still always looked likely to score.

‘Glenn Murray was a raw one. He had an unorthodox running style, but he always seemed to get himself to where he could grab a goal. He went on to score for fun at Rochdale. I’ve met him a few times since and he always says he is grateful for the chance I gave him, now he’s in the Premiership [at Crystal Palace at the time of interview].

‘I’d seen Grant Holt a little bit before I signed him. He, too, was very raw but effective. I knew I could bring him on. He had the right attributes to be a fantastic striker and just needed a little work. He proved a very worthwhile investment of our time.

‘Rickie Lambert was even more pleasing. 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.’

Steve Parkin

Holt and Lambert in particular formed one of the best strike partnerships to be seen at Spotland, but, sadly for Parkin, their goals were not enough to bring him the success of his first spell, the sale of both players coming while the season was in flow and effectively derailing all momentum.

After a nightmare start to the 2006/2007 season, Parkin looked to have picked things up with a run of form culminating in a 5-0 win away at Darlington. It wasn’t to last and Rochdale embarked on a run where they won just one of eleven games, including a 7-1 embarrassment at Lincoln City. 

Parkin’s demise finally came on Saturday 16 December 2006, following a third consecutive defeat, to Hartlepool United, a game many supporters still believe yielded Rochdale’s worst display of Parkin’s two reigns, despite there being heavier losses.

‘You can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat, can’t you?’ Parkin says. ‘I’d got to the stage where I was experienced enough to know a club like Rochdale has to sell players to carry on surviving and functioning. You can’t keep hanging on to players when they have a value. Before you know it, the value is gone and the club is in trouble. It was hard work rebuilding teams, though. You lose a striker so you need to find another one that’s going to get you thirty goals a season. Losing Rickie and Grant in quick succession really hurt. I think if I’d held on to them, we’d have been there or thereabouts. Instead we went backwards a little bit.’

Players met by this writer over the years have always had good things to say about Parkin. Paul Connor, who Parkin brought to Rochdale from Stoke City in 2001 for a club record fee of £150,000, is one of them.

‘I’ve always said, whenever I’ve been asked to name the best manager I’ve played for, that it’s Steve Parkin,’ Connor enthuses. ‘He was hard as nails but was a great person with it. He had an aura about him, in that he had the respect of the dressing room but was one of the lads as well. He got the balance right. He knew when to be the boss and when to have a beer with the boys. He was massively into team spirit. Perhaps it’s considered a bit old school now, but he would encourage the nights out and all that. I’d say that was his overall strength. He got the best out of the lads that way. When I first went to Rochdale, and I know the players concerned won’t mind me saying this, we didn’t have the greatest squad in the division in terms of raw ability, but it was the best dressing room I’ve ever been in. That made us better than a lot of the more technical teams out there.

‘That’s not to say Steve wasn’t tactical. Training was never dull. He liked his teams organised. We had quality in the right areas, of course, but he signed leaders at the back and made sure we were strong defensively. Our training under Steve was always centred on being organised, strong and aggressive. 

‘It just seemed to click for me the minute I got to Rochdale. I put that down to Steve giving me the confidence to go and play. As long as we were alright defensively, he let the attackers play their own game and express themselves. I loved that about him.

‘Second time round, Steve had to deal with financial changes at the club. He didn’t have the same budget that he enjoyed first time. Quite rightly, the club cut its cloth. It takes time to build a successful squad with a small budget. He did get the time, but had to keep selling key players – so he was effectively starting from scratch each time.

‘Rochdale was the most enjoyable club I’ve been at. I had bad luck with injuries there, but it was still a welcoming environment. A lot of that was down to Steve.’

After Parkin left Rochdale for the second time, Director of Youth Football Keith Hill took temporary charge of the team, with Rochdale only lying outside of the relegation zone on goal difference. What followed was perhaps the most effective transformation of a football team this writer has ever witnessed.

Having, on a caretaker basis, taken charge of a leaden side; Hill oversaw a period where Rochdale began to demolish teams regularly by four goals or more. Given the job permanently, with former player David Flitcroft as his assistant, Hill made sure the form continued, a dazzling 7-2 away victory at Stockport the highlight. In less than half a season, he had taken Rochdale from the doldrums to finish just outside the play-offs.

How?

‘I set Keith on his way with the youth team job at Rochdale,’ Parkin says. ‘Keith, when given the chance, injected the first team with a new self-belief and confidence. Again, you wouldn’t think he had been a centre half as a player, because he’s a firm believer in attacking football. Once a group of players get a bit of confidence and they score a few goals, it builds momentum. You cannot underestimate the power of momentum in football. When you have it, you can quickly become unstoppable. I saw that happen in Keith’s first spell and I was made up for him.’

Connor, who played with both Hill and Flitcroft at Rochdale, has his own recollections of the pair.

‘Hilly was a tough old-fashioned centre half when I played with him,’ he says. ‘He’s really modern with his methods now, though, I believe. He was hard as nails but a great lad in the dressing room. He was an absolute winner. He wanted to win all the time, no matter who we were playing against. He wanted perfection and could lose his rag if he didn’t get it. He gave me a few bollockings, I can tell you. You just knew him and Flicker [Flitcroft] were going to go on to be managers and work together. They were best mates and travelled in together each day. I’m delighted they both made it. They deserve it.’ 

Parkin concludes.

‘My ten years as a manager were enough for me,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed it all except the twelve months at Barnsley, which were hard on me and my family. I see what managers have to go through these days, the press they have to deal with, the criticism. Latterly I’ve played the role of assistant manager. It’s more of a free role, I suppose, and that suits me fine.’

Photos: Mark Wilbraham

Manager interviews: Graham Barrow

First published 2015

Graham Barrow

One name in Rochdale’s modern history that seems to be knocked more than most is that of Graham Barrow. 

By his own admission he feels he achieved little during his time at the club, but he did put in place various elements that would go on to benefit it in later years. 

His arrival, after the eventual dissatisfaction of Mick Docherty’s brief tenure a year earlier, carried with it much hope, but instead of leaving a legacy remembered fondly, his era at the club more readily evokes talk of “Barrowball”, the derisive marque given to the football supporters witnessed between 1996 and 1999. 

Barrow took his seat behind the manager’s desk at Spotland with a decent CV in his hand. His appointment by then chairman David Kilpatrick seemed a sound one. He had previously guided Chester City back to the third tier of the English game at the first attempt and had then, with the help of Dave Whelan’s capital, turned strugglers Wigan Athletic into something of a lower-league force, before being surprisingly sacked with the club sitting seventh. His reputation as a manager was growing. 

‘Mr Whelan was a man on a mission when he bought Wigan,’ Barrow remembers. ‘It was a bit of a shock when I got the sack. They were heading towards the Conference when I took over and I got them into the top half of the bottom division. We did have a decent working relationship, me and Mr Whelan, but he was in such a hurry that seventh in the league wasn’t good enough for him. It’s not unusual at the top level these days, but, back then, at that level, it was. I don’t take it as personally now, as a few other managers after me have suffered the same fate. I was hurt at the time, because Wigan were on a roll. 

