The Crescent pub in Salford is world-famous for being the venue where philosophers Karl Marx and Frederich Engels met to shape their Communist Manifesto ahead of it being published in 1848.
The upstairs room in Rochdale’s Cemetery Hotel may well one day become equally renowned within the borough it resides after it was used to form a very different kind of revolution. There, representatives of the Rochdale AFC Supporters’ Trust and other likeminded fans – which included solicitors, accountants, managing directors, teachers, journalists and retired police officers – pooled their resources, knowledge and sheer desire to ensure the long-term future of the club was safeguarded from a sale to a buyer lined up by the board of directors.
It’s not that there wasn’t a realisation from the group that investment was needed, more that the very future of the club had been decided by four men who held a combined shareholding of just 15%. The board planned, via an EGM, to ask existing shareholders to approve the issue of new shares to a volume that would allow the buyer to acquire a controlling stake in the club, while forfeiting their own right to purchase any for themselves.
Upstairs in the Cemetery Hotel, there was a genuine fear that the wider fanbase and shareholders might not grasp the gravitas of what the board was seeking to do. It was clear that the sale of the club to a party who was unwilling to be named at the EGM could not be allowed to happen, so a commitment was made to embark on a campaign of education and enlightenment. The objective was simple: save Rochdale Association Football Club.
Football’s modern history is littered with the carcasses of deceased clubs, or those who have had to call in the life-support of administration. You need look no further than just down the road and the fate that befell Bury when supporters passively accepted the handing over of their club. By the time a challenge was mounted, it was too late. Now, there is no suggestion that the buyer the RAFC board lined up had intentions anything like those of the party at Bury FC, but the risk was there nonetheless, and it had to be mitigated.
The group, having acquired a list of the club’s shareholders, embarked on a tireless door-to-door exercise that took them well beyond the town’s boundaries. There, they sought to outline the board’s proposals and simply ask if the shareholder agreed with them. If they didn’t, the Supporters’ Trust offered to act as a proxy for votes cast at the EGM. The support they received was overwhelming and, in conjunction with a plethora of former directors whose shareholdings remained significant, it was, ultimately, enough to force the board to withdraw the plans at the meeting itself.
Chairman of the Supporters’ Trust, Colin Cavanah, said at the time: “I am personally delighted that the club’s share proposals have been withdrawn this evening. Had they been approved, we’d have been giving authorisation to sell the club to a board consisting of people with a combined shareholding of less than 15% of the club. We are not averse to the club asking shareholders to approve the sale to a named individual or group, but it cannot be acceptable for shareholders being asked to approve a ‘blind’ sale.”
We are not averse to the club asking shareholders to approve the sale to a named individual or group, but it cannot be acceptable for shareholders being asked to approve a ‘blind’ sale.
Colin Cavanah, Rochdale Supporters’ Trust Chairman
But it wasn’t just the proposed sale of the club that was an issue for the collective group of supporters. The overall governance of the club had cause to come under scrutiny too. It was revealed at the club’s fans’ forum in March that the contract of first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy had been extended for a further year. The kicker here is that it was done so in November of 2020! The lack of formal announcement at the time, and subsequent revelations that not all board members were aware of the extension until later, quite rightly, caused mass consternation among the fan base. It was so completely unnecessary. Debating the merits of whether or not the manager deserved the extension aside, the primary issue was the secrecy surrounding it. If members of the board thought Barry-Murphy deserved it, it was felt they should have said so at the time, publicly.
Then there was the statement issued by US-based shareholders Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli, who had been invited to join the board of directors, accepted, and then performed an alarming U-turn. Their subsequent statement was as damning as it was disturbing, claiming their decision had been based upon “serious internal issues” at the club and their dissatisfaction at the club’s handling of those concerns.
This led to the Supporters’ Trust calling for an EGM of their own – and for the removal of two club directors, namely CEO David Bottomley and Graham Rawlinson. To ensure that any such boardroom changes were well-founded, the group of Cemetery Hotel-gathered supporters began to work forensically, gathering testimonies of those close to the situation and unearthing new, eye-opening facts along the way. They agreed to assemble at the upcoming EGM, each entitled to attend via a proxy vote gathered in advance, and ask pertinent questions of the directors, where they were joined by former director Trevor Butterworth and other members of the Rochdale old guard.
The upshot was a series of meetings the like of which hasn’t been seen for decades. Rochdale AFC shareholder meets usually see all proposals passed through on a show of hands with not one item of disquiet (well, perhaps the odd tough question), and with most eyes on the buffet. In fact, not since a certain Edward Lord OBE stepped up to oust Tommy Cannon in the late 1980s has there been such dramatic change at the club. Lord’s return on the night, strength of questioning and the irony of his involvement many years ago is worthy of note.
Ex-Chairman David Kilpatrick and former director Graham Morris, who famously saved Rochdale AFC from extinction in the 1980s, felt compelled to add their weight to this fresh supporter movement, too. They were familiar with several members of the group and had remained in constant contact with some for many months. Many meetings were had, social distancing observed, naturally, and a shadow board of directors was formed in just seven days, ready to replace any of those current members who may depart. This shadow board consisted of long-time Rochdale supporters who had the hours, wherewithal and inclination to dedicate themselves to the club.
As a result of this supporter-led movement, the club now has a new chairman in Simon Gauge, and two new directors – Jamie Sarsfield and Richard Knight – with more likely to be added in the coming months.
The feedback received by the Supporters’ Trust since the AGM/EGM has been overwhelmingly positive. One such receipt shared with me simply read: Thank you for giving me a voice in the room at the EGM. I trust the Trust to do what is right for the club.
There are many fables in football, most of which relate to events that have unfolded on the pitch. This one, however, will long be remembered and used as an example of what supporters can achieve at a club if they work together collectively. Rochdale is a town famous for founding the co-operative movement. Never has it felt more apparent since, than right here and right now.
For a good while, Rochdale AFC appeared, from the outside at least, to be as vulnerable as that poor goat tethered to the T-Rex paddock in Jurassic Park.
And, much like Dr Alan Grant and his car full of dino-bait, us supporters had looked on feeling somewhat helpless, waiting for some external force to perhaps come along and gobble us up.
That is until the Supporters’ Trust and other likeminded fans pooled their resources, knowledge and sheer desire to ensure the long-term future of the club was safeguarded from potential razor-sharp teeth, metaphorical or otherwise.
Following a tumultuous set of AGM/EGM meetings on June 1, there was an impression that, finally, the ‘top table’ realised supporters are the lifeblood of the football club and that their collective opinion matters and cannot be ignored. A proposed plan to issue shares to enable an outside party to acquire a controlling stake in the club was met with vehement opposition from shareholders, the vast majority of whom are lifelong fans who had rallied behind the hardworking resilience of the Supporters’ Trust.
What transpired was an acknowledgement that there was another way of doing things. A way that involved supporters who possess the necessary resources and expertise to effect change in a positive manner.
Graham Morris, a man who once donned an overcoat to save our great club, sought to do so again, albeit this time with a suggestion rather than via direct action. This has led to three long-time and well-known supporters joining the board of directors – Simon Gauge, Jamie Sarsfield and Richard Knight. Simon was good enough to afford me some of his time and share his future vision of a supporter-led Rochdale AFC.
What I got from him was an offer of hope where previously there was none, encouragement where there was discouragement, and a sense of, once again, “we’re in it together”.
“It is probably more a case that this moment has chosen me rather than me it,” Simon said, when I asked him why he had waited until now to get involved.
“I would have been quite happy buying my season ticket and continuing as a fan if the recent chain of events had not unfolded. The first factor is that I had retired from my career as an airline pilot and have been working on doing other sports projects locally, so I have the time and energy to give to the role. The second factor is that, like many other Rochdale fans, I wasn’t happy with what had gone on at the club over the past season, so, when the opportunity came along to get stuck in and hopefully change one or two things for the better, it was a challenge that I felt passionately about and could not turn down.”
Simon explained that the idea of joining the board was initially put to him by a close friend of his late father-in-law, Peter Stock.
“Trevor Butterworth got in touch,” he said. “He was not at all happy with the situation at the club and asked me if I would be prepared to talk to one or two people about it. That led me to talking to Graham Morris, somebody else I have known for a long time, and others, about formulating an alternative plan should the club’s proposals be voted down at the EGM.
“Graham had done all of the hard work and found another three local supporters and businessmen who were happy to commit to joining the board if required. This was essential because it would have left the shareholders with little credibility if they were to block the club’s proposals without any alternative plan on the table.”
But does Simon think local supporters with the wherewithal and business acumen is a better alternative to an outside investor?
“I can’t honestly say if this is preferable to the sale of the shares to a wealthy investor, as I have not seen the state of the present finances of the club,” he said. “However, I have been given an indication. We have a plan with the existing board members to stabilise the club, to try to get more directors onboard, especially those with the skillset to help us maximise revenue. I want to re-engage shareholders and supporters so that everyone has the opportunity to pull together and make this a successful, stable club that is the envy of the EFL.
“If we achieve all of that, and still cannot make the finances work, then we may have to accept defeat and find a wealthy investor. There are ways of doing this and, if this is a road that we were forced to go down, then it is important to be as open and honest as possible with the shareholders, giving them all the facts, so that they can make an informed choice about the direction of travel.”
Simon moved to the town from Bramhall 18 years ago, although his wife and her family all hail from Rochdale. He started watching games at RAFC from the off.
