It was back in 2010 that I sat down with Brian Barry-Murphy for a lengthy conversation about the highs and lows — but, mainly, the highs — of what the then 32-year-old Rochdale midfielder was only too happy to describe as a “journeyman’s” career spent mainly in the English lower leagues.
The man some Corkonians of my acquaintance like to call ‘the son of God’ — in deference to the Da, GAA legend Jimmy — spoke with passion, affection and much self-deprecating humour about the rewards of a professional footballer’s life away from the glamour of the Premier League. But there was also no disguising the seriousness with which he had committed himself to the game, an hour-and-a-half in his engaging company leaving me to reflect, not for the first time, on the wisdom of the saying that ‘happy is the man whose hobby is also his career’.
Towards the end of our chat, I asked him what he thought the future might have in store for him. “People say I’ve only got a couple of more years left but I don’t think that way because I keep myself in great shape,” he said.
I started doing the coaching badges a few months ago but I didn’t want to put it out there because when you start saying that, the next thing managers are putting you on the bench and clubs start thinking you’re on the way out. Which I’m not.
“But Jimmy had been saying it to me for a few years to get the badges done. And then my wife started to say the same thing: ‘Jimmy knows what he’s talking about’. And I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I go to a lot of games to watch the top teams. And whenever any Spanish team comes to England I go to watch them. I’ve always valued my own opinion of games. I think I can read the game well. But who knows who makes a good manager?”
Nine years on, he is about to find out for himself, having just been appointed full-time manager of Rochdale — who, with games running out, are battling to remain in the third tier of English football — after an unbeaten four-match spell as caretaker gaffer helped turn the ship around following the poor run of results which had seen the axe fall on long-time boss Keith Hill and his assistant Chris Beech.
At his official unveiling this week, Barry-Murphy spoke with some emotion about the trauma of how opportunity had knocked for him on the back of the departure from the club of men who were good friends as well as valued colleagues.
Mentors too, as Brian outlined to me back when he was running the midfield under what he regarded as Hill’s enlightened management.
“Keith is a real student of the game,” he enthused. “You’ll laugh, but we study videos of Barcelona all the time. We watch all the Spanish teams. Hilly has really opened my eyes over the last few months. The problem is that, although we started off like a house on fire — beating Southampton away and Huddersfield at home — we’re on this run now where we’ve lost six out of seven.
Now every other club I’ve been at, the managers would say, ‘Right, we’re going more direct.’ But he says, ‘Nah, we’re going to kill teams with possession’. And I admire that about him. And he’s brilliant at bringing through good young players.”
But with relegation in 2019 a live prospect, the club decreed that Hill’s race was run and it’s now up to club stalwart Barry-Murphy to see if he can lead them out of the drop zone.
Apositive attitude to whatever challenges faced him as a player coupled with a work ethic which impressed no less hard a taskmaster than David Moyes when Brian played under him at Preston, are qualities which should stand him in good stead as he takes up residence in the hot seat.
“I never had any real big money from football and I always kinda thought I could have been working in an ordinary job,” he reflected in our first interview.
“I never really thought I was a Premier League player. I didn’t think I was that kind of class. I played with some of those lads for the Ireland U21s, like Richard Dunne. And I never thought I was going to play at that level.
“At home, we were brought up around greyhounds and horses, so we were always quite good judges of ability (laughs). You always dream, of course, and when I’ve played against Premiership teams in the Carling Cup or pre-season friendlies, I’ve sometimes thought well, maybe I could have played at that level. But then, in one-off games you can always do well, can’t you? And I think I had the right attitude.
Moyesy used to bring me in at the end of a season and say, ‘Your greatest asset is your attitude toward the game — you play as if you really enjoy it.’ And I think that’s true.
"There might be spells when you’re under pressure but I’ve always loved it.”
Hopefully he can retain that positivity now that the buck stops with him. And it’s certainly a case of in at the deep end at the Crown Oil Arena this afternoon as Rochdale — whose squad includes another ex-Cork City man in Ryan Delaney — host promotion-chasing Sunderland, the fallen giants for whom an in-form Aiden McGeady is an injury doubt.
“I’ve had a ball really,” I recall Brian telling me in 2010. “I mean, some of the friends I’ve made. They’re the kind of things I look back on. Journeyman pro? I label myself as that, tongue in cheek, sometimes. But I think I’ve had a good deal.”
As the impressive BBM turns another page in his football life so, clearly, do Rochdale.