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Bob Murphy – Gone but not Forgotten

It is sadly nearly a year since former Southport manager Bob Murphy passed away. He managed Southport during one of the darkest periods of the clubs history. Crowds were down, morale was poor and the club was only just breaking out on the other side of a series of financial problems. As a result very little has been written about his time here but it is a period in the club’s history that went on to shape and influence the club for years to come.

Robert Murphy was born in Moston, Manchester on 29th April 1932. He had no playing career worthy of note but went on to have an impressive non-league managerial career. 

It is his brother Ged who can take most of the credit for getting Bob into the management game, talking him into helping him at the Newton Heath Working Men’s Club. At the time Bob was out of football having finished as an Amateur player due to injury.

His long relationship with Mossley can be traced back to a young winger called Alan Brown who had been with Bradford Park Avenue. He was playing for the Men’s Club when Bob recommended him to Mossley trainer Eric Mathews. Mossley signed Brown and Murphy was asked to become a more permanent scout – an offer he accepted. He was promoted to Assistant Manager (to George Sievwright) when Wilson resigned in November 1972 and less than two years later he became caretaker manager before rewarded with the job on a permanent basis.

His first couple of seasons went well but although 1976-77 started promisingly, by November the team had found themselves in trouble and he was dismissed. Short spells with Stalybridge Celtic and Northwich Victoria followed but he was invited back to Mossley in January 1978 following Dick Bate’s dismissal. He had left his Northwich side sitting at the top of the League.

During his second spell at Seel Park he presided over the greatest period in Mossley’s history. His side won the NPL title and League Cup double in 1978-79 and he collected a number of Manager of the Month awards along the way.

The following season his side improved further, impressively adding an FA Trophy final appearance at Wembley to a repeat of the League and Cup double. They were given a heroes return although they had been unable to secure the FA Trophy itself. 

In 1980 Granada Television conducted a North West Manager of the Year poll. Bob Murphy came first, closely followed by Bob Paisley! He was also named Man of the Year by the Tameside Chamber of Commerce.

The following three seasons saw startling consistency, albeit each season the side finished runners up.

In amongst all that success Bob made a net profit of £45,000 in Transfer Fees so it was a shock to him when early in the 1983-84 season Mossley began to experience serious financial difficulties which resulted in them having to slash the wage bill. Unrest amongst the group of talented players finally saw Murphy depart from Seel Park in December 1983 after a defeat to Southport.

In a remarkable turn of events, four days later and he was announced as manager of Southport in the match day programme by chairman Gary Culshaw. Murphy didn’t however take charge of the game. He had changed his mind within 2 days of the appointment much to the frustration of the board (and I daresay the programme editor who had been unable to recall the programme from the printers!). As it turned out Alex Gibson continued as caretaker for the time being.

Such was Bob’s pedigree however that the board were persistent and willing to try again – he eventually did return to Haig Avenue to take charge properly on February 5th 1984. The following Saturday when Southport took on St Helens Town in the Liverpool Senior Cup at Haig Avenue, Chairman Gary Culshaw was able to welcome Bob to Haig Avenue, again.

“We were very disappointed when Bob declined the position last December, but we fully understood his position, and we were delighted when he intimated that he was now raring to go at Haig Avenue”.

Bob lived in Chorlton, Manchester and getting over to Southport proved at times quite difficult for him. He was not married, he was unable to drive and he relied on a good friend, Brian, for most of his lifts. If however Brian could not make it because of work commitments, then Bob would come by train, get off at Meols Cop and would either walk to the ground or call on reserve team manager Barry Hedley to pick him up.

 

 

Within two months Murphy had become the first Southport manager to win a ‘Manager of the Month’ award. He also guided Southport to their first silverware as a non-league club with a win in the Lancashire Floodlit Trophy. After a terrible few years of uncertainty concerning the clubs future, any success was to be celebrated and with all signs pointing towards more, by the end of the season he had been offered a two-year contract. 

For a club who just 2 years before had faced possible extinction due to financial problems similar to those Murphy left behind at Mossley, it was quite a statement to make – not only about the stability of the club – but also as a vote of confidence in the man trusted to manage the team. 

In the summer however the were a number of boardroom changes at Haig Avenue. Gary Culshaw was replaced as chairman by Charlie Clapham and upon his appointment he commented that “We are financially stable, have a hard working and dedicated band of workers on the board and behind the scenes, and, in Bob Murphy, a full-time manager of proven calibre, a man who will never accept second best”.

Whilst Murphy undoubtedly had ambition and proven calibre, something the club clearly wanted, that alone was not enough to disguise the fact that he was a tough character to be around. Indeed the comment that he will “never accept second best” more than hints at previous disagreements. 