“It was only when I started bringing my youngest son about 10 years ago that we came week in week out though − we both loved it,” he said.
“I had taken him to a couple of Premier League games but he didn’t like the travelling, the large crowds, the noise and the fact that you are so far away from the pitch. We came to watch Rochdale and his passion for football was ignited − it is the game in its purest form and not ruined by money. He could stand by the tunnel and high-five and have photos with players as they finished their warm ups. You were close enough to the pitch to feel part of the action, you could hear the managers shouting instructions (which was not always a good thing). You get to know the people sat around you and it is a real social afternoon. I think recognising these strengths and building on them is the way forward in the future.”
Simon confirmed that, while there are no shares to purchase at the moment, all of the directors joining the board will put an initial investment into the club’s holding account.
“We plan to call an EGM to give the board the ability to create further shares that can then be issued,” he added.
“The first task is then to stop looking backwards at the well-documented problems of the past year, but learn the lessons from that, and start to look forward. It is important that the new board of directors earns the trust of the shareholders and supporters alike and I see that as a big part of my role.
“I have this vision of us being a model club that is the envy of the EFL, where fans, shareholders, staff and directors all come together as a central hub of the community. To achieve this, we need to engage fans to buy season tickets and casual fans to come more regularly, we need to recruit directors with skillsets to increase revenue for the club and we need to see if we can attract potential and existing shareholders to invest in the club. It is not going to be easy but it is the challenge that lies ahead.”
Simon described his relationship with his fellow directors as “very much in its infancy”.
“Although I have known one or two of my fellow directors previously, most I have only met in the past couple of weeks,” he said. “One thing I do know about them, though, is that they all are passionate supporters of the club and are determined to make it a success. They have all been successful in their own right and want to come together and pool their knowledge for the benefit of Rochdale Association Football Club. I am looking forward to further developing my relationship with all the new and existing directors at the club.”
On a personal level, Simon wants to see success on the pitch as well as off it.
“I would like us to become a sustainable football club, making a profit each year in the upper reaches of League One and dreaming of getting to the Championship,” he said.
“My personal view is that the board has, over a number of years, not been sufficient in number and needs to increase in size. By changing that, it gives the diversity of opinions and skills to really move the club forward. As for the day-to-day running of the club − there are staff to do that, but I would not take on the directorship unless I intended to take an active role in what is going on.
“I think the past year has been challenging for everyone. As a board, we will obviously look closely at the whole club’s structure, including off-field and on-field personnel. Personally, I was very encouraged by both the finish to the season and the quality of some of the signings that we have made. If we can add to them this summer, then hopefully our stay in League Two will only be a temporary one − and for the right reason.”
However, when considering the team’s performance over the course of the entire season, and off-field incidents such as the clandestine extending of Brian Barry-Murphy’s contract, Simon knows there is a lot to be done to restore the supporters’ trust in the football club.
“Words from me will not restore trust,” Simon said. “Actions by the whole club, the board of directors and all of the staff will. We are a community club and everyone involved in it has got to be open, honest and accessible. I can’t promise that we will get all of the decisions right, but what I can promise is that we will always act with integrity and with the right intentions.
“We have got to really understand the club and stabilise it financially to ensure we are around in the short term. Once that is done, we can set about seeing if it is possible to run the club profitably in the long term, which I would very much like to be a part of.
“It may be that we come to the decision in the short or long term that selling the club to an investor is indeed the best option − if it is, then we will go about this in the right way, ensuring shareholders and supporters are informed of how the investor wants to run the club, where the money is coming from and how they want to structure any purchase. It is then up to shareholders, many of whom are fans, to make that decision.”
The Rochdale AFC board of directors has withdrawn the four resolutions proposed for releasing new shares in the club and has agreed to instead explore alternative ways of generating new investment.
The decision was made at tonight’s host of Annual and Extraordinary General Meetings.
Rochdale AFC shareholders also voted to remove club chief executive David Bottomley and Graham Rawlinson from the board of directors during the five-hour marathon event.
The collective shareholders expressed concern at a proposed resolution that would have seen them waive their rights to purchase new shares for the next five years, as well as those to issue unlimited, 697,042 and 397,042 shares respectively.
Should the resolutions have been passed, it was revealed that the board had already identified preferred investors for the club, who intended to acquire a 51% stake. The identities of these investors were not revealed due them having signed Non-Disclosure Agreements.
However, after several compelling presentations from shareholders, the board agreed to withdraw the resolutions and explore alternative ways of raising funds and attracting investors.
It was then down to the other business of the evening.
Part of the Supporters’ Trust’s call for an EGM concerned the reversal of shareholders Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli’s decision to join the board of directors, claiming this was based upon “serious internal issues” at the club and their dissatisfaction at the club’s handling of those concerns. The attending board members were grilled by attending shareholders on key issues such as the extending of first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy’s contract by a further year, and not informing the supporters, as well as questions around pay rises awarded to unnamed executives.
Afterwards, the two members put forward prior to the meetings, David Bottomley and Graham Rawlinson, were voted off the board of directors. This leaves only interim chairman Andrew Kelly, Tony Pockney and the newly elevated Nick Grindrod as full board members. Bottomley does, of course, retain his employed position as chief executive.
What remains now is for the shareholders and remaining board members to collectively decide on the future of the football club. Investment is desperately needed and that is not up for debate, but not at the risk of the club’s long-term future. Fresh leadership is needed too, with Kelly stepping down in the coming months.
Chairman of the Supporters’ Trust, Colin Cavanah, said: “I am personally delighted that the club’s share proposals have been withdrawn this evening. Had they been approved, we’d have been giving authorisation to sell the club to a board consisting of three people with a combined shareholding of less than 15% of the club. We are not averse to the club asking shareholders to approve the sale to a named individual or group, but it cannot be acceptable for shareholders being asked to approve a ‘blind’ sale.
“Under no circumstances should any of the outcomes from tonight’s meeting be considered personal or a vendetta, and it is both hurtful and offensive to the Dale shareholders to even suggest that. You only have to look at the number of people who have voted the same way as the Trust tonight.
“Dale fans share a common concern about the governance of any football club, and it is without doubt that there is a genuine pride among the fanbase that we remain the one EFL side in the Greater Manchester area to have never been in administration. Tonight’s outcomes indicate a real need for the club to engage with the fanbase and ask what supporters want from their football club.
“We will provide a full update to our members and fellow supporters via our website on Wednesday.”
In AD 64, the great city of Rome burned while the Emperor Nero sat in his quarters and played the fiddle.
Okay, so historians have since pointed out that the fiddle would not be invented for another millennium and Nero was actually out of town that night, but, while the legend may not have stood the test of time, the analogy has.
As the 2020/21 season comes to an end for Rochdale AFC, I am minded of the story of Nero. The damage will not be done tomorrow, in our final game, nor was it done last weekend when relegation was confirmed. No, the fire has raged over the course of an entire season.
I am left with a pervasive feeling that the powers-that-be could have done more to prevent the club’s seven-season stay in League One coming to an end. If they did indeed focus on other issues as ‘Rome burned’, I don’t think they did so out of self-interest. I still genuinely believe that the board – a small band of four local men – want what they believe is best for the club. But here’s the rub – it is what they believe is best. That is their right, of course. They’ve paid for their seat at the table and that’s fair enough. But while it is their right, it doesn’t always mean they are right.
My take is that there have been irrefutable mistakes. Extending first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy’s contract by a further year, and not informing the supporters, is chief among them. Never in my time following football has that happened at any professional club in this country. We, the supporters, have since been offered some form of words by way of explanation, but, despite the tokenistic purple hyacinth, we still don’t truly know what happened. We probably never will.
It’s not even the fact that Barry-Murphy was overseeing our worst home record in the club’s entire history at the time, or cup exits to lower-league opposition. It is the fact that a decision was taken by a person or persons unknown and then kept secret from the external world. For three months!
The way the news was eventually revealed to supporters had the air of a Monty Python sketch about it – except it wasn’t supposed to be funny. I fear the board members involved will be eternally haunted by the memes and recollections of one of the most memorable fans’ forums in living memory.
Perhaps the biggest chain reaction of the season occurred in February, however. Our chairman of some three years, Andrew Kilpatrick, stepped down out of the blue, citing personal reasons. He remains the club’s major shareholder – a gift from his late father – but, like during much of his chairmanship, remains very much in the shadows, leaving others to carry the burden.
This prompted director Andrew Kelly to step up on an interim basis. A long-serving board member in various stints, Kelly was even part of the club’s youth set up as a player many moons ago. Now, at 78 years old, it is only his unflappable love of the club that led to him answering the call in a time of great need. God knows, he didn’t need the added stress. I still believe it is no coincidence that he was taken ill a short time later. Upon recovering and taking the hotseat once again, he reiterated his desire to find a suitable permanent replacement, so that he might step down and take life easy. He cannot alone bear the brunt of responsibility for what has happened this season, given the limited time he has sat in the top chair. To use the Roman analogy again, you have to imagine the boardroom is analogous to a senate, where a consensus is found but not necessarily to the entire satisfaction of all within. A numerically small board concentrates power – and that’s not always a good thing.
Despite the tokenistic purple hyacinth, we still don’t truly know what happened. We probably never will.
