The Road to Nowhere
Monday, 8th Mar 2021 10:07 by AtThePeake
In the face of an embarrassing slide towards League Two, is our football club sticking to a plan that demonstrably isn't working?
Before almost every season in my Rochdale supporting life, I've been torn by two very contrasting but very real emotions.
One is hope. There is almost always hope. Hope that the lad we've signed on loan from the Premier League club that we've never heard of before turns out to be League One's answer to Kylian Mbappe. Hope that the spell of form shown by that middling winger at the end of last season was a permanent change in his fortunes and not just inspired by motivation to win himself another contract. Hope that things all just fall in to place and this becomes a season to remember.
But, often simultaneously, there is fear. What if this is the season that the ageing striker's legs finally give way? What if those loan signings turn out to be more Tolaji Bola and Rekeil Pyke than Jack O'Connell and Chris O'Grady? What if we just aren't good enough? I've learnt that sometimes, this fear can be a positive in a roundabout way. Learning to temper expectations can lead to less frustration when things go drastically wrong, as they are bound to eventually.
Before the last two seasons, the second emotion has been far more prevalent and before this current campaign, I thought relegation was inevitable. No Henderson, no money, no hope. Of course, it took quite some time for us to start adding to the squad and when the pre-season friendlies rolled around, we were repeatedly told by commentators on our streams that the club were cash-strapped and the outcome seemed rather bleak. It felt like the club itself were attempting to temper expectations in the same way I squared the season up in my own mind. Expect the worst, then when it happens, it won't hurt as much.
Yet as the season began, I was enthused. In fact, I was so enthused that I was convinced I'd been ridiculously negative at the start of the season. Matt Lund was enjoying the best striking season of his life. Haydon Roberts looked like a real prospect on loan from Brighton. Alex Newby was inconsistent, but showing flashes of potential. Eventually, big money signing Stephen Humphrys returned to fitness and started scoring goals. What had I been worried about? It wasn't going to be a promotion season and even mid-table looked optimistic, but bottom of the league? No chance. Relegation? Maybe still, but I doubted it.
And yet now, come March, here we are. Bottom of the league. 1 win in 16. 1 win in 20 at home all season. 0 goals in six games. Sleepwalking to relegation. What went wrong? Several things. Poor tactical decisions, a propensity to conceding avoidable goals (particularly in the opening and closing stages of vital games) and of course a raft of injuries haven't helped. Now League Two beckons once again.
In the midst of this, probably the worst run of form I've ever seen from a Dale side, questions have rightly been asked by supporters. Not just of the players and the management team, but of the board and the direction of the club as a whole. It hasn't helped that this seems to be a particularly uncertain time in the club's history off the field either, with an interim chairman currently in place and our American investors refusing an invitation to become directors of the club in the last few weeks.
There are a few things that we have always known to be true about our football club. We have a small, but mostly very loyal fanbase. We are always likely to be swimming against the tide in terms of budgets at League One level. We are likely to always require occasional cup runs and player sales in order to survive and compete - something we have managed to do fairly well for quite some time now.
And that point about selling players is a vital one. The club's academy has won plaudits for its ability to produce sellable assets for the first team. The likes of Jamie Allen, Dan Adshead and Luke Matheson have progressed from the academy in recent years and are now plying their trade at Championship and Premier League clubs and bringing in pivotal transfer fees in order to help the club to keep running.
Many of the defenders of Brian Barry-Murphy and the club's philosophy point to the academy and the production of our own young players as being a huge success story and to a point, that is true of the past. There seems to be a belief that the club are suffering on the pitch now as they have to force young academy graduates into first-team action in order to generate interest and sell them on to higher clubs.
But is that true? Beyond Aaron Morley, who has started every League One fixture this season, despite some unpredictable form at best, there has been ONE other start for an academy graduate all season in Ethan Brierley, who has also made a handful of appearances from the bench. Harrison Hopper has made one league appearance from the bench. The only other academy graduate to have featured this season? Fabio Tavares, who didn't start a single league game and was sold in January for what we believe to be a relatively small fee to Coventry City. Are these minimal appearances for youth graduate players holding us back on the pitch? Surely not.
There are a handful of younger players that could be considered for potential transfer sales in and around the squad, but not for huge money. Not for the kind of deals that make sacrificing on-field performances worth it. Alex Newby has featured plenty but has been inconsistent and has only just come into the EFL aged 25. Ollie Rathbone's stock has probably fallen somewhat following a difficult season. Eoghan O'Connell will surely have attracted interest from elsewhere, but is able to leave on a free this summer should he choose.