‘But look at it objectively. The only way a manager can get a job is if another manager loses theirs. That’s how it works. So I was sat by the phone waiting for the next call − and it came from Rochdale.’ 

Graham Barrow

While he wouldn’t enjoy Whelan-esque financial backing at Rochdale, the hope was still there that Barrow, with his contacts, would be the man to take the club forward, to lead it out of the fourth tier and secure a first promotion since 1969. 

‘I’d achieved promotion with a small budget at Chester, so it wasn’t an alien concept,’ says Barrow. ‘My goal, agreed with the chairman, was to achieve the play-offs and improve on a season-by-season basis. Because I’d done it before, the board thought promotion was achievable with Rochdale.’ 

Barrow took the job as the England team inspired the nation at the European Championships over the summer of ’96, but, to the observer on the terrace at least, it appeared football wasn’t “coming home” to Rochdale. Playing the long game seemed to have been taken a little too literally by the new manager’s charges. 

In fact, such was the side’s perceived unwieldy style during Barrow’s occupancy that, on a visit to Spotland in 1998, Independent writer Nicholas Harling noted: ‘The hosts base their game on massive clearances, long-range shots and the odd weaving run from their Spanish winger Isidro Diaz.’ 

But to understand Barrow’s footballing philosophy, is to understand the man’s background. 

Hailing from Lancashire, Barrow spent most of his playing career at non-league teams such as his hometown club Chorley, Southport and Altrincham. 

By his own admission, he was a powerful, no-nonsense defender, occasionally used in midfield if extra muscle was required, but he could pass a ball too. 

‘I came into the game the hard way, if you like,’ Barrow says. ‘We’re going back to an era when I was a schoolboy. I came from a council estate where there were no phones. You had to walk three miles to a payphone because my dad didn’t even have a car. It’s not like it is nowadays. You had to muck in. I had a trial at Blackburn when I was young but eventually ended up playing non-league for Chorley. I was in the same team as Mickey Walsh, who went on to do well at Blackpool and Everton. He made the grade quicker than me, but I did eventually get there myself. 

Graham Barrow

‘I almost signed for Wigan when they first got into the league, strangely enough, but that didn’t materialise. There was also a trial at Everton, but that came to nothing. I transferred to Southport before my biggest move at that point, which was to Altrincham. The Conference was just starting up then and Altrincham were like the Man United of non-league at the time. They won the Conference title but, as it was at the time of the old re-election voting system, Rochdale, who finished bottom of the Fourth Division, stayed in the league by one vote [79/80]. 

‘I eventually turned professional at twenty-seven, signing for Wigan. They had a really strong side at the time under Larry Lloyd and won promotion. I even got to play at Wembley [in the final of the Freight Rover Trophy]. Five years after joining Wigan I found myself at Chester and that’s where I became exposed to the notion of management.’ 

It wasn’t a natural transition for Barrow, however. 

‘When I was a part-time footballer, I was working as a heating engineer,’ he says. ‘I had worked for a living, if you know what I mean? It meant I knew what could be waiting for me after I finished playing. Because I loved football so much, coaching and managing were an ideal opportunity to stay in it. They’re a poor second to playing, don’t get me wrong, but they kept me in the game.’ 

Barrow says that while the rough and tumble of non-league and lower-league football taught him to be physical, the long-ball game, while useful at times, was never his outright modus operandi. 

‘The long-ball thing was never intentional,’ he insists. ‘I had players like Alex Russell at Rochdale. Passers of the ball. I wanted to use them that way. I can say this now, because I’ve since worked with Premier League players, and it’s clear that the top, top sportsmen have an unwavering belief in themselves. As you go down the ladder, unfortunately that belief wavers a lot more easily. A few mistakes and a player starts to panic and the ball gets played long instead of short. Any manager will tell you, once the players get on the pitch, no matter what you’ve done with them during the week, their mentalities take over. Any footballer that’s trained under me will tell you that my sessions are possession based with shorter passing, but you’re also trying to win a football match, aren’t you?’ 

Barrow had to deal with personnel challenges from the outset at Rochdale, with the sale of Paul Butler to Bury for £100,000. 

‘Two days into the job, Paul came to me and told me he was off,’ Barrow says with resignation. ‘That was a body blow. He was crucial to my plans going forward. He was a fantastic centre half. Then I had another setback. I had my eye on Wigan’s Colin Greenall, a tremendous player. He was captain material. The board backed me, we put in a bid, and Wigan said it was fine but we had to wait until the team returned from a pre-season tournament in the Isle of Man. He played well for them over there and, when they came back, Wigan said they were no longer prepared to sell him. Again, that was a body blow.’ 

The 96/97 season got under way in earnest for Rochdale with a 2-1 defeat away at Swansea which was, in mitigation, a traditionally difficult place for the team to go. However, an unbeaten spell between September 28 and November 2 created a buzz around Spotland, even if the football on display lacked the silk to match. It wasn’t to last. 

Rochdale would eventually finish the season in fourteenth, with fourteen wins and sixteen losses. 

‘Despite this, I felt we did okay that year,’ Barrow says. ‘We got close to the play-off positions at times but, just as we seemed to get there, we couldn’t kick on and I found that really frustrating.’ 

The 97/98 campaign followed a similar pattern to the previous, with Dale finishing four places worse off in eighteenth, despite a relatively strong end to the season. 

‘We never had it quite right at the top of the pitch,’ Barrow concedes.’ You’ll never get promoted if you don’t have decent forwards. I signed Graham Lancashire but he didn’t reproduce the form he had done for me previously [at Chester and Wigan]. Had we had a goal scorer that season, I’m sure we would have been up there. We had a good midfield with the likes of Gary Jones and Alex Russell, Neil Edwards was a top ’keeper at that level, too, so it was up top where we were short.’ 

Chairman Kilpatrick finally delivered the coup de grâce at the end of the 98/99 season. With Dale finishing in nineteenth, Barrow had presided over three seasons of regression. By now, he had very little support left in the Spotland stands. 

‘I was led to believe I was going to get another crack at it,’ Barrow says. ‘I think you deserve that kind of time with a tight budget. That said, people were very good to me at Rochdale and three years is a lot of time, especially if you compare it to nowadays, but I just felt I was never that far away.’ 

Graham Barrow

While frustrated, Barrow accepts the financial constraints he worked under. 

‘Mid-season at a small club like Rochdale, you’re not going to get the money when you need a boost,’ he says. ‘They back you in the summer, but don’t have the finances to do so after that. I knew the position. We sold youth-team goalkeeper Stephen Bywater to West Ham United for a lot of money [rumoured to be £300,000 plus incentives] but I didn’t see any of it. I was asked to play him in a League Trophy tie against Carlisle to help the sale, but he wasn’t ready. The poor lad conceded a load of goals [Rochdale lost the game 6-1]. I had to take that on the chin to help the club. I was prepared to do it, though. It was part and parcel of football at the time.’ 