More starkly delivered than the news of the manager’s contract extension, was the revelation that the pandemic has hit the club hard from a financial point of view. No punches were pulled here. I have complete sympathy. The club is a business forced to operate at full cost with no paying customers. Our cash reserves built on years of selling players with lucrative clauses have been, we are told, unavoidably battered.
This led to former chairman Chris Dunphy declaring his interest in returning to the role in a bid to help the club he loves. His claims were bullish and gave hope, but they were also perceived as antagonistic to serving board members. The turkeys refused to vote for Christmas and the required support Dunphy needed from key shareholders waned. This is a shame. While Dunphy might not have brought millions to the table, his leadership and experience would certainly have been invaluable in these uncertain times.
Then there is the duo to which Chris Dunphy effectively sold his power – Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli. The US pair, who I revealed last summer had purchased Dunphy’s shareholding (as well as that of Bill Goodwin and Paul Hazlehurst), had accepted an invitation to join the board upon Kilpatrick stepping down, only to then perform an unceremonious U-turn. Their subsequent statement was as damning as it was alarming, claiming their decision had been based upon “serious internal issues” at the club and their dissatisfaction at the club’s handling of those concerns.
This prompted the Supporters’ Trust to canvass support of shareholders and call for an EGM. Instead, the club announced a cavalcade of AGMs for June 1. The 2020 AGM, the 2021 AGM and the previously adjourned club EGM that was originally called in early 2020. This will be followed by the EGM called by the Trust. With me so far? Good, because my head is spinning. If you like your general meetings, June 1 is the date for you.
The board of directors have now also made public that they are working to secure outside investment for Rochdale AFC and, as a result, have met with several “serious investors” over the past few months.
They say they have reached a key stage with a number of “highly interested parties”, including a group of investors who attended Rochdale’s home game against Swindon Town last month. The club confirmed Nik and Eva Speakman, the TV life coaches who reside in Littleborough, were at that game, although it is unclear whether or not this was in the capacity of potential investors.
I understand one particular party stands out from the others, however, and shareholders can expect to hear more at the AGM. Either way, we are at a major fork in the road in the club’s history. There are only two ways this can go and this is when supporters need to wield the power they have – legally and with civility, of course. You only need to glance down the road to see what can potentially happen if trust is betrayed. Don’t get me wrong, change is very often good. It is certainly needed at Rochdale AFC right now, as the status quo is not an option, but questions must be asked, scrutiny applied and two-way communication enforced. Don’t forget, when we talk of unconditional support – this is it. We collectively put money into the club rather than take it out and we challenge for the greater good – no matter how uncomfortable it may be for us in the short term. We are not in this for personal gain. It is very much a labour of love and a collective responsibility to safeguard the future. Like a church is not a building but the people within, so too is a football club.
And then there is the product on the pitch – the marketable product, if you like. I’ll just get this out of the way now. It hasn’t been good enough – pandemic or no pandemic, supporters or no supporters. Overall, for all the plaudits we are told we have received from directors at other football clubs, it has been poor. Yes, there have been flashes of brilliance, a peek into what this squad could have been truly capable of if handled correctly, but, in the end, form simply reverted to type. I don’t blame the players for this. I can think of very few games where a lack of effort has frustrated me. In the main, it has been down to how the team has been set up, the direction of play within a game and a frustrating failure to adapt over a number of games.
I do not for one second buy into pre-season bookie predictions of impending doom. We have defied those odds fairly steadily since 2008. The ability of the players on the whole is not in question either. The vast majority of our current squad is good enough to play in League One. Nor do I subscribe to the finances defence. Despite a budget to reflect the pandemic, Barry-Murphy has been given funds to get every player he has wanted this season – and that included paying fees for two very good strikers. Much has been made about missing out on a left-back and not having a plan B, but the excellent Jimmy Keohane, and, to a lesser extent, Matt Done, have mitigated that area of weakness. Injuries, we’ve had a few, as Frank Sinatra might have sung, but so has every other club in the land. While I do allow for some extenuation here, it’s a particular prerequisite of a Rochdale manager to manage a small squad. That’s just the way it is.
For me, the dismay stems from the relentless persistence with a tactic or formation, which was so obviously failing, for clusters of games. We seemed to take the attitude of, “well, it will come good eventually”, as opposed to making the best use of who we had available for who we were facing.
The resounding wins at Plymouth and Wigan actually served to impede progress as we stuck to 4-4-2 and, all of a sudden, insisted Matt Lund was a forward, rather than a player who could arrive late to great effect. It wasn’t so much that one formation was better than another, more that we needed to adapt week-on-week and, crucially, mid-match, to gain points.
We didn’t, so we slipped inexorably into the bottom four, despite it being quite preventable. With a simplistic approach to set up in the best way, with whoever we had available, and by sticking to getting the ball through midfield into the opposition half quickly, I believe we’d have steered clear of trouble in a similar manner to Shrewsbury or Burton. It didn’t even need to be that big of a concern.
These flaws can probably be best summed up by AFC Wimbledon’s third goal at their place on April 27 – a last-ditch equaliser in a key game which cost us two vital points and all but confirmed our relegation.
It illustrated three things: poor use of substitutes, tactical inflexibility within a game (or over a period of games) and a lack of defensive structure.
I know tactical breakdowns are not everybody’s cup of tea – and I don’t usually indulge in them – but this is an important illustration of the above theme. The picture below shows the ball in mid-air en route to the third goal. Wimbledon’s No. 7, Cheye Alexander, has crossed it. Our left wing-back is too high, leading to one central defender being too far left.
The midfield three are all on top of each other and the back line is disjointed. If we had gone 5-4-1 for the last five minutes, and the left wing-back stays back, all three central defenders are in the middle. This means the midfield is stretched across the pitch, which prevents their No. 7 crossing it. If we had gone 5-4-1, the crosses in this image show where our players should have been.
We would be five-10 yards higher up, with a wide player in midfield preventing the cross and all defenders in a line rather than resembling a fragmented jigsaw like they are. This has been a systemic failing in many of our games this season. It leads to last-minute goals, which in turn undoes any previous good work in a match and leads to accusations of players bottling it – which just isn’t true or fair. I think this will be the legacy of this season, as much as it saddens me to say. We lost eight points from goals conceded in injury time alone.
Let’s put this under the microscope. Seventeen home league games without a win is a club record and not a desirable one. Add to that the Salford and Stockport cup games and it was 19 home games without a win. That beats the previous record of 16 from November 1931 to September 1932.
We also have the ignominy of achieving our joint-second lowest number of home league wins in an entire season and the lowest number of home points in a completed season under three points for a win – 21 points. In fact, this season, we have won the least amount of home games of any team in the EFL.
I am pointing all of this out because somebody who hasn’t witnessed every single one of our games this season is inevitably going to ask what the rumpus is all about. Well, there it is.
The manager himself, after relegation was confirmed last week against Doncaster, admitted, in so many words, that he thought things would eventually come good this season. It sounded more like in hope than in expectation. Barry-Murphy will go into next season no longer carrying the tag of an inexperienced manager. He needs to take the battle scars he has accrued and put them to good use. We simply cannot afford a similar fate this time next year. It’s frustrating, because his player recruitment, in the main, is sound. If he could just marry that with a game-to-game approach, we may just have something to cheer again.
Barry-Murphy will go into next season no longer carrying the tag of an inexperienced manager.
But while the external recruitment is something to be largely lauded, recruitment from within doesn’t seem to be a priority. The one ray of light that has penetrated this season has had the blinds pulled down upon it. Our Academy side won the EFL Youth Alliance Cup and narrowly missed out on the league title, yet we learn the entire tranche of second-year scholars is to be been released. The fact a number of these players have already secured trials with clubs higher up the football food chain makes this all the more eyebrow raising. Are none of these boys really deemed not good enough to progress at RAFC, or is this a financial decision? Are there internecine politics at play here? A schism between the Academy and first team management? I’m not suggesting it’s one thing or another, by the way, but without a statement from the club, these are the questions supporters are left asking. God help us if first years such as Peter Thomas don’t get a deal, that’s all I can say.
Anyway, it is what it is. Providing we can navigate the summer off the field, we face a League Two campaign on it. What can we expect? There will still be local derbies to be had, a chance to visit grounds for the first time in nearly a decade and some for the first time ever.
How we will fare is more difficult to assess. Of the current squad, we face losing a great many. Those who are out of contract may fancy more lucrative offers elsewhere and, of those under contract, well, the vultures are already circling the carcass of relegation. It looks as if a complete rebuild job is on the cards and the success of that will depend, to some extent, on how much budget is put forward. I say ‘to some extent’ because it’s not the be all and end all. Team spirit and sound management can carry you to great heights at this level, as Keith Hill proved with us once upon a time, and Derek Adams has with Morecambe during this season.
Come rain or shine, we will be behind whoever takes to the field wearing the colours of RAFC. But my overriding plea to those in charge is this. Never have I felt so disconnected from the club I have supported since I was a boy (and that’s, sadly, a long time ago now). I’m not alone in this. That has taken some doing. You need to start listening to supporters and, not only that, communicating with them with honesty. I mean, you wouldn’t even know we’d been relegated from the club’s official channels alone. There is no place for abuse and there never will be, but those who convey their dissatisfaction in a fair way, should be heard. We used to be a team – supporters, those in the boardroom, those working at the club and those on the pitch. Team Rochdale. A family. We are so far away from that right now, it hurts. There are deep wounds that need to be healed and that process can only begin when you acknowledge this fact and act accordingly. Not simply with words, but with actions too. Being back in League Two we are, essentially, back to square one. Let’s take that opportunity to build something together again – supporters and club as one – so that we may dream again of one day competing at the best level we possibly can.
