Brian Barry-Murphy

The making of a manager

The success of Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad during the 2020/21 campaign had left the newly appointed Brian Barry-Murphy with big shoes to fill.

Taking the reins from Enzo Maresca in August 2021, the Irishman inherited a squad entering the new season on the back of an inaugural Premier League 2 title and FA Youth Cup triumph.

While the likes of Cole Palmer, Romeo Lavia, CJ Egan-Riley and Luke Mbete would often be promoted to the first team in the subsequent months, the core of the side remained intact, enhanced by a number of inductees from City’s Under-18 Premier League title-winning side.

And rather than considering building on our success as a daunting prospect, Barry-Murphy instead saw taking charge of our EDS as an enticing opportunity to bring through another batch of exciting talent.

“When you see you’re aligned and have similar beliefs in terms of player development and style of play, I got a real sense of being valued by the people here,” the Irishman told in his first interview after taking the job.

Those beliefs were honed around 12 miles north of the Academy Stadium, where Barry-Murphy would wind down a successful playing career at Rochdale as an all-action midfielder before transitioning into a player-coach and, finally, manager.

In charge of a side who had forged a reputation for a unique playing style and savvy use of both the loan market and homegrown talent, the 43-year-old continued that ethos, while also adding his own unique footprint.

And despite his side eventually succumbing to a drop back into League Two after two years of survival heroics, the Irishman’s stock as an exciting and progressive manager known for placing his trust in youth, remained on the rise.

After guiding City to our second consecutive PL2 title in his debut season at the helm, Barry-Murphy’s affirmation that he and the Club’s shared values would lead to further success last summer has proven prophetic.

“I remember after the first couple of sessions thinking: ‘This guy’s a cut above.’”
Calvin Andrew on playing with Brian-Barry-Murphy
“I got nowhere near him… I remember thinking he was like the Irish (Andrea) Pirlo!"
Joe Thompson on playing against Brian Barry-Murphy

Beginning his professional career in his native Republic of Ireland, Barry-Murphy would move to Preston North End in 1999, spending the remainder of his career in the Football League at the likes of Southend United, Hartlepool United, Sheffield Wednesday and Bury before moving to Rochdale in 2010.

A technically and tactically adept midfielder, Rochdale teammate Joe Thompson admits he was delighted to see Barry-Murphy move to Spotland having locked horns with him earlier in his career.

“I remember playing against Brian at Gigg Lane the year before (he joined Rochdale) in a derby game (against Bury),” the former winger reflects.

“I didn’t know too much about him before the game, but I honestly got nowhere near him. We won on the day, but I remember thinking I was the biggest loser.

“He was very clever and for the speed he might not have had physically, the speed of thought was scary, I remember thinking he was like the Irish (Andrea) Pirlo!

“You could see he used all that intelligence and experience; it was a bit of a masterclass. He didn’t deviate from it. I was delighted when he joined Rochdale the following season!”

At 32, Barry-Murphy was entering the final furlongs of his playing career when he signed on the dotted line for Keith Hill’s side ahead of their first season in the third tier for almost four decades.

But his experience and guile from midfield helped Rochdale to their best league finish since 1970.

Relegation would follow in 2011/12, but Barry-Murphy’s quality on the ball and footballing intelligence, even on the training pitch as a coach, remained as sharp as ever.

“He always knew where I was,” former Rochdale striker Calvin Andrew recalls.

“I know that’s an easy thing to say and all footballers should know those type of things, but his awareness of his opponents and teammates was amazing.

“He always knew exactly where I was on the pitch. For me, playing at Championship level with top quality players – the likes of Darren Ambrose or Wilfried Zaha – they know where you are regardless of whether they’ve looked at you.

“I remember after the first couple of sessions thinking: ‘This guy’s a cut above as a player.’ Obviously, his body was a bit different hence he wasn’t playing as much, but his knowledge and understanding of the game was fantastic.

“We always used to do a thing where he’d get the ball anywhere on the pitch and would cross it into the back post in training because he knew I liked to hang around there.

“It was so easy to get goals; I used to tease (Rochdale manager) Keith Hill saying if Brian played I’d score more because he always knew where I was and he’d always want to find me in certain areas!

“As a player he was someone I would’ve loved to have played with and watched in his prime.”

Barry-Murphy would become a player-coach as time on the pitch became limited at Rochdale, with Hill guiding the club back to League One in 2014.

Three successive top half finishes would follow as Dale flirted with an unlikely play-off place, but a 1-0 win over Charlton on the final day of the 2017/18 campaign would be needed to stave off relegation.

