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Mark Hodkinson: Inside the Boardroom Pt. IV
Wednesday, 24th Mar 2021 13:47 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. Today, he looks back at the recent virtual fans forum and the shenanigans behind Brian Barry-Murphy being offered a contract extension.

The moment – more a few seconds, actually – will live long in the memory of Rochdale fans. Wednesday 10 March, 2021. Cold and dark and chilly night. Dave Sweetmore is conducting the ‘virtual’ fans forum at Spotland. More than 1,000 Daleys are watching at home on their PC screens.

Graham Rawlinson, a director, is asked about Brian Barry-Murphy’s length of contract. Turning to BBM, he says (ever so nonchalantly):

‘Forgive me if I’ve got the date wrong, Brian, but I believe your contract expires in May, 21.”

‘22, Graham,’ responds BBM.

‘My apologies, 22 [2022]. You’ve got another year,” says Rawlinson.

The slapdash way it was announced was unsettling, along with the revelation that a director (one of only four with voting rights) had been seemingly unaware or unclear of the extension.

Afterwards, the club said Rawlinson had merely got the dates confused.

The news was a huge shock because supporters had been led to believe it expired at the end of this season. Loyal, passionate fans, frustrated by both the repetitive, safe-ball style of play and dearth of wins, had held dearly to a sprig of hope: this ends soon.

Everyone is familiar with the football managers’ barometer; it’s an unwritten absolute. One win in, say, five matches and the pressure gauge nudges towards rainy. One win in eight, nine and 10, the storm has come and, routinely, the manager gone.

Here at Rochdale, Brian Barry-Murphy, has bust the barometer. The dial has gone round and round, defeat upon defeat. One win in the last 22 home matches is the worst record in the professional football pyramid, comprising more than 150 clubs. It is one of the worst wins-per-game ratio (certainly at home) in the club’s 114-year history. Right now, we are bottom of the league, four points adrift of safety and have conceded more goals than any of the other 91 teams in the PL and EFL. It’s no surprise that fans fail to recognise the man referred to in a club statement made in February as ‘a hugely talented manager’.

The board has shown a level of tolerance and patience habitually reserved only to a manger with tremendous goodwill ‘in the bank’ – one who had overseen promotion in the previous season, perhaps. In Rochdale’s and BBM’s case, we were almost equally as bad last season and results have been too consistently poor for injuries or the pandemic to offer much exemption. And at no point have we been outclassed this season. More, we have been beaten by better organised, fitter teams playing to a game-plan that is likely to lead to more victories.

Fans responded by taking to on-line forums, mocking the manager and board, announcing that they will no longer buy season tickets or, indeed, support the club. Such forums are notorious for drawing out the reckless and vindictive, the football extremists. Here at Rochdale, however, there is an unusual level of realism and fair-mindedness towards our managers, especially on www.rochdaleafc.com. We’re aware of the budgets they work to and the lack of facilities compared to other clubs. Until this season, the assumption was that once a manager had lost the support of fans posting on the forum, he would next lose his job. This, clearly, hasn’t happened.

In going against most fans’ wishes, the board has embarked upon a critical piece of brinksmanship, one that could possibly affect the very survival of the club. It is viewed by many as an unnecessary battle, both stubborn and foolish. Why didn’t they follow football protocol and make the managerial change and spare themselves the opprobrium? Often, in life, it pays to be seen to respond, to show you at least care enough to force change. Otherwise, it can look as if you’re uninterested, asleep at the wheel. It is noteworthy that every other team in the bottom third of the division changed their managers, all of them with a better win-per-game ratio than BBM.

When a board has stood steadfastly by a manager who has overseen such abysmal form (BBM was honest enough to term it as such at the forum), its other policies and actions naturally fall under scrutiny. Who, exactly, is making these decisions? Are they to be trusted? Fans are worried and feel a sense of panic and impending doom. They have seen what has happened at Bury and elsewhere, and it hurts to contemplate that they may soon be carrying coffins down Spotland Road with ‘Dale RIP’ daubed on them.

Over the past few weeks I have approached every member and recent member of the board (aside from the poorly Andrew Kelly) and asked for an interview or if they would answer a few questions by email. Apart from Andrew Kilpatrick, they each responded to this initial email but, when I later sent specific questions, appertaining solely to BBM’s contract extension, none answered. Fundamentally, I wanted to know whether the decision to extend it had been made collectively and, if so, did they still stick by it? Or was it made by an individual acting independently of the board?

I learned, from several intermediaries, that an extension had been in negotiation with BBM’s agent for several months, dating back to the autumn of 2020 and predating the horrendous run of form. It was signed in mid-December, immediately after the thrilling away wins at Plymouth Argyle (4-0) and Wigan Athletic (5-0).

These displays and margins of victory had attracted particular attention. I’m told by one or two journalists that BBM was being monitored by other clubs for possible roles higher up the pyramid and possibly abroad. Rochdale were in joint 15th position at the time. Optimism was high.

Initially, there was every intention to announce the extension but, as wins became scarce and we fell down the league table, the board was aware of the ill-feeling fermenting among fans. I’m told that the board was hoping for an upturn in form, believing a good win was ‘just around the corner’. When this didn’t arrive, after weeks and weeks, the pressure was mounting and, ultimately, the news of the extended contract came out as it did at the forum, leading to inevitable accusations of secrecy and a cover up.

In talking to many people, there is a tangible ‘Cult of BBM’. No one issued a single criticism of him ‘as a person’. His ‘decency’ and popularity among staff, both playing and office, was mentioned many times and there seemed a sense of ‘rooting for him’, hoping results would improve, with the next match and then another, then another (‘He’s a very, very talented coach and a very genuine and honest human being,’ said David Bottomley before breaking down in tears at the forum).

I have never met or spoken to BBM but it is easy to discern that he is of substantial charisma. Sometimes, within the village of a football club, to be self-confident and strong and ‘comfortable in your own skin’ (which has been said of BBM many times), can make you king of kings. Also, he looks the part: handsome, skinny jeans, neat beard, articulate.

Our previous chairman, Andrew Kilpatrick, was known to have faith in BBM. He emailed me on January 28: ‘Brian is having to operate on a much reduced budget from previous seasons and, especially with such a small squad, has been unlucky with some of the injuries we have had.’ He emailed again on 1 February: ‘I and the Board believe that BBM is doing many of the right things (albeit, without the results every time) and still deserves support which, we are doing our best to supply.’

In UK football terms, such poor results always lead to a manager losing his job. At times, I have wondered if a higher hand was at play, perhaps from across the Atlantic. Maybe the fact that BBM was welcoming of data supplied from non-UK shareholders, Altman and Marcelli, and has shown a willingness to work with a ‘sporting director’ pleased them.

If their promise of a future cash injection was conditional on BBM staying in situ, the decision to extend his contract makes sense – the board had to do what they could to secure the only deal in town. Maybe they were let-down on the promise of this funding at the eleventh hour. This is all speculation, of course.

In public, the board of Rochdale AFC has stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the issue of their pre-awareness and approval of the extended managerial contract. I believe it was actually done by one or two directors on the understanding that it was both in the best interests of the club and time would show the rest – fellow board members and fans – that it was the correct one.

Whether this was wise, and even constitutional, is open to conjecture and it also begs the question of what other decisions have been made on a similar basis. Hopefully more information will be forthcoming over the next few weeks. As ever, the response from fans, happy or sad, resigned or mad, will be intrinsically tied in to what happens on the football pitch.

Photo: Action Images

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