Former Rochdale AFC chairman Chris Dunphy has unveiled plans to make a sensational return to the role in a bid to “save this great club”.
Dunphy stepped down as chairman in 2018, and left the board altogether, leaving majority shareholder Andrew Kilpatrick to fill the position. Kilpatrick announced his own decision to abdicate the role last month, citing personal reasons, with long-time director Andrew Kelly agreeing to step up on an interim basis only.
However, having watched an extraordinary fans’ forum, where it was revealed Kelly had become ill and the board were in dire need of fresh leadership and funds to keep the club going, Dunphy decided he could no longer stand idly by.
Dunphy’s plan to return as chairman involves long-time associate Bill Goodwin rejoining the board, as well as Francis Collins and Richard Wild, both of whom are executors of the late David Clough’s estate, which has been left to the football club. The pair say that using Clough’s legacy to purchase shares in the club would be a fitting tribute to the superfan and play a major part in achieving eternal supporter partial ownership.
Dunphy had previously sold his own shares privately to American businessmen Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli. At this point it is unclear whether Dunphy intends to buy these back or eventually work in tandem with the pair as fellow directors.
The former chairman now hopes shareholders will call an EGM to put forward his plans in order to garner support, ready for when Andrew Kelly steps down from his interim position.
Dunphy said: “As a former chairman and director for more than 30 years, I cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the club, which I have supported all my life, simply disappear without a fight. I can’t imagine having no football club in the town for my children and grandchildren to support.
“While I was chairman, I did all I could to ensure the security of the club, as well as develop the business, and now I feel I have to step up to the plate again, knowing in my heart that I did all I could to help save this great club.
“I have put a plan together that I feel would help secure the short-term survival of the club and safeguard the future.”
Dunphy said his first task would be to review the club’s finances via an audit and help find additional revenue following a season of no matchday income at Spotland.
He said: “I have experience in this role, as you know. I left the board in December 2018, so the last year I was responsible for was 17/18. The club lost £306,000, but that was on the back of a profit in excess of £1.3m the year before and these figures can be corroborated by Companies House.
“When I left, we had money in the bank and massive assets on the field in the form of Ian Henderson, Callum Camps, Joe Rafferty, Luke Matheson, Daniel Adshead, Andy Cannon, Harrison McGahey, and a huge sell-on fee due from Craig Dawson. In addition, there were property assets in the Ratcliffe Arms and the stadium itself.”
Chris Dunphy was chairman during the most successful period in Rochdale AFC’s on-field history, overseeing a first Wembley appearance and two promotions.
He added: “Supporters are the vital part of the club and they need to be treated as such, we need to find a way to make them feel more connected and there is a definite need to improve communication.
“This is my intended starting point. I want us to regain our credibility and get on the road to the club’s recovery.”
We’re used to a botched set-piece at Rochdale, but the one that led to the clumsy non-announcement that first-team manager Brian Barry-Murphy (BBM) had had his contract extended by a year will take some topping.
The manager’s contract was due to expire at the end of this season and a large section of the fan base had been expecting that, at the very least, the board would let this happen given the club has endured what is believed to be its worst run on the pitch for 40 years.
But, in attempting to answer this very question at the fans’ forum last night, present director Graham Rawlinson seemed to fluff a pre-rehearsed routine which led to an awkward-looking BBM himself announcing his contract now ran until May 2022.
Unsurprisingly, this led to mass confusion among the supporters – taking aside the validity of the contract extension and more focusing on the lack of any kind of formal announcement.
When did this happen? Was the club ever going to let the supporters know? Did they hope to sneak it by us at the forum last night and hope nobody would notice?
This muddle overshadowed more serious messages coming from the assembled head honchos, the main one being that we are absolutely skint and just getting to the end of the season solvent would better remaining in League One as an achievement. There was much mitigation of the glut of off-field appointments in this regard and, I guess, the publication of the accounts in the coming months will show us where some of the money from previous player deals has gone.
The board itself is in a worrying state of transition, with interim chairman Andy Kelly himself taken ill at present. Andy has been good enough to speak to me candidly about the club in recent months and I wish him a speedy recovery.
Rochdale, as a club, will face its biggest test in decades, come the summer. Kelly, at 77 years old, has no interest in taking on the high-pressure role permanently. Indeed, it is only his unflappable love of the club that saw him accept the role on even an interim basis and I do hope this hasn’t contributed to his current illness.
We will not only be looking for a new chairman but new board members to boot. Our latest US recruits, Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli, performed an unceremonious U-turn just days after accepting board positions. Absolutely no clarity was shed on this at the forum last night, leaving supporters to speculate. The two are now significant shareholders and they may yet return if the boardroom looks to achieve a more stable footing in the near future. Yet, even at that, we are faced with people not previously connected to the town or club coming on to the board. It’s not something we are used to at Dale and it always bears closer scrutiny.
As it stands, we only have four voting board members – and all of them must be weary. This season has clearly hit the club coffers like no other. The board knows investment is needed and that new blood is required to bring it in. Perhaps an open call to the townsfolk would be a sensible measure here, before looking too far over the horizon? I do not believe for one second any of them want to leave this club in a ruin. I genuinely believe that. Maybe it’s time to enlist the help of those who have already shown experience of being in a Rochdale AFC boardroom? These are dire times and old grudges can be put aside for the future of our club, surely?
And then there is the first-team manager. BBM clearly has the boardroom’s support. CEO David Bottomley’s emotional backing of him last night represents that. It is now up to supporters whether or not they buy into it. BBM is determined that we still have what it takes in the remaining 12 fixtures to get out of this mess and remain in League One – but a League Two campaign next season looks likely.
“I know Keith Hill won’t be here forever, just as he wasn’t the last time, but we’re wiser now. I’ve already identified one person at this club who would make a fantastic manager. He has every attribute that Keith has.”
Those were the words of former Rochdale AFC chairman Chris Dunphy when I interviewed him for my first book back in 2015.
While he asked me not to share the name of the individual concerned at the time, it is now no secret that Dunphy was talking about Brian Barry-Murphy. I was aware BBM was still at the club, of course, but my memories of him at that point were his ship-steadying appearances as a holding midfielder in the first team and reports that he was used in bounce games as a guiding hand for the youth players. I had no idea he had blossomed into a highly regarded coach in the interim. But, as we sat, Dunphy eulogised about his ability, as did then manager Keith Hill, and I left that interview with renewed optimism that, when Hill eventually did leave the club, there was somebody equally prodigious ready to climb into the cockpit.
Just four years later, something had turned rotten in the state of Denmark. Dunphy had not only stepped down as chairman but he had also left the board completely – and not in a manner that felt at all natural. On the field, Hill had evidently lost his mojo and a Rochdale team that had been punching well above its weight in League One had become one that had battled relegation for two successive seasons. It’s testimony to what Hill actually achieved over a decade that the support expected more from our small Lancashire club.
While it was sad that the time of the greatest ever manager to tread the halls of Spotland had come to a less-than-glamourous end, I was quietly optimistic when BBM was announced as ready to take over, albeit initially on a caretaker basis, because of that chat back in 2015. The fact that Dunphy was no longer around, and that the current board still seemed sold on the Irishman, spoke volumes to me.
And so it proved.
BBM had 11 games to keep Rochdale in League One. The bounce was instantaneous. Gone was the ponderous football that had cost Hill his job and instead a steely resolve was evident – a must-not-lose-at-all-costs mentality that saw the side eek out four vital 1-0 victories, among other notable results, on the road to safety.
Installed as permanent manager, BBM outlined his vision for the future. There was an acceptance that the style of football needed to keep Rochdale in League One in those final 11 games was not his preferred modus operandi. Instead he would want to play a possession-based, passing game that should be both pleasing on the eye and allow our youth academy graduates to develop into saleable assets to teams higher up the football pyramid. This business model is not a new one. It was definitely the way Chris Dunphy wanted the club to operate during his time as chairman, albeit the execution may have been different. I’ll not dwell on this too much here, however, as there is an excellent article exploring this more fully on RochdaleAFC.com.
With BBM’s permanent appointment, the atmosphere around the club felt good, too. I’m going to be a bit lazy here and repeat something I’ve written elsewhere, but the reason for this is that I still believe it is true and I cannot say it better again. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I know BBM is a thoroughly decent human being. How? People I have spoken to – inside and outside of football – do not have a bad word to say about him. Trust me when I say the inner circles of football can be truly treacherous places, where jealousy is rife and people can have more faces than a 20-sided die. For someone to come through this unblemished is unusual.
His good character was also evident in the way he engaged with the supporters. Until the turn of the year, his communication was embracing and we were seen as part of the machine, whereas previous managers had viewed us as an irritant ranging from a tiny flea bite to a full-blown rash.
It’s easy, too, to see why Brian appealed to the top brass of Rochdale AFC. Whereas previous managers may have sought to undermine and embarrass employees and volunteers at the club for not being ‘football people’, I understand Brian listens to the opinion of everyone – from the boardroom right down to the kit room.
But it wasn’t all just down to the fact that he is a nice guy. The way he talked about developing players made his coaching prowess evident. It’s been an education listening to him via the various platforms on which he has appeared. He also has an eye for a player, too. No one can argue with the ability of the majority of the players he has brought to Rochdale.