Joe Thompson – who grabbed the decisive strike on that day - remembers his teammate regularly taking sessions with younger players and reserves following an Achilles injury in 2016, bringing new and innovative attacking patterns and possession drills to the table.

But with the Club languishing in the bottom four once again the following season, Hill was relieved of his duties in March 2019 and it was up to Barry-Murphy to step into the void left by a manager who had guided Rochdale to two of the three promotions across their entire history, while simultaneously trying to galvanise a squad to beat the drop.

“When he took charge, I thought it was immensely brave,” Thompson reflects.

“But credit to him and the group, he managed to navigate them clear of the drop and I suppose that speaks volumes of him as a man.

“That encouragement was always there but he also comes with an air of respect he probably doesn’t realise he commands, and he does it in a way where you naturally gravitate towards his aura.

“He’s very observant, very emotionally intelligent, he knows when to put an arm around someone or when to let them know his way.

“But he’s got a genuine enthusiasm to learn so you always knew he was going to go into management.”

BBC Radio Manchester journalist Mike Minay, who at the time regularly covered Rochdale, adds: “From what I remember speaking to people at the time, there was a freshness about it, new ideas from a young manager that took them forward a bit more than what they’d had.

“One thing I would always say about Brian is he is very passionate about what he believes and in his approach to football, and that came off in the players in that short space of time.

“The advantage was he knew the players coming in when he took the reins and started to implement his ideas, so he knew what he was working with.”

"Some of the goals we scored that season were reminiscent of Premier League games."
Former Rochdale striker, Calvin Andrew

The mandate was to avoid relegation, and Barry-Murphy helped to achieve exactly that as Rochdale won six of their final eleven matches of the season, losing just three times.

He was rewarded with the manager’s job on a permanent basis in early April presiding over the subsequent two seasons at Spotland until City came calling.

Rochdale were comfortably clear of the bottom four when the 2019/20 campaign was cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Barry-Murphy’s men also claiming impressive 1-1 draws against Manchester United and Newcastle in each domestic cup.

And although they would fall short in his final season at the helm, the progressive and technical quality of the football on display went some way to softening the blow of relegation.

Mike Minay remembers the opening goal of a 3-0 triumph at Southend in August 2019 which exemplified the potential Rochdale had to carve teams open in devastating fashion.

He reflects: “There’s a famous clip of an Ian Henderson goal away to Southend that involved the whole team. It was a Barcelona, Manchester City, Pep Guardiola style football at League One level, pass after pass after pass.

“The fans sometimes struggled with the style, particularly when relegation was being faced, but it was a lot more attractive and entertaining to watch.

“If they clicked like they did for that Ian Henderson goal (against Southend), it was certainly more pleasing on the eye.

“He changed the brand of Rochdale a little bit, I think. (Current manager) Robbie Stockdale has come in and put his own print on it, but I enjoyed watching Brian’s side and enjoyed talking to him as well.

“You could tell a change in style at Rochdale, if you want the performances, then theirs in terms of style and quality were much improved.

“There was a degree of honesty from him as well, he’d quite happily tell us what’s good enough or not good enough and would disagree with us fairly if he thought we’d put a point across that he didn’t agree with.

“Those that have worked with him that I’ve spoken to have good words to say about Brian and a lot of respect for him and how he works.”

From a playing perspective, Calvin Andrew explains how a culture of meticulous preparation was created, with each member of the squad knowing their exact role and value to the team.

Moreover, players were encouraged to be confident in possession, particularly in defensive areas – akin to the style of our EDS across Barry-Murphy’s maiden season in charge.

“Fair enough, the results weren’t quite there sometimes, but the way in which he wanted to play was really taking shape. He was clear in his gameplan, we studied a lot of videos and he sat us down pretty much most days and simplified it,” Andrew explains.

“He would say: ‘This is the way I want to approach the game, centre-halves to receive the ball etc.’, and all of this different stuff that we hadn’t done before. It really did take hold and I did enjoy it.

“Brian brought in a certain level of not being afraid to make mistakes and a bravery in the players, especially the defenders, to receive the ball under pressure, not be flustered and be able to play through overloads and into the difficult areas.

“It was a total football type of thing under Brian, and I remember him saying on numerous occasions: ‘Sometimes you’re going to get it right, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, but it’s having the courage to keep trying to do it that way.’

“Some of the goals we scored that season were reminiscent of Premier League games where we kept the ball for 30 or 40-odd passes and then tapped it into the back of the net because of the movement and bravery.