It is unfortunate for Barrow that the money from the Bywater sale didn’t benefit the club until a year or so later. Kilpatrick once said that he owed then West Ham manager Harry Redknapp a debt of thanks for playing the goalkeeper in a London derby against Arsenal in 2000. That appearance triggered a £200,000 payment to Rochdale and went some way to funding the purchases of Clive Platt and Paul Connor. 

Meanwhile, Barrow had to scour the market for more affordable options, an area where he feels he lacked good fortune. 

‘Managing with a tight budget requires that little bit of luck,’ he says. ‘I had it at Chester. John Beck had gone to Preston and, because he likes to play the game a certain way, he didn’t have room in his squad for players who played the game differently. They were still quality players and it meant I could sign them for free because he needed to move them on quickly. I never got that kind of luck at Rochdale.’ 

With Barrow gone, former Mansfield manager Steve Parkin took the hotseat. Under Parkin’s stewardship, Rochdale shrugged free of its long-ball reputation and enjoyed a period of marked progression. Parkin eventually left to join Barnsley in 2001 with Dale sitting second in the division. 

But what, if anything, did he have that Barrow didn’t? 

‘Steve demonstrated that the club was only a few signings away from being decent,’ Barrow says. ‘He got Flickers in [Dave Flitcroft], who I was interested in signing myself as I knew him from Chester. Steve actually phoned me when he got the job to say thanks for leaving him with the solid basis of a team. 

‘And that’s the thing. I left Rochdale feeling I hadn’t achieved a lot but I had improved certain aspects of the club and had always been careful with the budget. Neil Edwards, Keith Hill and Gary Jones are all positives [Barrow brought the man who would go on to be Rochdale’s most successful manager and Rochdale’s record-appearance holder to the club]. People are always entitled to their own opinions but, while I was there and when I go back now, people at Rochdale are always fantastic with me. 

‘I will say, ironically, over the past four or five years I’ve probably felt more prepared for management than I did in my forties. I had that early success with Chester, maybe too early, because you think you know it all and you really don’t. You never stop learning in the game. Only now, in my sixties, do I feel I’ve accrued that kind of knowledge. The coaching courses teach you the basics but only by doing do you actually really learn.’ 

Photos: Mark Wilbraham

Finland has positive Ions

First published August 2016

Billy Ions

Lapland might be best known as the home of Santa Claus, but it’s a 22-year-old English striker currently providing gifts to the people of the Finnish region – in the form of goals. 

Yet while Billy Ions is a name now readily on Scandinavian lips, the mention of the Northumberland-born forward on UK shores evokes little more than a furrowed brow and a shrug of the shoulders. 

Despite being under the radar in his homeland, and still very much in the formative stages of his career, Ions has already achieved, and suffered, enough to fill out the CV of a more experienced professional. 

Currently in his fourth year at Finnish top-flight side Palloseura Kemi Kings, Ions has smashed an incredible 52 goals in 103 appearances, helping the club to two promotions along the way. 

Billy Ions celebrates with supporters

His journey to the Veikkausliiga – Finland’s premier league – is as impressive as his goal-scoring exploits and perhaps goes a long way to explaining the ease with which he has settled into – nay embraced – Lappish culture. 

“I was brought up near Newcastle in a place called Blyth, where I lived with my dad, mum, younger brother and older sister,” Billy says. “My earliest memories of playing football are in the school yard of Blyth Plessey Road First School. As I was brought up near Newcastle, getting into football seemed the normal thing to do, as the football culture is massive there. 

“Even playing in the school yard, I always took my football seriously and I was always better than the other kids. I also remember watching my childhood hero, Alan Shearer, back then. He made me want to play football even more.” 

However, instead of taking a direct route to St James’ Park, young Ions found himself upping his Geordie roots and heading to the altogether warmer climes of the Canary Islands. 

Billy Ions

“My parents decided to move to Tenerife when I was six years old,” he says. “We had spent a few summer holidays there and my family enjoyed the place so much they thought it would be a nice place to live. 

“My dad wanted me to continue with my football out there. Because we didn’t know much about football on the island, he asked around to find out the best place for me to go.” 

Billy recalls he had a choice of two local clubs − UD Guargacho or CD Constancia. 

“I chose Constancia because I thought the name sounded better,” Billy admits. “They were in the Spanish fourth tier. I just turned up, asked for trial and it was pretty straight forward from there. 

Billy Ions

“Growing up in Tenerife over the next 10 years, I played for five different youth teams − Constancia, Juan Miguel, Adeje, UD Ibarra and CD Tenerife. Tenerife was where I really hit my stride and I was the top goal scorer every season. 

“When I turned 15 I was playing so well that Tenerife wanted to sign me as a professional. I was delighted. It was a fantastic club − the set-up they have there is the best I’ve ever been involved with. The weather, coaching and facilities are great and it really doesn’t get any better than that for a footballer. Hopefully one day I can return to experience the football and lifestyle again.” 

Ions’ form for the Tenerife youth set-up had alerted clubs back in England and a year later events conspired to usher him home. 

“At the time, my family wanted to move back to England due to family reasons,” says Ions. “Newcastle United was one of many clubs that wanted to sign me, so, naturally, with my family being from the area, it was an easy decision to make.” 

Billy Ions in the box

Sadly, playing for his boyhood heroes didn’t work out. 

“Signing for Newcastle United was meant to be the big start of my career,” Ions says. “When I signed, [former players] Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley ran the youth set-up. After my first two weeks of being there, Kenny left the club and Peter moved up to the reserve team. New management came in for the U-18 squad and this was led by [former Barnsley full back] Joe Joyce. 

“Being at Newcastle United was probably the worst year of football in my career so far. I went from playing well all the time in Tenerife to not even being in the squad. As a 17-year-old, it really destroyed my confidence.” 

When Ions heard Leeds United were interested in him, he decided to transfer to their youth set-up. 

“Leeds signed me on a one-year-deal for the youth squad,” Ions recalls. “Neil Redfearn was the manager and I thought he was great. Unfortunately, I simply wasn’t good enough to make the cut for a professional contract, probably because of the rough time I had at Newcastle. I really didn’t get my confidence back and didn’t play the football I grew up with.” 

Billy Ions was prolific in Finland

It was then Ions turned to the Nike Academy as a way of rescuing his career. The academy, based at St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent and funded by Nike Inc, operates with the intention of helping unsigned players under the age of 20 find a professional club. 

“Leaving Leeds, I was struggling to find a club and the Nike Academy was my only option,” Ions explains. “At the time it was run by [former Cardiff striker] Jimmy Gilligan with [former Bournemouth defender] Ryan Garry as his assistant.” 

It was to be a friendly arranged against Lapland-based side Palloseura Kemi Kings that would get Ions’ professional ambition back on track. 

“When we played against PS Kemi, they were on a pre-season trip to the UK,” Ions says. “I was injured quite a lot at the academy and had just recovered from a bad ankle sprain. Playing against Kemi was my first appearance in a long time. I played 30 minutes, scored two goals and we won. 