No game better exemplifies BBM’s preferred style of play as the oft-cited away trip to Southend United in August 2019. Yes, the hosts had lost all of their opening league fixtures and would eventually be relegated, but the old adage ‘you can only play what’s in front of you’ rings true here. BBM’s Dale put on a masterclass of Champagne football, of which one of the goals in the 3-0 victory became a viral social-media clip drawing comparison with Barcelona or Brazil.
Then there are the cup games against Premier League opposition. A magnificent home game against Newcastle United, which earned a replay, and a phenomenal display against Manchester United at Old Trafford, which ended only after defeat on penalties.
The issue is, however, to use those above examples again, that they were performances in isolation. The brand of football just hasn’t been consistent enough to ensure long-term success. And let me clarify what I mean by success, as a level-headed Rochdale supporter. Success for me means comfortable safety in League One, coupled with signs of progression, in the hope that the side could once again get somewhere near the realms Keith Hill had achieved in his pomp. Championship football would be the Holy Grail, of course, but I would be happy with players pulling their tripe out every week and a feeling that remaining in League One was paramount above all else.
And while I don’t put as much stock in entertainment as a great many other fellow supporters, I can appreciate the value of football as a spectacle for the paying fan. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather see us win a game by footballing sides to death as opposed to achieving victories via a John Beck grow-the-grass-long-in-the-corners-and-punt-the-ball-up-there approach, but winning is the key currency in football and I’ll always pick the style that wins a game in any given situation, thank you very much.
This, for me, is where BBM has come unstuck this season. While we achieved safety on a points-per-game basis last season, after the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world and ended football for months, what turned out to be our final game that season was a resounding and convincing win over the eventually promoted Rotherham United. Again, there was cause for optimism.
But here we are, one season later, rock bottom of League One. The possession-based, passing football just hasn’t worked and there has been no sign of a reversion to the attitude, desire or system of those first 11 games BBM was given back in 2019. Worse, there has been a consistent repetition of mistakes game after game, which has put the side on the back foot very early. Is this down to a stubbornness? It must be, because there is no way BBM, who knows more about football than I ever will, cannot see what we all see. Yes, we were badged as the entertainers of League One for a brief period – mainly because of goals at both ends – but, again, that period only yielded 10 points from 11 games. The stats speak for themselves. One home win in the whole of the 2020/2021 season, one win home or away since December 15, and now seven games without even scoring a single goal. Those are damning figures and they are very hard to defend.
In fact, had supporters been allowed into Spotland this season, I feel the pressure on BBM would have come to bear much sooner than it has. Even the purists, who bought into the style of play fully, are starting to feel let down. The spectacle, via iFollow, just isn’t entertaining to watch anymore. Lots of passing around the defence which, either leads to a mistake due to the opposition easily pressing us, or a misplaced pass towards an isolated attack. On the occasions the ball does make it into the final third, there seems to be a frustrating lack of urgency to get it any further. You can almost hear the stadium itself groan on behalf of the absent supporters.
That summary is one-sided, of course. There are always mitigating factors. Always. This summer we lost Ian Henderson, who had become almost as talismanic to the club as Keith Hill. Henderson’s goals had been vital in getting Rochdale to, and keeping them in, League One. The club offered him a new deal but he declined to take it, instead moving to League Two Salford City. Following him out of the door was Callum Camps, who found the offer of Fleetwood Town preferable to remaining at Rochdale. Of the two, Henderson was the significant loss, as Camps, superb player that he is, was rarely used to maximum effect in his time at Dale. Then there was the return to his parent club of goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. The fact he has cracked Brighton’s first team this season shows what a talent, and loss, he is. Both full-backs also departed – the incredible Rhys Norrington-Davies back to Sheffield United, and our own Luke Matheson to Wolves.
Those kind of holes in a squad would give any manager nightmares with a new season to prepare for – and, given it was to be a season like no other thanks to the pandemic, it really didn’t make ideal foundations for BBM’s groundwork.
But then this is where the Rochdale board surprised me. The chairman at the time, Andrew Kilpatrick, had put out a stark message as the eve of the season approached, which equated to a poverty plea. “We’re skint, ladies and gentleman” was the takeaway message. This was reiterated by the remaining board members at last night’s forum. And yet, BBM was given funds to assemble the players he wanted, identified in the main using the SmarterScout software, with fees even paid for a couple of them.
The early evidence I saw on the pitch told me that these players were more than good enough to survive in League One. Slow start aside, we certainly didn’t look like the relegation fodder the bookies had us down as.
Again, in immediate defence of BBM, he then had to endure a rough hand of luck when it came to injuries. His two main strikers have barely spent any time on the pitch together (and have looked good when they have), and his defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room, making consistent selection difficult. But it is up to a manager to deal with injuries as best he can, especially at a club like Rochdale, where small squads are de rigueur.
I actually called for BBM to get some kind of help back in December. The advert for a sporting director has come too late, however. BBM needed support prior to January, so we could hit the run of ‘winnable’ games at full tilt, with all key positions recruited for during the transfer window. That moment has sadly passed. Clubs around about us did what was necessary and are now reaping the rewards. I would hate to think that BBM has become a scapegoat for boardroom indecisiveness.
But then how much is BBM trying to adhere to some abstract club philosophy and how much of it was his own vision? At what stage do you put the league status of the club ahead of player development? At what stage do you abort the experiment as a Frankenstein’s Monster?
Make no mistake, we are deep in the brown stuff. It could well be unsalvageable. The wilderness of League Two is not an easily traversable one for the likes of Rochdale. There are no guarantees of a swift return – in fact, there are no guarantees that we won’t plummet further. Many a club bigger than ours has become tangled in the weeds down there.
This season has been incredibly difficult for me personally, too. My intention has only ever been to bring factual, up-to-date news to Rochdale AFC supporters, with my own insight as an addition. I have aimed to do this professionally, ensuring the veracity of any transfer news before posting and backing up any opinions I may have formed in my blog posts by outlining both sides of any argument and using stats. It has never been my intention to upset anyone at the club. If anything, I had hoped what I did would bring the club and supporters closer together.
It was to be a year-long experiment, the reasons for starting which I have outlined previously. It was to be done in my spare time, as a free service to ALL supporters in the absence of any recognised local media coverage. It was to deliver news of signings just hours before they were announced by the club, to create a buzz, but so as not to ever jeopardise a deal; the refuting of rumours circulating on ridiculous and faceless social-media accounts, or even sometimes in the mainstream media; and insights from myself on how I see things at the club and on the pitch. If the latter ever required me to hold the club to account, in a fair way, so be it.
It’s no secret that I am a supporter of the club myself and a qualified journalist. Therein now lies a conflict. It has become apparent that the support has become divisive – both with itself and with the club – and the word toxicity has been used in various places to describe the current atmosphere.
While I would vigorously defend my posts as being in the interests of the supporters, can I still say what I am doing is in the best interests of the club also? That is the conflict I feel. My ultimate aim is for the club to thrive and survive. I put that before anything else.
I don’t want to be seen as being on one side of any divide. This project of mine was to serve ALL supporters, whatever their opinions. I feel that is not now how what I do is being perceived and, if I am being honest, it has hurt me more than I’ve probably been able to admit before now. I’ve had sleepless nights over this stuff. Spent waking hours worried about it too.
I have no agenda or personal vendetta other than to see the club do well and remain a part of the community for as many years are left to come. I don’t need to “sell papers” or get clicks to appease advertisers. I do what I do because I’m a supporter and I have enjoyed it. Until recently. I have tried to provide the info to supporters that I would want to know myself. I keep saying that football should be fun. In addition to this, it’s also easy when talking about football to forget that essentially the commodity at the root of it all is human beings. People’s livelihoods and dreams. I do not condone personal attacks on any player or member of staff at RAFC. I never have and I never will. That isn’t my definition of fun.
Even before this season, I’ve written about and commented on Dale for years in a fair and considerate way, with my heart on my sleeve, wanting only the very best for the club. That’s still the case. I am here to protect, yes, but to help also.
Many fans have been wondering about the structure of Rochdale AFC. This is a breakdown of the club’s formal ownership.
RAFC Ltd has 343 shareholders. Many hold from a handful to a few hundred shares – too many to list below. Most shares were bought at a price of between £1 and £2 each. The minimum price for a share is 50p. Sometimes, in return for professional services on behalf of the club, directors have received shares in lieu of payment. Many fans assume directors have put £100,000s, if not millions, into football clubs. This is often not the case, as this list reveals:
110,000, Andrew Kilpatrick (former chairman, still director, shares inherited from father, ex-Dale director, Brian Kilpatrick)
58,250, Andrew Kelly (current acting chairman)
37,342, Gergedan LLC (Dan Altman, Emre Marcelli)
37,343, North Yard Analytics LLC (Dan Altman, Emre Marcelli)
35,000, Jim Marsh (deceased)
32,072, Graham Morris (former director)
22,397, David Kilpatrick (former director)
14,387, Rod Brierley (former director, living in Lake District)
14,250, Graham Rawlinson (current director)
13,100, David Bottomley (current director and CEO)
12,625, Dale Trust
12,500, Tony Pockney (current director)
6,360, John Faulkes (ex-director, deceased)
5,200, Andrew Hilton (son of former director)
5,000, Christopher Cheetham
5,000, Robin Matheson
5,000, Colin Parton (supporter)
4,760, Neil Butterworth (son of former director, Trevor Butterworth)
3,000, Peter Sydall (supporter)
3,000, Pamela Mace (wife of former director and club doctor, Michael Mace)
2,253, Fiona McCarthy
2,253, Susan Walkden (daughter of former director, David Walkden)
2,513, Diane Bellenger
2,513, Hilary Fitton
2,512, Jennifer Fitton
2,500, James Fagan (former director)
1,010, Brian Clough (supporter)
If anyone can provide more information about people in this list or highlight any errors, please get in touch.