“He used to talk about players always being available for the ball and that is an easy thing to say as a manager, but Brian would break it down to a fine art.

“At the time watching the likes of City and some of the other top clubs, they were playing that type of football so for Brian to have made that transition was always on the cards.

“When I found out he was going to City, I thought it was the best place for him because that is how he tries to play football.”

That adventurous possession-based style was crucial in Rochdale’s identity under Barry-Murphy, but his faith in youth was another cornerstone of his time at Spotland.

Academy graduates Luke Matheson, Aaron Morley, Fabio Tavares and Kwadwo Baah were afforded regular first team action, while a clever use of the loan market also lured the likes of Robert Sanchez and Rhys Norrington-Davies from Brighton and Sheffield United.

City duo Gavin Bazunu and Yeboah Amankwah also gained valuable senior minutes as a youthful core was supplemented by the experience of Paul McShane, Matty Done, Callum Camps, Ian Henderson and Calvin Andrew to name a few.

“Rochdale aren’t a financially plush club; they will proudly say that they have always been solvent in their history but to be solvent means working within your budget,” Mike Minay explains.

“They don’t have the finances of some of the big boys that were in that division at the time, so to compete at that level, the manager and the Club have to be trusted with those players coming down from Premier League or Championship level and that’s what Brian was.

“These big clubs trusting Rochdale and the manager to develop them and help them get used to senior football is something that has been part of the model for years, but he really took it on.”

Affording young players senior opportunities has been an important part of the City blueprint under Pep Guardiola, exemplified by Phil Foden’s recent rise through the ranks to become a key figure for Club and country.

Under Barry-Murphy’s watch, six members of City’s EDS squad made their first team debuts over the course of the 2021/22 campaign.

And with Sanchez, Bazunu and Norrington-Davies all going on to make senior international appearances after loan spells at Rochdale, his track record of nurturing youth suggests our next generation of talent are in good hands.

However, the education that our EDS manager has offered to his players transcends those finding their feet in the game, according to Calvin Andrew.

The forward was 32 when Barry-Murphy took the reins at Rochdale on a permanent basis having previously represented the likes of Luton Town, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Millwall since 2004.

Despite coming towards the end of a 17-year playing career, Andrew insists his former boss left an indelible mark on how he interprets the beautiful game to this day.

“The education that he gave to me as well as the other players was top drawer. Even now I will watch a game and see it a bit differently because of the way that Brian presented it to us when he became the manager,” he reveals.

“It’s imperative that you have a manager that believes in you when making that transition to senior football. You need to have a relationship in which you know you can go and talk to him and be critiqued in a way that can develop you.

“Brian gave the younger players at Rochdale a fantastic education early on in their career of being brave, trying to do things the right way and not deviate from a plan.

“I think that’s the best education as a player: ‘If I make mistakes, it doesn’t matter, I can keep trying to do it and the manager has got the faith in my abilities to keep trying to do these things.’

“That breeds a certain level of confidence within yourself, especially at a young age, that they will carry with them for the rest of their careers.

“It was a really good learning atmosphere; you’re always trying to learn and grow and make yourself better in any part of your life and I learned a lot that year from Brian and he gets a lot of credit from me for that.”

City would come calling in the summer of 2021, as Barry-Murphy looked to translate his experience at Rochdale to a youth setting.

A second successive Premier League 2 title would follow this May, as our EDS finished six points clear of West Ham United with the best attacking and defensive record in the division.

Those achievements have come as no surprise to Joe Thompson, who also provided a poignant testament of his former teammate’s character away from the field.

The ex-Rochdale winger battled back from two separate cancer diagnoses in 2013 and 2017 to make more than 250 professional appearances across a 14-year career.

He has openly discussed his road to recovery but also revealed the support he received from Barry-Murphy in those difficult times.

Thompson explained: “The measure of the man was the fact that he was one of the few who was able to visit me in hospital. He didn’t have to (but) that’s something we’ll always share.

“He won’t want plaudits and will have done it genuinely, I think he was absolutely petrified (to see me in hospital) but it speaks volumes, (he went) above and beyond.

“He helped me a lot more than he would ever realise with regards to my rehabilitation because it was quite a lonely road coming back from cancer that second time, but he’d always check in with me in the morning with the physiotherapist or come and see me in the gym.

“It’s no surprise that he’s been successful with the Elite Development Squad. It’s great to see for English football, and I don’t wish Brian anything but success in the future.”