“After the game I really didn’t think much about it, or Kemi, I was just happy I was finally getting some minutes on the pitch. 

“About a month later, Ryan Garry sat me down and gave me the news that Kemi wanted to sign me. At the time they were managed by [former West Ham defender] Tommy Taylor. 

“With no hesitation I said yes because I was desperate to get back into football. Next thing I know, I was on a flight to Kemi!” 

There were a few differences for Ions to get used to once he arrived in Finland. For one, due to the harsh winters experienced by the country, professional football is usually played between April and October. Kemi isn’t your typical Lappish settlement, either. It’s an industrial town on the Gulf of Bothnia, dominated by pulp mills. The city of Rovaniemi and its world-famous Santa Claus Village is an 80-minute drive away. 

“Kemi is a very small place,” Ions says. “There are only 22,000 people who live here. In the summer it’s very nice but in the winter it can get tough because of the low temperatures. 

“Finland as a whole is a really nice country − clean and very relaxed. It seems like there’s no rush. Everyone goes at their own pace.” 

Ions has been utilised to great effect as both a left winger and a striker during his time with Kemi Kings. When he first joined, the club was playing in Finland’s third tier, the Kakkonen. Within two seasons, Ions had helped propel the club to the second division, the Ykkonen, which Kemi Kings won at the first attempt and, with it, their first ever promotion to the top tier. Ions’ 17 goals and numerous assists during the campaign saw him voted the Ykkonen’s Players’ Player of the Year. 

“PS Kemi is a small club if you compare it to the other clubs in the top division,” Ions says. “It’s improved massively since I first came here, though, and I think the only way is up now. 

“The fans have been great over the past couple of seasons. They give us great support, no matter if the team is winning or losing. We have a fan group called the Kempton Royals who come and support us at all of our games around the country. I think that is fantastic! 

“My team-mates are great, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of lads to be with – both on and off the pitch. There is a good mix of nationalities and cultures. Me, Ryan Gilligan [English], Christian Eissele [American], David Bitsindou [French] and Zeljko Savic [Serbian] spend a lot of time together off the pitch. Although the boys are from different parts of the world, we get on like best friends.”

In the mix

Ions believes the standard of football in Finland is improving. 

“If I had to put the Finnish premier league in a bracket in terms of the standard, I think the top teams in that division could play in England’s League One and do really well,” he says. 

“Myself, I’ve been doing well scoring wise. I’ve been looking after myself a lot better than I used to over the past few years. Eating right, sleeping well, training hard and playing with confidence. 

“The coaching is good here. It’s not on the level of other places I’ve been at, but it’s getting there. Everyone is full time and the money can be good depending on which club you go to. 

“I would definitely recommend English players consider playing abroad. I think a lot of young players back in the UK think their career is over if they don’t manage to get a professional contract, but there are tons of opportunities abroad. Hopefully one day we will get to see a few more English lads outside the UK playing football.” 

But would Ions ever consider having another crack at the English game? 

“Yes of course,” he says. “If something right comes up and makes me happy, I would definitely consider it. My ultimate ambition is to play at the highest level possible and be happy − whether that’s playing in the UK or abroad somewhere.” 

Photos: Teemu Kvist

Supporting the underdog

First published September 2014

Spotland Stadium

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town… so opens the 1984 Smiths classic William It Was Really Nothing. 

If you visited the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale today, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon Morrissey’s inspiration for said track. 

A once proud industrial town that is dubbed the birthplace of cooperation now stands wet and boarded up in the shadow of the imperious Pennines. Employment and opportunity are in scant supply. Even Ronald McDonald has taken his franchise out of town. 

It seems fitting then that Rochdale AFC, the town’s professional football representative, has endured a similarly negative reputation since its formation in 1907. The club has spent longer than any other in England’s basement (so much so that the fourth tier became known as ‘The Rochdale Division’) and has a trophy cabinet as desolate as a Martian tundra. 

It begs the question then: ‘What masochist would give up their Saturday afternoon to watch such a toiling outfit?’ 

I’ll hold my hands up here. Twenty-five of my 34 years on this earth have been tally marked into the terrace wall at Spotland. 

Celebration for the supporters

To get into the why, we must first look at the how. Like most fathers with sons, mine wanted to get me into football at the earliest opportunity. As a staunch Man United fan, Old Trafford would have been his preferred destination. Even in 1988 though, costs were a little prohibitive. Instead I was dragged to the local club, a mile down the road, and into a shed of a terrace that held a curious mix of aromas – meat, tobacco and ripe farts. An eau de toilette for the lower league football fan. 

At first it was all a bit too intimidating. Grown men growling at other grown men. Grown men they had paid to support. Angry screams of “Gerrit on’t deck!” echoed around a stadium at one tenth its capacity, as the ball sailed skyward for the 30th time that minute. 

However, after a few weeks of peering over a cold metal bar and out onto the churned pitch, I found I had actually warmed to these chaps huffing and puffing in their blue shirts. I found myself looking forward to my Saturday jaunts. The occasional wins made up for the usual defeats. Like with Morrissey, I found I could identify with this team of losers. Over time, I fell in love with the place. 

While my school chums were declaring themselves Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe in the playground, I found myself emulating Andy Flounders and Steve Whitehall. It was worth the thumps. 

For almost two decades, my service saw scant reward. There was a pre-season friendly win against Man Utd (containing a young David Beckham) and there was an FA Cup Third Round trip to Anfield (which we lost 7-0). We flirted with the play-offs in 2002 and enjoyed a cup run the season after, but these were rare highlights. 

Now, though, the Football Gods have finally smiled on little old Rochdale and the club’s long-suffering supporters. In Keith Hill they have delivered us a messiah of a manager. To the opposition, he is a lower league leviathan. Since 2007 (a small absence between 2011-2013 aside), Dale fans have been treated to silky football, ‘broken toys’ developed into talented players, and that holiest of grails – promotion. Twice. 

And it feels so much better than anything Man City’s megabucks could ever buy. It feels earned. As a supporter of the underdog, it is the ultimate reward. 

As Morrissey once opined, “There are brighter sides to life and I should know, because I’ve seen them… But not very often.” 

Photos: Mark Wilbraham

Cornish football – past time or pasty

The rise and fall of Truro City FC

First published August 2013

Treyew Road

Cornwall. An enchanting land renowned for pasties, summer staycations and, apparently, some king who was in possession of a very circular table. 

But despite its popularity and size, the south-west English county has perhaps been notable over the years for its lack of representation in the Football League. 

That all looked set to change, however, thanks to Truro City FC’s recent charge up the pyramid. 

Sadly, finances deserted the White Tigers before they could fulfil their ambition and they are currently fortunate to still be in business, never mind participating in the Southern Premier League. 

But, just three years ago the picture was a lot more scenic. 

Treyew Road

When they took the Zamaretto Southern Premier League title in 2010, after a thrilling race with second-placed Hednesford, Truro created a new English league record, becoming the first team to achieve five promotions in six seasons. 