Rochdale AFC, inside the boardroom
Rochdale AFC has a small number of directors, just four, with one non-executive director. (NB: non-executive directors attend board meetings and can vote on major decisions, but are not usually involved in the day-to-day running of a business).
The directors are:
Andrew Joseph Kelly, acting chairman, age 77, joined board: 14 June 2019 after previous spell (2006-2017).
A well-known local estate agent and former schoolboy affiliate of the club’s playing staff.
David Roger Bottomley, age 60, joined board: 29 June 2015.
Formerly of the toy industry when based in Henley-on-Thames. Also the club’s CEO.
Anthony John Pockney, age 56, joined, January 2019.
‘A versatile, highly effective, hands-on Business and IT Executive, Programme Director and Consulting Practitioner. Operates at Board level as a successful leader of large scale business transformations…’ from LinkedIn. Keen runner. Enthusiastic Round Tabler.
Graham Frank Rawlinson, age 66, joined August 2014 (previous spell, 2006 – 2010)
Works in the licensed trade.
Nicholas James Grindrod, non-executive director, age 38, Joined board: 9 April, 2020.
Owner of accountancy practice in Wardle. Said to have ‘An excellent relationship with Tony Pockney, who is the main Board Director for all things finance.’ His company, NJ Grindrod & Co, says on its website: ‘Official accountants of Rochdale Association Football Club’ and features the club crest.
Andrew Simon Ashton Kilpatrick, former chairman, age 60, 7 Dec 2018 to 18 Feb 2021.
John Andrew Smallwood, age not listed, director/secretary 15 June 2019 to 28 Feb 2021.
* All information readily available from several public sources including Companies House, Facebook, LinkedIn and Rochdale AFC official website.
It’s an honour and privilege to host an article by fellow (and more successful) Rochdale journalist Mark Hodkinson on how he views the current situation at Rochdale AFC. Mark, like me, is a lifelong Dale supporter and author of the brilliant The Overcoat Men.
He was sure of himself, adamant:
‘He’s a Number Two, always will be.’
This was a former Dale director, telling me about Brian Barry-Murphy and how he was an ideal coach or assistant, but wouldn’t make a good manager.
‘He might do okay,’ I argued.
The same as most Rochdale fans, I wanted the best for Brian. He looked the part: lithe, handsome, great hair and with none of the twitchy brashness of Keith Hill.
Most of all, with Brian, I was impressed by his humility – that he collected up the balls, every one, after the pre-match warm-ups. Most ex-footballers-turned-coaches are too proud to do this, too full of themselves; they send out the youngest sub to do it or the kit man. Not Brian. He did it himself.
When Hill left in March 2019, BBM was a natural replacement in the Kingdom of the Dale. He started well. He had a clear game-plan and the team played doggedly to secure enough points to avoid relegation.
Early last season, two consecutive away matches had a profound impact. We won 3-0 at Southend United and, two weeks later, lost 6-0 at Peterborough United. In the first game, Ian Henderson scored after a passage of play featuring 16 passes. Footage of the move went viral and a legend was set free of us being the ‘Barcelona of the EFL’, regardless of the fact that the goal was scored against a team that would win just four league games in 35 during a Covid-shortened season.
This same pseudo-possession football failed abjectly at Peterborough. We had the ball for 60% of the time but lost 6-0. Despite the score line, I wasn’t perturbed. On the drive home, I told my eldest lad that the folly of BBM’s tactics was so apparent, so severely flawed, they’d be abandoned thereafter.
Never again, I said, would we play so deep and have workaday defenders passing sideways close to their own goal. BBM would recognise the need for an ‘out ball’ – a big lad upfront who could win headers, shield the ball and bring others into play. He’d see that a midfield comprised of holding, defensive-minded players unwilling to run with the ball would never create overloads. He’d also grasp that we needed players of stronger physique with more pace, and a team able to play with greater width. Finally, he’d see that the crazy, made-up position for Aaron Morley (often tucked in behind the full back) was depleting the midfield of valuable personnel.
Sadly, these issues, most of them fundamental, were not addressed. Worse, they have been repeated, more or less, ever since, to the same end: loss upon loss. It has seemed as if BBM is wedded to a footballing philosophy (emulating the keep-ball practised at higher levels of the game), regardless of whether it suits the players or garners results.
Football, as everyone knows (managers especially), is a results business. Right now, we have won once in the last 18 home matches – the fewest home wins in the professional football pyramid of 156 clubs (aside from clubs that have had numerous postponements). On a theme, we have won once, home and away, in the last 11 matches.
I can’t imagine this appalling form would be sanctioned at any other club or level of football. Why isn’t this so at Rochdale? Maybe it is because the town, the club, is plagued by passivity, pessimism and fatalism, an acceptance of ‘rightful place’ and ‘we’re punching above our weight.’ But why not punch above our weight? Other clubs do it. We should each of us – fans and board – be more hopeful and ambitious for our beloved club.
It’s not as if we’re still in the 1970s, hauling waifs off Firgrove and putting them in the first-team anymore. We’ve got a reasonably large squad and a sizable off-field back-up team. On very few occasions have we been out-played this season; our tactics and team selection has been our most formidable opponent, leading inexorably to a losing mentality; it’s in the players’ body language.
I can’t imagine this appalling form would be sanctioned at any other club or level of football.
As a journalist, much the same as Chris [Fitzgerald], I am sometimes privy to information often kept from most fans. Inevitably, it leads to hunches, informed guesses, about what is going on, both in the dressing room and the board room.
So, BBM is well-liked by his squad (and the office staff) because he is amenable, a class act. For players, set against a week of training where they are encouraged and nurtured, among team mates and a manager who believes in them, the 90 minutes of a disappointing match-day do not have the same impact as they do on fans who see and feel only this portion of time – especially during this claustrophobic lockdown. Remember, when all this is done, we, the fans, will remain, when the players and management staff have long gone.
‘He is very comfortable with being Brian Barry-Murphy.’ I’ve been told this a few times by those in the know. Initially, I admired this flinty self-confidence and saw it as a necessity of being a football manager. Now, I wonder. Where, after such a poor run, does confidence seep to stubbornness and even delusion?
Several in the board room appear to have fallen for the myth and are flattered when told they have a go-ahead, young manager, the envy of other clubs. They don’t stop to ask on what evidence (aside from Southend, August 2019) this is based – it can’t be on our level of performance over the last seven months. They haven’t seen it. We have. And we know.
In recent years, the club has adopted a greater quasi-corporate ‘modern’ approach (i.e. those staff appointments, extra facilities etc). Right now, in the midst of a pandemic and almost zero income, fans are asking of the various out-goings: can we afford it, is it strictly necessary and, if we have this money, could it be better spent elsewhere? This is where we have to trust the board.
On that subject, as someone who has researched extensively previous directors (in my book, The Overcoat Men), I’ve had emails from fans pointing out that they know very little of the current incumbents of the board room. There is a widely-held conception, for example, that both chairman, Andrew Kilpatrick, and CEO, David Bottomley, arrived ‘from nowhere’.
This isn’t the case, of course, but we need to know more about them and how they are running the club, how shares and commensurate power and control is divvied up, where the accountability lies, especially after the departure of Chris Dunphy et al. There is not the slightest suggestion of wrong-doing or anything malicious afoot but sometimes, as we’ve seen elsewhere, procrastination or profligacy or mismanagement can be equally as damaging.
I’ve had emails from fans pointing out that they know very little of the current incumbents of the board room.
(On a wider level, and this may be apocryphal, I was told by a journalist pal this week that there is an unspoken near-suicide pact between a host of EFL clubs, believing that if they all go bust (or near enough) en bloc, the Premier League or Government will be impelled underwrite the losses. Let’s hope they do.)
It has been disheartening to read the spats among Dale fans on social media. We should all be one. This level of toxicity is caused when fans are unhappy and frustrated. They strike out. They want to see change, firstly on the pitch and, if this is not forthcoming, off it. Perhaps it would be better to make these feelings known to those who run the club and make the decisions, rather than embark upon futile in-fighting.
In most fields of business, targets are set at management level. Has this stood for BBM, that if he fails to win a certain number of games or accrue a sum of points (or even provide sufficient entertainment), he will be removed from his position? If so, what was this target, where is the line drawn? When it appears open-ended and we hear little from the board room, it can seem as if no one cares, no one is noticing, and, then, anxiety is let loose, especially now we are running out of games and drawing ever closer to the bottom of the league.
Some, perhaps, will support the chairman’s continued support of BBM and view it as a rare example of loyalty in a fickle world. Kilpatrick has remained steadfast as potential replacements have found jobs elsewhere and he has approved new signings during the transfer window.
