In a curious quirk of fate, last Friday night’s match between Bury and Rochdale not only involved two clubs located little more than five miles apart, but also two men who’ve spent much of the last fifteen years considerably closer to one another than that. In the visitors’ camp: Keith Hill. In the home dugout: David Flitcroft, who played with Hill at Spotland before working as his assistant both there and at Barnsley, taking charge at the Tykes after Hill’s dismissal. After trying their luck and failing at Championship level in south Yorkshire, both find themselves back on the more familiar side of the Pennines, in League Two – and working wonders for clubs close to their hearts.
Hill was the subject of a post on this very site back in January, Stuart Howard-Cofield evaluating the impact of the former defender’s return to his old stomping ground. Certainly he seemed to have much to lose and little to gain. After all, this was the man who, in his first spell in charge, got Rochdale into the play-offs in successive seasons before finally hauling them out of the fourth tier for the first time in 36 years – their first promotion since 1969, the year Hill was born. Expectations among supporters were bound to be high – but, as Stuart noted, they were being met. Rochdale were riding high in the league, and had just produced a superb display to dump illustrious cross-Pennine foes Leeds out of the FA Cup.
Since Stuart’s post, what he termed Hill’s “quiet revolution” has continued largely unabated. Between the Leeds tie and the derby, Rochdale posted no fewer than four 3-0 wins and only suffered one league defeat. The only real blow was the curtailing of the cup run, the club unable to win another war of the Roses as Fourth Round visitors Sheffield Wednesday ran out 2-1 victors. Nevertheless, a bumper crowd in excess of 8,000 witnessed another creditable performance against a Championship club of significant stature, and Hill’s side went into the derby in rude good health.
So, what of their opponents? Bury’s recent history has been turbulent and fraught, to say the very least. David Flitcroft’s predecessor in the managerial hotseat, Kevin Blackwell, only took charge in September 2012, his arrival lifting the club up and out of the League One relegation zone. The improvement couldn’t be sustained, however, and they dropped a division at the end of a campaign during which they’d twice been hit with a transfer embargo, had to ask some players to turn out for free and on occasion were only able to name two substitutes rather than the permitted seven.
Salvation appeared to be at hand in May, when – with the club “24 hours away from … closing“, according to Blackwell – a takeover cleared debts, pacified the taxman and rendered a winding-up order redundant. While stressing the club’s previously precarious financial position, new chairman Stewart Day declared: “Step one is to stop the rot and to start from a clean page“. That meant releasing 16 players and signing up no fewer than 26 new faces – an extraordinary influx which brought its own challenges. “Many of the players don’t know each other, and I don’t know the players“, Blackwell admitted. “One of the players had a word with me last week because I’d forgotten his name, and I said, ‘Listen son, I don’t know anybody’s name – never mind yours’.”
Free of the constraints of those two embargoes, Blackwell’s summer recruitment strategy may have made him look a bit like a kid in a sweet shop, but there was some method in the madness – namely, adding a bit of maturity and nous to the dressing room. Brian Jensen, Tommy Miller and Chris Sedgwick could all be charitably described as seasoned pros, and though Tom Soares – one of those who had been playing on non-contract terms – was only 26 when he signed a permanent deal, he nevertheless brought Premier League experience, having once upon a time commanded a seven-figure fee when moving from Crystal Palace to Stoke.
Initially the strategy appeared to be bearing fruit, but a run of seven games without a victory in September and October saw the club sitting in 21st and Blackwell given the boot. “I knew nothing of the financial problems when I first took the job“, he said, “and I have to admit it has been a very interesting 12 months“. Lest we forget, this from a man who knows more than most about financial problems and “very interesting” tenures at clubs beset by crisis, having been in charge at Leeds as the extent of their difficulties became apparent and at Luton when the Hatters slid into administration. At this point Shakers fans could have been forgiven for stealing a nervous glance at Stockport’s plight and fearing a similarly cataclysmic period of terminal decline for their own club.
Not David Flitcroft, though. As a player, he remained in the shadow of older brother Garry – a steady Premier League pro with Man City and Blackburn, though now arguably best known for trying to gag the press over extramarital affairs and playing apart in the Leveson Inquiry – but as a manager, he can claim bragging rights over his sibling, currently in charge at non-league Chorley Town. Having lost his first managerial job, as Hill’s successor at Barnsley, Flitcroft had only been out of work just over a week when he was appointed to his second. While the fact that he used to wear the Shakers shirt with pride will no doubt have been a factor in his decision to step down two tiers (just as Hill’s emotional ties drew him back to Rochdale), it nevertheless suggests a man who isn’t too proud or conceited to admit his mistakes and managerial naivety and who is admirably determined to learn the ropes and prove himself at a level best suited to his current abilities. Take note Paolo Di Canio…
Once installed at Gigg Lane, Flitcroft set about instigating a “quiet revolution” of his own. Not that the recruitment policy has been much different thus far, with thirtysomething journeymen strikers Daniel Nardiello and Clive Platt both soon added to the squad. However, he did achieve what Day had demanded and stopped the rot, at least on the pitch, as Bury went unbeaten in his first five matches in charge. Even better was to come in the new year, when – putting the frustration and “chaos” caused by repeated postponements behind them – the team’s performances secured him the League Two Manager of the Month award for February, presented on the eve of the encounter with his friend and former mentor.
After all this build-up, it should be acknowledged that the derby itself was far from a classic, ending in a stalemate. The result denied Rochdale top spot, so could be seen as the Shakers exacting a measure of revenge for the 1-0 defeat endured at Spotland earlier in the season, but Flitcroft declared himself disappointed that his side couldn’t make count the man advantage they held for more than half the game. From Dale’s perspective, there was equally little satisfaction at a hard-earned point given that it came at a considerable cost – not only the two yellow cards and subsequent suspension for second top scorer Ian Henderson, but a knee injury for leading goal-getter Scott Logan that will see him ruled out for most of the rest of the season.
Certainly it was Rochdale who went on to suffer the worst derby hangover on Tuesday, losing 2-1 at Torquay, who are still seven points adrift at the bottom. To add insult to injury, the winner was scored by Joss Labadie, who has since been banned for ten games for a Suarez-esque chomp of an opponent.
Bury, meanwhile, battled to another creditable draw against a side well above them in the league table, Nardiello repaying his manager’s faith by scoring twice as they drew 2-2 with Fleetwood to preserve Flitcroft’s unbeaten home record. However, they remain in 19th, just four points clear of the relegation zone and a Northampton side rapidly improving under Chris Wilder. It’s set to be a nervous run-in for both Hill and Flitcroft, for different reasons.