This feat left them only two divisions from the promised land of League Two and getting there looked all but a formality with local property magnate chairman Kevin Heaney and manager Lee Hodges at the helm. 

In fact, the club’s run to that point was quite remarkable. In 2005–06, Truro finished as runners-up in the South Western League and were promoted to the Western League Division One, which they won at the first attempt. And despite becoming the first Cornish club to play in the Western League Premier Division, they were in no mood to hang about, gaining instant promotion to the Southern League. City also became the first Cornish club to win a national trophy when they lifted the 2006–07 FA Vase at the new Wembley Stadium. 

However, there were early signs the wheels might fall off this express train when Heaney had second thoughts on turning the club fully professional, a decision that led to the resignation of then boss Dave Leonard. 

The club proceeded to work their way through no less than three further managers before settling on Hodges, and the former Plymouth defender, assisted by Dave Newton, guided City to their fifth promotion, aided by the goals of evergreen striker Barry Hayles and the prolific Stewart Yetton. 

But while a sound structure existed on the pitch, off it there was a stumbling block in the guise of City’s Treyew Road home. Only in recent years had they carried out work on the stadium – and then only boosting the capacity to a not-so-lofty 3,500. 

In 2005, the club did announce plans to build a new 16,000-seater stadium in the city, but residents who lived near the proposed site opposed the £12 million plans. 

A year later, the club looked into plans for a £7 million football-training complex with two new pitches and a clubhouse on land in nearby Kenwyn, complete with a 60-bed hotel and offices at their present Treyew Road base. However, in 2007, Carrick District Council rejected the plans for the new stadium. 

This clearly left chairman Heaney a frustrated figure, with his ambitions seemingly being thwarted at every turn. 

Heaney was a London property developer before moving to Cornwall in 2001, where he became a leading player in Truro through his cornishhomes.co.uk company. His investment in the club had allowed City to attract players capable of playing at a much higher level but the ground issue saw the dream fading. 

And it soon became a nightmare. 

In 2011, Heaney found himself refuting allegations that Truro were in financial trouble and set to be sold. His case wasn’t helped when the club was faced with a series of winding-up petitions from HM Revenue and Customs over unpaid tax bills. 

Dogged by this, Heaney finally stepped down as chairman in August last year, after being declared bankrupt, and was replaced by vice-chairman Chris Webb. By now, however, Truro’s financial plight was very much in the public domain, with first-team players claiming they hadn’t been paid. 

It was perhaps no surprise when City filed for administration after the players refused to play in a league fixture against Boreham Wood. 

Treyew Road

Administration saw ten points deducted from Truro’s league total, leaving them adrift at the bottom of the Conference South table. 

Worse, the Conference wanted a £50,000 bond from the club’s administrators to cover the costs of visiting teams, should Truro have been liquidated before the season’s end. 

Thankfully, after protracted negotiations with administrators, local businessmen Pete Masters and Philip Perryman stepped in to pay the required £50,000. The pair then completed a deal to purchase the club at the end of last year. 

But, while the club’s short-term survival was assured, Truro were relegated back to the Southern Premier Division before the 2012/13 campaign had even finished and, with that, ended their Arthurian-style vanguard charge for Football League representation west of the Tamar. 

Despite the tumultuous season, new manager Steve Massey intends to make the White Tigers competitive again, and there is renewed talk of relocation. Whether or not the club will be able to truly pick up the baton for Cornwall once more is anyone’s guess. 

If there is one silver lining for Truro’s fans, however, it is that the daunting prospect of a long trip to Carlisle on a Tuesday night can at least wait a little while longer. 

Photos: Extreme Football

The impending collapse of it all

The story of the infamous 2003/2004 Greenock Morton season

John Maisano

It’s easy to pinpoint where it all started to unravel. I remember it clearly. It was 3 January 2004. Greenock Morton were playing away at Dumbarton and I, like most of the press bench, was nursing a protracted New Year hangover. Morton put in an abject display and lost the game 1-0. “Maybe they were suffering from a hangover, too”, some wag jested. If they were, it was a hangover that lasted for the rest of the season.

You see, up until that point, Morton had lost just one league game (a blip against Berwick Rangers). They had amassed a 12-point lead at the top of the Second Division and looked unstoppable. After the Dumbarton match, their form… well, you could have almost skied down it.

Until then, Morton, under John “Cowboy” McCormack in his favoured 3-4-3 system, were playing the type of football that was worthy of a higher tier and they were regularly notching four or five goals per game. It made sense – they were a full-time outfit playing against, for the most part, part-time opposition. They made it count. They made it count in spades.

But from January to May of 2004, Morton struggled against those very same sides. From a football perspective, it’s easy to say why. As a team, the Ton simply stopped being a cohesive unit. Players such as Alex Williams, for example, who had excelled in front of goal, inexplicably became less prolific. An industrious and creative midfield began to huff and puff in tune with their part-time opponents, all creativity effectively nullified. The defence, while a little leaky prior to Christmas, began to make costly mistakes. Suddenly, the underdogs had a scent of blood and they went for it. Teams stopped setting up to frustrate Morton and actually began to attack them.

What is harder to explain is the reason for this lack of cohesion. The rumours – rumours that were reported in the national press at the time – suggested dressing room unrest. Player dissatisfaction with McCormack’s “hard-line” methods was one such theory. There were more serious allegations in the press, though, concerning the development of a laddish booze culture and, worst of all, certain players betting on the outcome of the title race – and not in Morton’s favour. It has to be stressed that the latter was never proven: not one shred of evidence was produced publically and no one was ever formally disciplined.

The only thing that seemed a certainty was that McCormack had lost control of the team. A monumental lead began to ebb away in a fashion similar to Newcastle United’s famous Premier League slump in 1996. Worse for Morton was that Airdrie United, previously languishing in mid-table, had strengthened an already talented squad. The arrival of the experienced Owen Coyle spurred on the likes of Alan Gow, Willie McLaren and Jerome Vareille and, all of a sudden, it was the Diamonds who were charging towards the top.

Chris Millar

Morton opened the season with a win against Airdrie – a game I’ll always remember for the fact one of the Cappielow crowd was asked to run the line after an injury to an official – and, on that day, they were far superior. When the sides met on the final day of the season, they were poles apart – and not in a way that flattered the Ton.

It’s important to note here that there had been a brief respite for Morton in early March, where the team looked to be in the process of shaking off the post-Christmas malaise via wins against Stenhousemuir, Dumbarton and Berwick. However, by the end of the month, Airdrie had finally toppled Morton from the helm by a single point and that enormous advantage held over the festive period had amazingly been frittered away.

Morton did regain top spot on goal difference shortly after, but the lowest point of the season for the Greenock side was waiting for them when they visited Hamilton Academical in early April. Although not quite enduring the 10-2 humiliation of a decade later, the result that day dealt an equally fatal blow. It allowed Airdrie to overtake them at the top of the Second Division once again and, from there, Morton failed to recover.