If relegation is avoided and BBM later leads the club to better, happier football (wouldn’t that be great?), Kilpatrick deserves unreserved praise for taking such a maverick stance and seeing so much of what many of us no longer do in the management team. Likewise, if the spiral down continues, he and his board hold ultimate responsibility. It comes with the territory.
The forthcoming appointment of a sporting director (at a cost, obviously) feels to be skirting or fudging the real issue and has been viewed as another attempt to present the club as on-point. Have a word with any of the old-boys in the Main Stand (if only – how we’ve missed their vociferous counsel!) and they’d proffer sage advice, gratis: stop playing fancy-dan stuff in your own half, move the bloody ball up the field and get a few bigger, quicker lads in the team. Job done.
Aside from those two fantastic away wins at Wigan and Plymouth, there has been scant fun watching Rochdale this season. And it is supposed to be fun, lest we forget. I struggle to understand those who have somehow learned to cope and accept a team playing badly, seldom winning and still hold faith in the management and, by proxy, the board.
The forthcoming appointment of a sporting director (at a cost, obviously) feels to be skirting or fudging the real issue.
I’ve tried, but I’m not able to realign my chakras or embrace perpetual disappointment. I’m in it too deep. If the ‘happy-to-just-survive’ lobby and ‘little Rochdale’ lot win the day, they’re welcome to the club because it won’t feel to be mine anymore.
Have Rochdale AFC done enough this January to ensure League One survival?
Last weekend, Rochdale AFC achieved something that has proven to be a rare commodity this season – three valuable league points.
It wasn’t attained during a high-scoring thriller either, as has been the trend in games involving Rochdale since the turn of the year, nor was it achieved by completely dominating weaker opposition. It was achieved, in fact, through the demonstration of gritty resilience.
The 2-1 win against Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Ground – Dale’s first victory in the league since December 15 – was vital, also, because the opposition is very much a direct rival in the battle to stay in League One.
But, while the win was extremely welcome, it did not disguise the fact that some issues were still in desperate need of being rectified in terms of squad depth. In fact, Rovers were very much the better side in the second half, Dale’s winner coming against the run of play.
In my last article, I laid out where I felt Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy (BBM) needed to address the first-team squad in order to help arrest the wealth of goals being conceded and thus give the club the best chance of pulling clear of the relegation zone around which it has been precariously hovering. As well as being makeshift on the pitch, our bench has also resembled a sparsely populated kindergarten. Not ideal.
At the time of writing that article, we had too many question marks or passengers in the squad. I identified that, while both Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are superb players, they are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. They have since continued to demonstrate both of those aspects. The issue was further exacerbated by a six-week injury to Eoghan O’Connell and the suspension of Jim McNulty following a ridiculous sending off for kicking out at an opponent. This left poor Haydon Roberts, young and on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, as the only fit and obvious centre half.
BBM clearly made rectifying this situation a priority in the January transfer window. Firstly, he managed to secure the loan signing of Luton Town’s Gabriel Osho for the remainder of the season. Osho had just returned from a brief spell on loan at Yeovil Town in National League and his manager, Nathan Jones, was keen to send him out again to get him games, albeit at a higher level. It’s fair to say that he has looked imperious. His no-nonsense, body-on-the-line display at Bristol Rovers was instrumental in Dale securing that first league win since mid-December. He is the type of player Rochdale have been screaming out for.
Conor Shaughnessy was BBM’s other target in this area and one he had to play a bit more of a waiting game with. The versatile Leeds United player had been told he was free to find another club and he wasn’t short of suitors. The Rochdale hierarchy did a good job of selling Dale to the 24-year-old by all accounts, and so he plumped for an 18-month deal at the Crown Oil Arena over moving elsewhere.
Shaughnessy certainly seems more of a typical BBM player than Osho. A silky ball player rather than an enforcer. He is a player I’m fortunate enough to have prior knowledge of too, having seen him play for Heart of Midlothian during a brief loan spell he had there in 2019. His versatility came to the fore at Tynecastle – being utilised in the centre of defence, at left back and even as a midfield anchor – during his 11-game spell. And, while a contact of mine who covers Hearts remarked: “For me, he lacked the necessary aggression to play in the Scottish top flight”, I certainly believe he possesses the technical prowess to thrive in League One. He was given a bounce game at Carlisle on Tuesday to get used Dale’s system, playing in front of the defence, before he is likely thrust into the first team proper against Charlton tomorrow. His versatility will help BBM counter injuries and suspensions in a number of defensive positions.
One area of the defence BBM failed to rectify during January, however, was the left back position – but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Tolaji Bola, brought in on loan from Arsenal at the beginning of the season, had not proved to be a success in the role and, as a result, BBM did not seek to extend this spell. BBM instead identified Blackpool’s Demetri Mitchell as a replacement and had hoped to land the former Man United player on loan from the Seasiders after he had fallen down the pecking order with Luke Garbutt and James Husband also on their books. Despite a pursuit that went deep into deadline day itself, it proved a fruitless chase – Blackpool just didn’t want to let him leave.
With the transfer window closed, the only option now open to BBM before July is the free-agent market. Working with his head of recruitment Callum Jones, left-back targets were quickly identified and one has already been given a trial in the previously mentioned bounce game a Carlisle. Until this position is filled, however, the club must continue to make do with the unsatisfactory utilisation of either Matt Done or Jimmy Keohane.
The midfield overall had also been suffering a similar issue to that of the defence in that there is not so much a dearth of quality but of availability and depth. Jimmy Ryan is probably chief culprit here, through no fault of his own, I’m sure. BBM moved quickly to create an extra option by taking advantage of the availability of Sheffield Wednesday’s Conor Grant on a permanent deal. My knowledge of Grant prior to being tipped off about his journey across the Pennines was nil. However, BBM has since publicly spoken very highly of the Republic of Ireland Under-19 international midfielder, and a contact of mine described him thus: “He’s very good at set pieces, long-range efforts, through balls and arriving late in the box.” It remains to be seen if he will play any part in the game against Charlton tomorrow, but he looks a promising prospect.
The one area of Dale’s system that currently deserves more reward than the club’s current league position is attack. Stevie Humphrys has proven a quality acquisition and I say with confidence that I regard him as one of the best strikers in League One. With he and Jake Beesley on the pitch together, they have caused some real damage to opposition teams and are part of an attacking force that has seen Dale bang in 28 goals since December alone. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, ably assisted by 18-year-old Kwadwo Baah and midfield hitman Matt Lund.
However, with Beesley twice now succumbing to on-field misfortune on the injury front, BBM sought to bring in an addition here, too. Young Blackburn Rovers striker Jack Vale. This was pulled out of the hat late on deadline day – in fact BBM had to wait for Vale to finish an U23 match (in which he scored) before the deal could be concluded. Again, like Grant, this is a signing who lacks first-team experience but brings promise and provides options.
In order for the board to back BBM the way they did this window, as they did in the summer, current players had to be moved on – either to free up wages, generate a fee or, ideally, both. While this did indeed happen, it transpired that the two players departing were not those that were perhaps expected.
Fabio Tavares was the biggest surprise here. After failing to agree a new contract with Dale, he was sold to Coventry City on transfer deadline day. I think it’s fair to say that Tavares had been no more than a peripheral player in BBM’s plans (crucial winner against Fleetwood notwithstanding), so to achieve a fee for him has to go down as a tremendous result.
The other player to leave (who actually hasn’t left!) is Kwadwo Baah. The rapid, tricky, athletic teenager, who only signed his first pro contract in 2019, has had a visible impact this season – troubling tiring defenders, firing in absolute rockets and landing himself December’s Goal of the Month award into the bargain. It’s no surprise football clubs further up the pyramid started to take note.
His journey to Rochdale was an unusual one too. Like so many youngsters thrust into professional football academies, it can be a case of too much too soon – and so it proved with young Baah. Released from Crystal Palace, but still keen to stay in the game, he was enrolled in the Kinetic Academy, the London-based football programme for talented young players who have lost their way.
It was here the dazzling forward was spotted by football agent Darryl La Victoire. “He just stood out a mile, y’know?” he told me. “I could tell he could easily cut it in the professional game. I took him on and started to get him trials at all the big London clubs. He could have easily gone on to sign for any of them, but then Rochdale got in touch. The manager, Brian Barry-Murphy, said to me, ‘If he comes to Rochdale, he won’t be in our under 18s, he will be with me, in the first team’. That was enough for me and Kwadwo. We knew this was the best decision for his development.”
And so it has proved. Despite much speculation, which included the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich being linked to the teenager, it was only Manchester City who submitted a concrete offer to Dale. With Baah’s contract due to expire in the summer anyway, the true riches that matched his potential were never realistically going to realised. However, rather than risk competing with other high-profile clubs for his signature in the summer, City opted to pay a fee to Rochdale to land Baah now, on a pre-contract deal. The initial bid was actually knocked back by the Dale board, who would have been due compensation regardless, but a deal was eventually struck with both club and player, which includes future sell-on clauses, and Baah will leave Rochdale for the Premier League giants in July.
The interesting thing here is that Manchester City have been very quiet about all of this, to the point that I hear there is genuine displeasure around the Etihad at the deal having been made public. As I write, the deal still hasn’t been confirmed officially by either club.
So, there we have it. Once again, the board and BBM have acquired the tools necessary, left-back aside, to ensure Rochdale AFC has the best chance of staying in the division. If the horrendous home form, which currently sits at one win in 16 games, can be turned around, there is every chance this can happen.
The first chance to do this is tomorrow against Charlton Athletic. Fingers crossed.
