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Mark Hodkinson: Inside the Boardroom Pt. III
Tuesday, 23rd Mar 2021 16:09 by Mark Hodkinson

Vital reading for all Dale fans – in a bid to help better understand the inner workings of football clubs, and Rochdale AFC in particular, we’ve asked journalist, author and Dale supporter, Mark Hodkinson, to write a short series of articles on the subject. He continues today with a look at the power structure within Spotland.

Almost everyone now agrees that 2020/21 is the EFL season that should not have happened. The notion that it could continue during a pandemic is a near–suicidal edict. How can a football club hope to succeed or even survive when it is burdened with all the usual overheads but almost nil income? Football, certainly in the lower professional leagues, should have been mothballed, as it was during war-time.

All the same, the season has been played out, putting, as all fans accept, incredible, unfair pressure and responsibility on boards of directors. They have been beleaguered, facing all kinds of new challenges and, all the time, had to work under the ominous realisation that a few moves in the wrong direction could affect a club’s very existence.

Despite these factors, there is still a league table to view and, right now, we are at the bottom of it. If there was also a league table of how clubs have coped off the field, Rochdale, with fans in mutiny and the club heavily in debt, would probably be near the bottom of that, too. But why have we done so badly? Where does the responsibility lie?

After resigning as chairman last month, Andrew Kilpatrick did not answer my emails or texts; it is possible, of course, that he was still embroiled in whatever ‘personal reasons’ led him to resign. I was especially interested to plot his relationship with the wider board, to gauge their closeness or otherwise, whether there was ‘a board within a board’ or, in fact, any other combination.

Kilpatrick, it appears, wasn’t an egotistical chairman determined to shape the club in his own image and neither was he a proxy-manager, passing on instructions as to how BBM should pick the team, for example. He was regarded as ‘brilliant’ on match days, having the necessary propriety to represent the club well in directors’ boxes up and down the country.

Although extremely shy of publicity, he was known to hold firm his position on major matters involving the club, though he was happy to delegate the ‘nuts and bolts’ of running it to others based much closer to Spotland than himself. Ordinarily, with a well-staffed, engaged board this might have been fine but with so few directors, it made the club, at crucial times, liable to either drifting or, alternatively, others making decisions independently.

Andrew Kelly, the acting chairman, is a reluctant volunteer to the position, with, he says, no designs to take it permanently. He has often said that he would gladly pass on his shares to someone with the will and desire to move the club forward; this may be an expression of exasperation. His area of speciality has been the club’s academy. In fact, he has been so singularly focused that he is distanced from the general business of running the club. Those that saw him a few days before he became ill could see that he was overwhelmed and struggling to corral all the issues and decisions with which he was suddenly faced. No one is sure what his level of involvement will be from here on.

Tony Pockney, the director responsible for overseeing the club’s finances, has maintained a low profile, although he did speak candidly at the forum. I contacted him the day afterwards, requesting an interview and he responded: ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t engage in a conversation on this topic just at the moment I’m afraid.’ I sent him a text soon afterwards, stressing the importance of us speaking, but he did not respond. He did reply to a later email but only to say he could still not speak to me.

David Bottomley, director and chief executive officer, has been singled out for vilification, often of an unwarranted personal nature. Some of the criticism is unfair – that, although born in Rochdale, he is an adopted ‘southerner’ and therefore, not one of us. His credentials as a true, long-term Rochdale fan are also questioned, but, to spend a few minutes with him, is to feel the passion he has for the club.

In media terms, he has been a fine ambassador, speaking eloquently on national radio and television. Again, to many, this comes with the counter-charge that he is doing it for his own profile, as much as the club’s: it’s oft-said of anyone comfortable in the limelight. Perhaps, down the years, the club has missed a little bit of this man-in- a-suit glitz and we’ve been pie and peas for too long.

He is a grafter, someone who gets up early, goes to bed late. He is said to live the club and following his move back north, apart from occasional rounds of golf (where he often mixes with football people), he has devoted himself to his job which he views as a calling.

I have had dealings with him several times over the past year. He is talkative. He flatters and is easily flattered. When he is told by someone within football, for example, that Brian Barry-Murphy is a ‘rising star’ or that the team plays ‘good football’, he doesn’t ask on what basis they make this claim, how many times they have seen Rochdale play etc. He believes them, tells others about it and takes deflected pride in the association. ‘But the football is bloody awful,’ I’ve told him several times. For a second he will fall quiet and I can see that he is conflicted. Then he rallies – he always rallies: ‘That’s not what others say.’

He is trusting with information and it soon becomes difficult for a journalist to discern what is on or off the record. His heart walloped on to his sleeve, I sense an eagerness that might make him easy to manipulate. He likes to be liked and I can imagine him growing close to the players and management staff. Footballers, in general, seldom make good friends, at least not until after they retire. The game teaches them to be selfish and ruthless, to stick up for themselves, defend their place in the team, tackle hard, and be wary of opponents and even team-mates.

Bottomley will enjoy the banter, being one of the boys, but then find it difficult to accept when he is let down by them or has to make a difficult decision. This is not uncommon at football clubs. I’ve been told by several directors (at other clubs) that they were ‘scared’ or ‘felt terrible’ having to sack a manager or negotiate the end of a player’s contract; it’s a wretched business but comes with the territory.

Whenever I have expressed an opinion contrary to Bottomley’s, he has sometimes accused me of ‘negativity’. I have heard this retort before; it’s used to undermine and discredit, and is usually issued by people who are sure of their rightness, men on a mission.

David Bottomley’s mission is set firm. He believes he is taking the club into the modern age, blowing the dust from Spotland. Others, though, see profligacy and bravado in his actions and question his business acumen, especially in the face of a pandemic and forthcoming recession. Do we really need all those backroom staff and that overnight stop for the next away game? And is a ‘sporting director’ necessary – we’ve never had one before.

He is very proud of the new pitch that has been installed at Spotland, at a cost of £600,000 (paid in instalments, I believe). While it is rightly a badge of honour that not a single home match has been postponed this season, it forms a gargantuan slice of the club’s budget. Others have suggested a series of running repairs at a fraction of the cost (with the possibility of a few games called off) would have been a better policy. What use an immaculate pitch – though it’s noticeable the ball often bobbles across it – if the money runs out and there is no team to play on it?

Even Bottomley’s harshest critics concede that he ‘has bottle’ and faces-down his detractors, often showing great patience under pressure. It is noteworthy that at the fans forum, instead of becoming irate in his frustration, he turned inwardly and began to cry. One confidante extolled his enthusiasm and efficacy but added, ‘He needs to take stock and have a word with himself occasionally.’

The idiosyncratic boardroom set-up at Rochdale might not have drawn much scrutiny in a routine, non-pandemic season. However, an unfathomable decision made by the board (or constituents parts of it) in mid-December set forth a time-bomb that would explode three months later, causing anger and frustration as never before.

NEXT: That Brian Barry-Murphy contract extension, in full.

Photo: Action Images

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