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A face that fit?
Thursday, 1st Jul 2021 14:34 by AtThePeake

Brian Barry-Murphy's tenure at Rochdale has come to an end, but will his legacy be shaped by his philosophy and charisma or by relegation back to the fourth tier?

It's often hard to quantify the success of a manager in English football. In a sport that is so obviously dominated by finances, it feels sometimes as though we have to caveat any achievement or failure by mentioning a club's budget or off-field position in relation to results.

In their divisive book 'Soccernomics', author Simon Kuper and Professor of Economics Stefan Szymanski set out the argument that given that a manager's effect on results is minimal when compared to their club's wage bill, the hiring of a head coach at a modern day football club takes into consideration the style and personality of the man in charge as much as it does their ability to achieve victories.

"It’s doubtful anyway whether many clubs or countries choose a manager chiefly because they think he will maximize performance. Often the manager is chosen more for his suitability as a symbolic figurehead than for his perceived competence. In other words, he’s more of a king, or head of public relations, than an executive."

Few can doubt the benefits of Brian Barry-Murphy's charisma and personality during his spell in charge of Rochdale. Anyone who has spoken to him at length or worked with him in the past speak of him in glowing terms. When he came on this site's podcast towards the start of last season, we found ourselves delighted with his honesty and warmth during that conversation.

And one only has to check the social media accounts of the players in the aftermath of Wednesday night's announcement to see the relationships he had fostered at Spotland. Stephen Humphrys, Jake Beesley, Aaron Morley and several others were all quick to post messages of thanks via Twitter and time and again players would make reference in interviews to how much they enjoyed working under Barry-Murphy's tutelage.

To a lot of fans, this is important. Again, check the posts on Twitter referring to Barry-Murphy as a club legend, thanking him for his 11 years service at Spotland, or focusing on the better moments such as the EFL and FA Cup performances versus Manchester United and Newcastle United and conveniently skipping over the relegation we suffered under his stewardship less than two months ago.

Throughout his tenure, BBM often won plaudits from pundits for the style of play he preferred. A patient, possession-based approach, it was often easy on the eye and in moments where everything clicked into place, the football looked effortless. Who knows how much that famous goal at Southend, finished by Ian Henderson following a delightful flowing move, boosted his reputation as a coach with a penchant for attractive play.

And indeed, opposition coaches would often praise Barry-Murphy for the work he was doing with the team. Opposition fans would credit Rochdale for attempting to play football in the 'right way'. But for many of our own fans, to hear we play a so-called 'attractive' style offered few crumbs of comfort after yet another defeat.

For me, this often called to mind similar exchanges between managers of the Premier League's biggest clubs who were often very complimentary of Eddie Howe's Bournemouth and who have very often been critical of Sean Dyche's Burnley. It's no surprise to me to see which of those clubs remains in the top flight.

Some supporters, some pundits, will defend this philosophy to the very end. In many ways, it's an outlook to be commended, to stick to one's guns even in the face of adversity. But football is about results, no? The joy you feel when celebrating a goal and a win surely outweighs the satisfaction you get from watching a team play pretty but ultimately unsuccessful football.

And indeed, for a club like Rochdale, it's not just about winning for the enjoyment of supporters. There are also financial benefits to remaining in a higher division, larger away followings, better TV deals and indeed more sponsorship opportunities.

At the end of the day, this is Rochdale. We aren't Johan Cruyff's Ajax or Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, we aren't going to implement a revolutionary style of play that could go down in footballing history, winning European Cups as a result almost as an afterthought to the process and the style. We're battling against AFC Wimbledon to remain in League One. We're here to fight and to survive.

And in reality, BBM could've had more success and stuck to his principles to a large extent had he even been just slightly more adaptable. He didn't need to go back to the attritional style that saw him keep the club in League One back in 2018/2019 in order to achieve the same relative success in guiding us away from the relegation zone.

In the final 2020/2021 table, Dale were a single point from safety. How many missed opportunities were there to take an extra point or two over the season? Naivety in the final moments of games, poor defending from set-pieces, stubborness in utilising formations that resulted in players being played out of position. These are all aspects of Barry-Murphy's management that cost us - and improving on those things doesn't have to result in total abandonment of the principles and the style that was being adhered to. It's just about taking those principles as a base, then making them more effective in terms of gaining points.

Kuper and Szymanski's argument continues: "A manager might not affect his team’s result, but after the game he’s the person who explains the result at the press conference. He is the club’s face and voice. That means he has to look good—which is why so many of them have glossy, wavy hair—and say the right things in public."

Personally, I've always found those arguments a little reductive, but the reaction from some sections of the fanbase to Brian Barry-Murphy have made me reconsider them in a different light in the last year or so. After all, how many managers can go 19 home games without a win and take a team to a relegation yet still command such respect from sections of a club's fanbase?

And let's compare that for a second to the reaction supporters have to the possibility of Keith Hill's return, with many fans recoiling in horror at the thought of the club rehiring the 52 year old. But take away Hill's abrasive personality and his occasionally mind-boggling post-match comments and what do you have? You have the only manager to have won promotion at Rochdale in the last 50 years. And he did it twice.

Although the time for a change had come once Hill left the club to be replaced by BBM, you'd imagine for a manager who led us to two promotions and our best years in League One, the reaction to a possible return wouldn't be quite so negative. But it's not so much the results at the end of Hill's second tenure that turn people against him as it is his personality.

Indeed, just look at how happy the Tranmere Rovers supporters were to see the back of him ahead of the League Two play-offs despite him taking them over in 18th position and leading them to the play-offs. Maybe Kuper and Szymanski were right. Maybe results don't matter all that much.

Early rumours suggest that Barry-Murphy is being considered as the frontrunner for the U23 job at Manchester City. If this is true, it seems like a perfect position for his skill set. He'll be able to develop players, learn from some of the best coaches in the game and perhaps even identify young talent with potential - all without the glare of results that in first-team football, really do matter.

If that is true, however, it's hard not to feel a little frustrated. The club stuck by him and offered him a contract when the majority of others would've sacked him. While you can't blame Barry-Murphy for taking the opportunity on offer at the best club in the country (if not the world) right now, the timing is horrendous.

Instead of 'cutting our losses' so to speak during last season and taking a chance on a different manager in order to try and stay in the division, Barry-Murphy was trusted as the right man for the job. We went down, and now he has left anyway, leaving us to wonder what could have been had the decision been taken to remove him from his position rather than offer him a new contract in the middle of the campaign.

Even had we allowed his contract to expire, for months the club would've been able to seek out potential replacements and put a plan in place - instead, we placed our faith in BBM and now the board, who already have their hands full with a vacant CEO position and with outside parties attempting to privately buy out existing shareholders, will have to identify and hire a new coach just days into pre-season and just as season tickets go on sale. To say we've been left in the lurch is an understatement.

Keith Hill, the club's most successful manager, split opinions among the fanbase. Although results suffered dramatically towards the end of his second tenure, for the majority of his two spells he enjoyed great success on the pitch but in the end, his relationship with the fans deteriorated because of his abrasive personality more than anything.

Brian Barry-Murphy, in almost a complete reversal, split opinions equally. Although results were never really achieved on a consistent basis, his personality and charisma endeared him to many supporters along with his preferred style of play.

As a next step, the club's new directors will have to find the right candidate to sit somewhere between the two. A manager who supporters can trust and relate to while earning results on the pitch. Is that so difficult? A look at our managerial history, unfortunately, tells us that is probably is.

Photo: Action Images

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