A turbulent run of results for the Rochdale AFC manager raises questions about the future
Let’s get one thing straight – Brian Barry-Murphy is not the Anti-Christ.
It’s easy in football, when dissecting a manager’s performance, for the lines separating their professional and personal make-up to become blurred.
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I know he’s a thoroughly decent human being. How? People I have spoken to – inside and outside of football – do not have a bad word to say about him. Trust me when I say the inner circles of football can be truly treacherous places, where jealousy is rife and people can have more faces than a 20-sided die. For someone to come through this unblemished is unusual.
His good character is also evident in the way he engages with the supporters. His communication is embracing and we are seen as part of the machine, whereas previous managers have viewed us as an irritant ranging from a tiny flea bite to a full blown rash.
It’s easy, too, to see why Brian appeals to the top brass of Rochdale AFC. Whereas previous managers have sought to undermine and embarrass employees and volunteers at the club for not being ‘football people’, I understand Brian listens to the opinion of everyone – from the boardroom right down to the kit room.
So that’s established. Brian Barry-Murphy is a decent human being.
Sadly, this may also be a chink in his armour. It’s accepted wisdom that in football, to be a half-decent manager, you need to be, for want of a better expression, capable of being a bit of a twat. There needs to be an element of fear there. A boundary people know not to cross for trepidation of what lies on the other side. The creation of a shield that makes it impossible for people to second guess your motives.
I may be wrong, but I’m not sure Brian has it in him to be this way with his players. Before we discuss any tactical failings from the 4-1 defeat yesterday against Gillingham, I want to be clear that I am aware Brian’s players let him down. He will know it and they will know it. The question is, what will he do about it and, more importantly, will the players be bothered?
Those same football circles I mentioned above, also hold Brian’s coaching ability in very high regard. Again, not a bad word has been said. The way he talks about developing players makes that evident. It’s an education listening to him via the various platforms on which he appears. He also has an eye for a player, too. No one can argue with the ability of the majority of the players he has brought to Rochdale so far.
But that’s just part of being a manager. The ability to utilise a squad and set up a team that is flexible enough to adapt to in-game situations is another and, for me, that is where Brian is coming unstuck. Don’t get me wrong, his Plan A, when it works, can yield the right result, but, when it doesn’t, Rochdale have invariably faced defeat – and sometimes by big margins. There seems to be, in the main, no Plan B.
And here it is. For Plan A to work, it relies on several factors: something near a fully fit squad; weak or naïve opposition; and playing away from home, preferably on a Tuesday night.
Okay, the last one is a bit of a gag, but it holds true. In fact, I’m going to say the only game I have seen this season where we have gone toe-to-toe with a decent team and come away with a win is the Fleetwood game back in October. Yes, I know we have thrashed Wigan and Plymouth since, but those teams were all at sea. Fleetwood were well-organised and strong on the day. We beat them with a direct approach from the first whistle, an unfaltering will to win and, dare I say it, a bit of nastiness. I haven’t seen that level of intensity since, to be quite honest, not even in the other victories we have ground out.
Brian the manager has potential. Other clubs can see it. In fact, I heard, via agent gossip, that he was recently on the managerial shortlist of a club that has three times the following of Rochdale. But his inexperience and tactical inflexibility meant the interest wasn’t pursued. That won’t always be the case.
Given time, Brian will learn these things through experience if nothing else. Sadly, Rochdale AFC doesn’t have time. The pandemic has seen to that. Our cash reserves have been well and truly eaten into and remaining in League One, once supporters can return en masse, is paramount. The board know this and the savvy among the supporters do, too.
We can talk about inexperience all day, and I know it’s not the be all and end all. It hasn’t hampered other managers – you only have to cast your mind back to 2006 and the start Keith Hill made to his managerial career to illustrate that. But Hill is an exception and he was doing the business at a level below Brian is being asked to, albeit with arguably more at stake initially.
Hill also had a similarly seasoned head in the dug-out next to him in Dave Flitcroft. While both were new to management, both had trod the same turf as professionals and knew the nuances of the game from that perspective.
Brian has Lee Riley, a well-respected coach, but one who has never played the game professionally.
Before I get ton of abuse for pointing that out, I want to clarify: I am fully aware that you don’t need to have played the game professionally to achieve greatness as a coach or manager. It was quite rightly highlighted to me on social media that Ariggo Sacchi, who has won two European Cups as a manager, was quoted as saying ‘to be a jockey one does not have to have been a horse’ . True indeed. Although let’s not forget that the Italian philosophy of football management is entirely different. Anyway, this piece is not about the evolution of Italian management, for that I recommend you get hold of Michael Cox’s excellent Zonal Marking.
I make the point of Lee’s lack of professional playing career not to criticise, but only to illustrate that, with he and Brian, Rochdale have a very inexperienced dug-out. I know Lee is a well-respected coach, and has been for a number of years, but he has been thrust from that into the world of management and is having to learn as he goes without a pro playing career to call on for reference – all in one of the harshest divisions in the EFL in terms of disparity.
The Rochdale board knew this when charging the pair with taking the club forward – and have backed them too, especially this season. Brian, using Dan Altman’s SmarterScout software as an aid, identified the players he wanted and the money was made available: More than £100k on two strikers, three Premier League loanees, free agents and Alex Newby. With the club being strapped for cash, or at least claiming to be so, I think it’s fair to say that this backing is significant and should be sufficient for the objective of staying in the division.
And here is the rub. Without looking any deeper, you could argue that that objective is currently on course to be met. We are not occupying any of the four relegation spots on offer, albeit by the grace of two points.
So what’s the problem?
There is a feeling of regression. Every time we manage to obtain three valuable points, we seem to revert to type and throw all points on offer away the following game or two. Most recently, and most worryingly, these defeats have been by considerable margins, sparked by an evident head drop after conceding the first goal. So, unless we score first, we’re done for.
Unchecked, this could become an unsalvageable trend.
Even more concerning is that our current home record boasts just one solitary win in 13 games. I cannot think of a previous Rochdale manager, other than perhaps Walter Joyce, who may have overseen such a spell. When supporters are allowed to return to the Crown Oil Arena, this will not be tolerated and an already dwindling fan base will get smaller. This is something we can ill afford.
Again, in immediate defence of Brian, he has had to endure a rough hand of luck when it comes to injuries. His two new strikers have barely spent any time on the pitch together (and have looked good when they have), his Premier League goalkeeper has been out for weeks and his defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room.
But it has long been the millstone of any man brave enough to take on the Rochdale manager’s job to handle a small squad. It’s part of the deal, sadly (unless you are Keith Hill in the final years of your tenure).
The Rochdale board, desperate to keep the club in League One and with the January window approaching, have three options: stick, twist or buy another card. For me, it’s the third option. Bring in an experienced head to support the management team, but also to provide a holistic view of the club’s entire football operation – from the Academy up. It was pointed out to me when I suggested this on social media that any such move would make Brian feel threatened and he would walk away. It may do, or he may embrace it, who knows? I know the last time the club mooted something like this, back in 2003, the manager of the time, Paul Simpson, flipped the directors the bird. But things have to change. We cannot continue to view things through Dale-tinted spectacles in the hope that it will be alright on the final day. I fear it won’t be. A move such as this is preferable to replacing Brian completely, in my opinion, and gives us the best chance of staying up that I don’t believe Brian alone will ultimately achieve.
So what needs to be done?
With support, Brian has to address our horrific home form as an absolute priority. Everything else flows from that. He then needs to look at how his philosophy can become more flexible – how do we deal with an opposition that presses us and, likewise, how do we put a team to the sword who lets us have lots of the ball. Make no mistake, opposition teams playing either of those styles against us do so because they know how to exploit us. I hate it when you hear a commentator say: “They’ve clearly done their homework”, when referring to the opposition. Of course they have. That’s basic preparation in modern football and we are very easy subjects at the minute.
Secondly, Brian needs to evaluate the current squad in January. We have too many question marks or passengers within it. Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. If they can’t manage a decent percentage of games, I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere. Tolaji Bola, on loan from Arsenal, has not been a success at left back and, as a result, we are having to play our best centre half there – the on-loan Haydon Roberts. This needs to be addressed urgently, or I fear Roberts will be loaned to another club sooner rather than later.
With Matt Done – availability isn’t the issue, it’s a lack of offering on the pitch that’s problematic. Having returned to the club under Keith Hill’s tenure, I don’t doubt he is a decent earner too – so I would be looking for someone to take him off us as soon as possible. The same could be said of Stephen Dooley, although he has at least shown a glimpse of what he could be capable of.
In goal, Jay Lynch is having to stand in for the injured on-loan Gavin Bazunu. Even if you hold the most optimistic outlook in the world, there is no comparison there – and I think the whole long-term goalkeeper situation needs to be reviewed, as it’s been a makeshift one long before Brian took charge.
But there are positives. Stevie Humphrys is a quality acquisition and, with he and Jake Beesley finally on the pitch together, you can see the potential for them to cause some damage. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, albeit his form is as erratic as the team’s as a whole. A midfield of Matt Lund, Jimmy Ryan and Ollie Rathbone, if all are fit, is a real engine room – but all of this hinges on Brian getting his instructions and approach right.
So, lots for he and the board of Rochdale AFC to consider in the coming days and weeks. Here’s hoping for a more successful new year on and off the pitch. Merry Christmas.