The Ton set up that day with their usual three at the back. Captain Derek Collins, who was deployed as a sweeper, looked uncomfortable with such a cavalier approach against a proven attacking force. As Hamilton notched goal after goal (the game finished 6-1 in their favour), Collins cast a forlorn look at McCormack on the bench. It was a look that said, desperately: “This isn’t working, boss”. McCormack did nothing until it was far too late. Morton were caught flat-footed time and time again. The Accies’ Brian McPhee, Mark Corcoran and Brian Carrigan continued to run riot. That result told Morton supporters, the press and the rest of Scottish football that the title was lost. More worryingly, it told all and sundry that the team was lost, too.

The criminal thing is, however, Morton didn’t just throw away the title that season, they threw away promotion, too. From what seemed an unassailable lead come Christmas 2003, Morton finished the season five months later in fourth spot.

Incredibly, McCormack was allowed to continue as manager over the summer before he eventually left the club early the following season following a poor start. It marked a sad end for a man who had led Morton to the Third Division title just over a year earlier and, along with chairman Douglas Rae’s arrival, had been instrumental in ending a tumultuous time for the Cappielow side. Just over two years earlier, the club had faced extinction during the disastrous Hugh Scott regime.

Back in 2003/04, my relationship with McCormack was typical of that between a local sports reporter and a football manager – he would feed me, and my colleague Roger Graham, more information than he would the national press, but still no more than he felt we ever needed to know. I never sensed he had truly taken me into his confidence. At the end of the season, he did open up slightly, however, telling the Greenock Telegraph: “I could give you every excuse under the sun, but there are lots of problems as you go along, shall we say. It’s not just loss of form.”

Fourteen years on, I wanted to get a better picture of what happened that season from the players’ perspective, hoping that time had proven the old adage true and healed some old wounds.

One person I always found amenable, even during those testing times, was Chris Millar. Currently known as one of St Johnstone’s more experienced midfielders, Millar was still finding his way in the game when he joined Morton from Celtic’s youth set-up in 2003. Born in Port Glasgow, Morton was Millar’s local senior club.

“We’d come up from winning the Third Division and we carried on that momentum,” he remembers. “The crowds we got were unbelievable. There was a real buzz about the town and the club. For a young lad like I was then, it was a really good taste of grown-up football. We signed Peter Weatherson from Queen of the South and he was a revelation. He was just what we needed to add to the title-winning side. We signed big Stewart Greacen for the defence and the tricky Paul Walker, too. We were blowing teams away, scoring lots of goals in the process.

Chris Millar

“People will forget how good we were back then because of how things ultimately turned out. We beat Airdrie 3-1 in our first league game, but don’t forget we also annihilated them 6-1 in the November, too. We were without doubt the best side in the division at that point – Airdrie and Hamilton were miles off by comparison.”

Millar opines that an injury to star striker Weatherson was the catalyst for Morton’s downturn in fortunes.

“Peter got injured around the time we had that huge lead,” he says. “He broke his foot and was out for six weeks. That was the pivotal moment for me. Our form seemed to go right out of the window from then on. I think we won only four or five games from that point. When Peter came back, his form wasn’t what it was. We were losing and drawing games that we should have been winning and the season fell apart.

“From being a dream at Christmas, it turned into a season to forget. I remember I couldn’t get away on holiday quick enough, despite the fact I won the club’s Player of the Season award. It was terrible. We lost the last four games particularly badly and I needed to get away to reflect on what had happened to us.

“When I think about it now, I still struggle to comprehend it. We had Alex Williams up front, as well as Peter − two out-and-out goal-scorers. They were the best in the division. When their form went, it was as if we were scared that we wouldn’t or couldn’t score. I remember a game against Stenhousemuir. It was one of the few we did win after Christmas. They were there for the taking but we were labouring about. I remember thinking: ‘I’ll have to do something here’, and took a shot on from about 30 yards which flew in. I couldn’t obviously do that every week, though.

“Looking through the squad, we had enough to win these games, or at least on paper we did. It must have been really hard for the manager. I believe he was doing everything right. He was doing nothing differently from when we were easily winning games before Christmas. He was trying everything to help us regain our form – one-to-one chats and sessions on the training pitch. Nothing seemed to help, though.

“Cowboy was brilliant. Let that be said. He probably comes out of that season looking bad, but I really enjoyed his training. Even looking back now, I remember those sessions fondly. They were all football-orientated. Everything was geared towards us playing the game the right way − attacking football with a lot of goals. I was only 20 back then. It was my first full season of senior football, but I played 35 games or so. That’s down to Cowboy. He gave me my chance in football. He was doing everything he could to get it right.”

While Millar attributes a lot of weight to Weatherson’s injury being the key reason for Morton’s decline, he cannot deny the unsavoury allegations also played there part.

“We were a tight team off the pitch,” he says. “We all socialised together on a Saturday night. In my view, there was nothing wrong with that. We all enjoyed each other’s company and I think that benefited the team on the pitch. People talk of a booze culture but there was nothing of the sort. Perhaps a few lads went too far individually on several occasions, but collectively there was never an issue.

“The betting thing, though, was absolutely ridiculous. I mean, where did it even come from? I don’t think anybody ever found that out. The accusations, I remember, were levelled at Alex Williams, Peter and the Maisano brothers, John and Marco. It was said that they had all bet on Airdrie to win the league. The Maisanos had never put a bet on in their life. They were total professionals. They had come to Scotland from Australia, lived in Greenock, integrated themselves in the community and they loved the club. I couldn’t think of anyone less likely to bet against Morton than them.

“But instead of getting laughed off as nonsense, the rumours started to be taken seriously and got press coverage. I remember a game against Airdrie in the second half of the season. I went to take a corner and the Airdrie fans showered me with betting slips. That’s how widespread the whole thing had become.

“As far as I’m concerned, it never happened,” Millar asserts. “It just wasn’t true. I was tight with Peter Weatherson and I know he would’ve told me if there was anything in it. I remember he was really upset by it all. He said to me: ‘They’re saying I’ve put thousands of pounds on Airdrie to win the title. I’ve not even got the kind of money to put a bet on like that.’ It was a horrible time. With us having bad form on the pitch and then these rumours emerging, the fans were understandably getting unhappy.

“Sure, a few of the lads would nip into the bookies to bet on themselves to win or to score, as was allowed back then, but I’ve never known anyone at any club who has bet on themselves to lose. What’s the point? Even if you could single-handedly make your team lose a game, you’re doing yourself out of a win bonus. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Alex was a bit of a boy, and Peter, too, everyone knows that, but they wouldn’t bet against themselves. They were known as cracking goal-scorers and would always want to protect that reputation.

“Mud sticks, though, doesn’t it? By the final run-in, those rumours caused a bit of resentment in what was previously a tight dressing room. You could sense some of the lads’ doubt towards those accused. You could feel some thinking: ‘Did you place a bet?’ It was horrible.”