The other three players to have featured 30+ times are all over 30 years of age in Jimmy Keohane, Matt Lund and Matt Done. None are likely to command a transfer fee from elsewhere at this stage of their career. Then there are loanees like Haydon Roberts and Gavin Bazunu. Their development means little to us and although they have contributed on the pitch at times this season, they haven't contributed enough to keep us away from the foot of the table.
So where are these assets? Aside from Morley (more on him in a moment) then there's Kwadwo Baah, but the club have almost been backed into a corner with his situation too. The City deal appears to have fallen through, and the club will be forced into accepting any compensatory fee they can get when he most likely leaves the club upon the expiration of his contract this summer. We will have benefitted from having him and will have enjoyed watching him play, but is this really the model in action? Another paltry fee for our one regular first-team player with serious potential?
There's a wider point here too. It's not something I'm going to dig too deep into this time, but if our whole business model relies on selling players, then we have to find a way to receive their worth. Undisclosed fees don't help, but from the outside looking in I think it's fair to say that we could've done better on this front in recent years. Some supporters would argue that the likes of Dan Adshead, Luke Matheson and and Jamie Allen could've commanded higher fees in the current market, while Callum Camps left the club for free upon the expiration of his contract. Perhaps it's the fact that every other club in the league can low-ball us for players, knowing we need to accept any serious bids in order to keep the club afloat, but to me, if your whole business plan is about selling players, then you need to prepared to do some serious negotiating and sell players for what they are worth rather than accepting the first official bid that comes your way.
There is a further point here too, that we've largely been able to pick up underperforming players with some experience in the past and sell them on without having to adhere to a certain style of play in order to do so. Perhaps this view is outdated now, but I can't help but feel that players with ability will shine in any system if they are utilised correctly and playing with confidence. I'm not sure any of the players in our current squad could come under that category.
Aaron Morley is the one player that has arguably benefitted, statistically speaking, from Brian Barry-Murphy's philosophy. In terms of passes played, forward passes, pass completion, he looks like he's had a great season - but how many Rochdale fans would say he has looked like a Championship player this term? Would he pass the eye test that every club will conduct even after identifying him as a potential signing through his stats?
Morley is just 21 and does have obvious ability, so I'm keen not to criticise him personally too much for that reason, but to me, he has been the embodiment of BBM's style this season. Laborious in possession, slow to make decisions, positionally questionable and perhaps lacking in bite. Would that potential that he has, that range of passing and that vision, not be shown to look more productive in a more intense, high-energy style, with more options off the ball and more runs in behind for him to find? The stats may decrease as a result, but he would look like a better player than he has done this season, I'm sure of that.
It seems to me that a lot of supporters have swallowed the rhetoric that our on-field performances and our style of playe are always going to be shaped mostly by our need to develop players to sell on for profit. Fundamentally, if that's true, it raises yet more questions. Should your club be focusing on selling players above winning matches? Is winning football games not the entire point of the team's existence? You could argue we need to sell players to keep the club in existence, but why exist at all if you're not willing to do everything you can to win the games that you play? Why should we as fans turn up in the knowledge that we are watching a club that believes the final result of the match we've paid to watch is less important than a player developing and being put into the shop window during that match?
Indeed, you can extend that further. The longer the current manager remains in his position as we continue to slide towards an inevitable relegation, the more the board are telling us that relegation frankly isn't that important in the grander scheme of their general plan for the future. Imagine a football club that isn't even trying to play at the highest level possible. What's the point of that club?
Clearly, I have some issues with that as a philosophy, but I could understand it to some extent if I felt it was even true. In the last few games, we've had a centre-back playing in central midfield ahead of a centre-back partnership of a 34/35 year old and a loanee. If your business model is to give young players opportunities, why not play Ethan Brierley? We've got a goalkeeper on loan from Manchester City who we will never see again after May. If your business model is to give young players opportunities, why not play Brad Wade? At left-back, we've had a combination of a 30 year old and a 32 year old, both of who aren't even left-backs by trade, sharing the role. If your business model is to give young players opportunities, why not play Joe Dunne?
Admittedly, results would probably suffer if the club were quite so focused on giving young players opportunities. We might even fail to score in six games, win only one game in 16 and slip to 24th in the table. Oh wait.
It upsets me and frustrates me to see us performing below our capabilities at the moment, but the wider image upsets and frustrates me even more. Right now, the powers that be at our club appear to have convinced themselves that they have a modus operandi that must be stuck to fervently, even if evidence in front of them shows that it isn't proving to be the success they believe it to be. Relegation is one thing, but continuing on a road that's leading nowhere is another altogether. Something needs to give.
Photo: Action Images
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