Peter Weatherson

In light of Millar’s comments, I thought it best I caught up with Peter Weatherson. My lasting memory of him is that he was a very gifted footballer. My first glimpse came just after he had arrived at Morton from Queen of the South for a sum of £30,000. He was a powerful forward who could use both feet and score quite easily from outside the 18-yard box. His hold-up play was equally impressive, allowing his foil, Williams, to make blistering runs into the penalty area. Originally from North Shields, he was an affable lad, who, like Millar, always had time for a chat.

He chuckles when I tell him of Millar’s recollection of his “critical” injury that season.

“I was out for about six weeks with that broken foot,” he says. “Now that time has moved on, I can admit that it was something that happened outwith football. I’ll not disclose exactly what I did but it was stupidity on my part. I was young and daft. I knew I’d hurt my foot at the time, but I didn’t know it was broken. I arrived for training on the Monday morning and there was a bit of swelling. I thought I’d be okay but then I tried to train and pulled up. I thought: ‘Yep, that’s sore. I’d better go for an x-ray.’

“I tried to cover it up with the gaffer and said I’d hurt my foot in training. The x-ray confirmed a broken metatarsal and I was out for six weeks. To be fair, it healed pretty quickly. I should’ve been out for eight weeks but was back training within five.

“Before my injury, the team was flying and I was scoring for fun. It was naivety and stupidity on my part that cost me those weeks of that season. You learn from these mistakes, though, eh? When I was playing well and scoring, it was all happening naturally. I was in the groove, so to speak. After the injury, I was conscious I had to hit the ground running. I felt guilty. It was my fault I’d been out of the team, so I was desperate to get back to where I had been right from the off. I put extra pressure on myself because of this. It was my way of wanting to make amends.

“Collectively, though, the team had stopped gelling as a unit when I came back. Before I was injured, we all got on brilliantly off the pitch. That’s well documented. We all hung out together. On the pitch, we played off the cuff. Cowboy was a good football person and had us organised, but we were good players – really good players – at that level. The fact we hung out together made it work all the more.

“Then, without warning, the club put an alcohol ban on us. It was basically said that if we were seen in a licensed premises, we would be sacked. In my opinion, that was one of the things that really hindered us. We had guys travelling from Glasgow to play for Morton. They would stay with the lads who lived in Greenock all weekend. It wouldn’t all be partying. We’d go for a game of golf on the Sunday, for example. It was just real mates stuff, real bonding.

“Yes, there were some drunken nights, but that wasn’t all the time. The drink ban put paid to those weekends. As a group, alcohol and socialising never affected our training or our match days. Look at the top clubs over the years, the old Liverpool and Man United teams. I’m not saying it’s right, but they all socialised that way and had a togetherness that won them trophies and titles. We were on the way to achieving our own up until Christmas 2003.”

And then came the betting allegations. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how much they had hurt Weatherson.

“The money they were talking about me putting on was thousands of pounds,” he says, sadly. “At that time, I was living week to week. I didn’t have savings or anything like that. Come on, I was a young lad playing football for a living, I wasn’t thinking about the future. It now seems to be public knowledge that I liked to have a small bet. It’s true. I’ve gambled in the past. But there is no way on this earth I would bet against my team. Absolutely no way.

“I know now where the rumours came from. I’ll be honest with you there. I’m not going to divulge exactly from whom or from where they came, but I know. It was a few years later when I found out − the season we eventually won the league [2006/2007]. I was nominated for Player of the Year. I attended the awards ceremony and it all came out that night. I’ll say no more than that. At the time, I was baffled and hurt. I’ve since moved on.

“You see, it was the worst time of my life. You have to imagine it. I was pulled into Cowboy’s office every morning. He’d look at me and say: ‘Go on, son, just admit you did it’. How can you admit to something you haven’t done? It got to a stage where myself, Alex Williams and the Maisano brothers got together and confronted the manager as a group. We said: ‘Come on then, which bookmakers are we supposed to have used? Tell us, and we’ll go there to confront the accuser face to face.’ We never got a response. All we got was: ‘Look lads, just admit it and then we’ll go about sorting this mess out.’ That was my life for weeks.

“I remember we were to play Dumbarton on a Saturday in the May of 2004. We stayed at the Erskine Bridge Hotel on the Friday night. God knows why, as the game was just across the water, but there you go. Fair play, Douglas Rae put his hand in his pocket. We had a quiz night and when it was finished everyone filed off up to bed. Then I got it: ‘Peter, not you. Can you stay behind?’ This time the chairman was grilling me, too. I denied it again and again and again. Then I was asked if my head was right for the game. I told them honestly: ‘No, my head’s in bits. I’m fed up of being accused of betting against my own team’. I said: ‘If you’re asking if I’ll give 100 per cent to the team, then yes, I always have and I always will.’

“We lost against Dumbarton and it all kicked off with the fans after. Marco got involved in a dispute with them. There were TV cameras there, too. They had got wind of the rumours. It was crazy. You start to doubt yourself. You think: ‘Hang on; have I done what they’re saying in my sleep or something?’

“Sure enough, we all got grilled by Cowboy again after the match. He said: ‘I can’t help you if you don’t give me an answer.’ We told him straight: ‘We have given you an answer. We’ve told you we haven’t done this thing.’ Then he advised us not to go back to our homes that night as we wouldn’t be safe. Can you believe that? I stayed in the club flat at that point, near the ground. Supporters knew the flat. I was scared, I’ll be honest. I went back to the flat regardless and nothing did come of it, but it was yet another example of how out of hand those rumours had become. I was considering heading back to Newcastle and quitting football by this point. It seemed that no matter how many times I denied it, the rumours just got more and more severe. I’m sure the other accused players considered doing the same.

“In a strange way, however, those allegations turned out to be the reason I actually stayed at Morton for so long. I wanted to eradicate people associating my relationship with the club with betting. I stayed at the club until 2013, made well over 300 appearances in a variety of positions and scored more than 100 goals. I believe, now, that people will remember me for what I did for Morton on the pitch and not what some bullshit rumours claimed I did off it.”

It was early May when the accusations of betting began to truly saturate both the media and football websites alike. We at the Greenock Telegraph also looked into the allegations but, just like everybody else, found no supporting evidence whatsoever.

As Weatherson referenced, it was after a 3-0 defeat at Dumbarton − a result that saw Airdrie move five points clear of Morton at the top of the table − that ugly scenes erupted outside the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. Marco Maisano had to be held back by stewards when fans levelled accusations at him directly.

This led football agent, Lou Sticca, to issue the following press release on behalf Marco and his brother John:

In response to the rumours currently circulating Morton FC in regards to players of Morton FC allegedly throwing games, I take this opportunity to refute any involvement of John and Marco Maisano in such matters.

John and Marco Maisano play football to the best of their abilities and do so with passion and love for Morton FC. They play to win and their sole goal is to win another championship and promotion this season with Morton FC.

Both players are deeply hurt that any player’s names, let alone their names, have been used in such a disgraceful manner. Both players are indebted to the Chairman and Board of Morton FC along with the fans of Morton and the city folk of Greenock for the manner with which they have been treated since their arrival at Morton FC.

John Maisano

John and Marco have flown their parents out from Australia to be in Greenock to celebrate the promotion of Morton FC into Division 1.

Is there really any need to say more?

Well, according to John Maisano there is.

The attacking midfielder was both a creator and scorer of fine goals for Morton; an elegant, intelligent, continental type of player in many respects. Sadly, for football in general, he decided to retire from playing at the age of 27. He has now returned to Australia where he runs a chain of fitness outlets in Victoria.

“At first we thought it was a joke,” Maisano remembers. “As professionals, we’re trained to just focus on our job and not to listen to anything outside the changing-room walls. So, when the chairman called a meeting to discuss this, you can imagine my shock. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t even know how to put a bet on.

“I have no idea where the rumours came from. All I know is, as a club − and by club I mean players, staff, officials and supporters − we weren’t strong enough collectively to combat them. Everyone wanted to believe that there was something else going on apart from the simple fact that we had lost form. I was a young guy, 24 years old, and I was too worried about my own form to think of anything else, but, if I had that time again, I would stand up and make sure the whole town heard what I had to say.

“In house, we were told that we were all being investigated. It wasn’t a great way to help already low-in-confidence players deal with the expectations of a club such as Greenock Morton. We were expected to fly out of the division and score three goals a game while playing the perfect brand of football.

“We all took offence to the rumours but no one had the courage to speak up through fear. Well, what good did not speaking up do? The rumours didn’t go away, did they? Regardless of the betting allegations, our season was finished. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were not going to be able to pick ourselves up. Those rumours just gave people something else to talk about and made everyone focus on that rather than why we weren’t taking responsibility for the poor performances on the pitch. It gave us players an excuse to hide behind. Ultimately, we took the same poor performances into the next season because we didn’t deal with the real issue the season prior.

“The reason we started the 2003/04 season so well is down to a lot of factors. We were the new team going into the Second Division and, during the first half of the season, teams didn’t really know us. Once they had done their homework, they started playing on our weaknesses and being more aware of our strengths. You can’t complain about that. In fact, it’s great, as that’s what any competitive sport is about − trying to outsmart the opponent. Our problem was that we didn’t adapt to it ourselves. We were a very young team with a lack of experience. In my opinion, we required three or four small adaptations to our play, and a couple of player additions in January, and things would have been different. Above all else, the confidence and belief completely disappeared and we never recovered.”

Despite his torrid time that season on the Tail O’ The Bank, Maisano still remembers Inverclyde fondly.

“For me, the best part of being at Greenock Morton was that the town embraced both me and Marco as their own and for that we will always be grateful,” he says. “Greenock feels like home and Morton will always have a special place in my heart. I keep in regular contact with the club and, every time I go back, I literally feel like I never left. I love it.

Goal!

“Those betting rumours had nothing to do with why I chose to retire so young. I was, and still am, battling a lot of demons with regards to football. I wasn’t aware of how to overcome them while I was playing, so I just stopped playing. I was 27. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my football career and the opportunities that I wasn’t able to completely fulfil. Despite this, I would like to think that I brought a high level of professionalism to Greenock Morton with a style of football completely different to what was around at the time. Hopefully, I entertained, which was the reason the chairman brought me to the club, and hopefully I created long-lasting memories for the supporters at that time, many of who I now class as friends.”

As these events took place 14 years ago, there will no doubt be some who question the merits of revisiting this particular season, especially as Morton are currently in a very positive place. It is not my intention to upset the establishment. In my opinion, the 2003/04 season was one of the biggest stories of the Scottish lower leagues this century. As a football writer, it is certainly the most interesting I have been involved in.

And on that note, I’ll let Chris Millar have the final word.

“For half a season, we were playing some of the best football I’ve been involved in. The final league table doesn’t lie, though. Perhaps, ultimately, we just weren’t as good as we thought we were and the spectacular collapse of 2003/04 is down to nothing more sinister than that.”

An abridged version of this article originally appeared in Nutmeg Magazine. The quarterly periodical is a must-read for any fan of Scottish football and features great stories told by great writers.

An enormous debt of gratitude also goes to freelance photographer James McFadden for the kind use of his images.

Has money ruined the beautiful game, or helped reinvent it?

First published July 2013

With the mooted £85 million transfer of Gareth Bale from Tottenham to Real Madrid, the debate about money in the modern game has reared its head once again. 

On the one side, the money spent by sheiks, oligarchs and kings has been branded obscene by some quarters, especially as most countries are still tightly in the grip of a global recession. On the other side, however, it is argued that the influx of money into the game has reinvigorated it – especially in Britain, where, just over 20 years ago, football as a popular sport was quite literally on its knees. 

By the late 1980s, English football was beginning to unravel. Since the glory of the World Cup win in 1966, the game had become mired by hooliganism. The ‘working man’s sport’ seemed to mirror the plight of the working classes in Thatcher’s Britain. Grounds were crumbling and unsafe, facilities were poor, admission prices were rising. The product on the park was a far cry from the days of Moore, Hurst and Charlton. Violence had reached almost military sophistication, with organised gangs seemingly spending more time and effort arranging tactics and battleplans than the managers of the teams they followed. 

Football’s reinvention came at a critical – in fact literally terminal – time for the game. A series of separate disasters, in Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough, resulted in the tragic death of hundreds of fans. These off the pitch events forced clubs and authorities to drag the game into the modern world, and turn it from a relic of a bygone age into a world-leading example of a premier entertainment event. 

New stadia emerged from the crumbling terraces in towns and cities across the country. Shiny, plastic, all-seated, family-friendly places. They were safe, comfortable, easier to police. 

A crackdown on hooliganism put the lid back on something which at one point had threatened football’s future. 

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch took a gamble with his newly launched satellite television service and started to invest unprecedented sums of money into the elite end of the game. This, coupled with the advent of a European Champions League, brought the promise of pots of gold at the end of the goal line. 

English football was quick to exploit the potential. A new Premier League marketed itself aggressively, attracting affluent new spectators prepared to spend thousands of pounds to become a passive part of an upwardly mobile pastime. International players, once the preserve of the Spanish and Italian leagues, followed the paychecks across the channel. Oligarchs and Arabs ploughed yet more money into the latest fashionable status symbol – their very own football club. 

Today, English football’s top flight is dominant in Europe, and often claims to be the best league in the world. Attendances, and revenues, are at all-time highs. 

But at what price? 

Many clubs, let alone the players that pull on their shirts, have lost most of the roots which bound them to their communities. Lifelong fans can no longer afford the ticket prices to go to games. 

And while some money slowly trickles through the system, the vast majority goes to the purchase of fake-tudor mansions and super cars – the preserve of players with more ego than talent. 

Whether or not football’s rise is sustainable is of great debate; many of the highest achievers are bankrolled by sugar daddies and, for all intents and purposes, insolvent. 

While it’s a dramatic and obvious example of a sport which has reinvented itself, it could be argued that football’s experience is one which the mistakes should be learned from – rather than emulated.