As a character, Bob certainly took no prisoners. Barry Hedley who worked closely with him as Reserve team manager, and also Vice-Chairman, described him as a “sergeant-major type” but at the time the board felt that he was just the sort of person they needed. He insisted that everyone was well dressed and would not take tardiness from anyone, no matter the occasion. After-all, if he could not drive, yet still be on time and maintain a professional appearance then why shouldn’t everyone else?

 

He was a great friend of Sir Alex Ferguson and the more you hear about his personality and manner its easy to see the similarities between the two!  

 

Barry Hedley had been impressed that he had already known about him before he arrived and when asked to assist him, he was quick to agree. 

“Bob Murphy was very much a tactical man. He could get the best out of all the players either by putting an arm around them or barking at them.

He once, before a game in the dressing room, had a real go at Steve Jackson our very reliable centre half. Bob got so wound up he went out the Home dressing room door, slamming it behind him. He came towards me in the passageway and told me to “get in there and console Jacko, he is upset”.

I went in and Jacko was absolutely fuming. He kept saying “that b****** I will show how good I am”. He got man of the match!!

Bob afterwards put his arm around him and said “what a great player you are”. The rest of the team just burst out laughing.

On another occasion my reserves were playing at Manchester City’s training ground. After the game I had to dash with three players to the first team game at Goole (Editor: 3rd November 1984).  I broke the speed limit coming off the M6 up the ramp. A cop caught me and did me for speeding which set me back about twenty minutes. Of course all I got when I got in the dressing room was a right old rollicking for being late. That was Bob.”

 

In 2008 Charlie Clapham suggested that of all of the managers to have worked for him, Murphy was the most difficult. “Bob was hard, not hard as in “a thug”, but he was a hard, hard person, he was not an easy bloke to work with.”

From the stories told about him it is easy to see why he could be viewed as difficult. Indeed to businessmen relatively new to the world of football, as Charlie Clapham was at the time, it probably came as quite a shock to the system. It’s difficult to know how much of Clapham’s view was formed as a result of  being an relatively inexperienced chairman dealing with his first manager. That said, Murphy didn’t exactly make it easy as Barry Hedley recalls:

“He was never a fan of Directors travelling on the team bus, I suppose he thought they would hear too much, which put me in a funny position as his assistant, and Vice Chairman/ Director.

Another game, away from home – I think it was Matlock , we lost and did not play well at all (Editor: Possibly 25th February 1984 – in which case it was his first defeat!). When we all got on the coach to go home, Bob said to the driver “DO NOT PUT THE HEAT ON”  – it was below freezing outside. We travelled back, all of us – including the chairman, absolutely freezing until we dropped Bob off near Manchester. I never enjoyed warmth more than I did then.”

 

Even though Charlie had been on the board for some time as commercial director prior to his promotion to Chairman, Murphy wasn’t the chairman’s appointment. Inheriting staff always brings challenges and your early days in a job are always viewed with hindsight as the most difficult. That’s not to say that Clapham wouldn’t have appointed him in the first place, indeed there would have few managers around at the time with the experience and pedigree of Murphy, and it’s not to say that he is wrong to hold the view that Murphy’s toughness was unnecessary. Indeed if the game that Barry Hedley recalls was Murphy’s first defeat then as the saying goes, “first impressions count”. An early impression like that is going to be hard to shift. It is simply to suggest that with the benefit now of over 20 years experience behind him we simply will never know if what appeared to be a classic conflict in personalities might have been handled differently if it were today.

 

Whilst this sort of behaviour undoubtedly caused friction between Murphy, the new chairman and his board, Hedley clearly liked working with him: “He did value my opinion on players. I used to go and watch a lot of non league games. At that time I had quality players in my reserves, Shaun Teale and Andy Mutch both played for me on a Sunday for the Crown, also Tony Rodwell, John Gautrey, Kevin Mc Cormack and Rob Sturgeon.

One Saturday (Editor:  it was 13th October 1984) we were to play against Horwich, at Horwich. Our striker, who I think was Joe Strong, was injured. I mentioned to Bob about a lad named Kevin Mc Cormack playing with the reserves who was scoring goals for fun.

My reserves were playing on this particular day and Bob came to watch. Kevin scored two goals. The second goal he headed the ball just a few feet off the ground, he hit his head on the post cutting his forehead. Typically for Kevin he would not come off for treatment. Our physio John Bradshaw went crazy on the side, Bob said ” he will do me” and Kevin did not look back. He played at Horwich, scoring on his debut.”

Bob didn’t see out his two year contract with the club and in fact didn’t even see out the following season. A heated discussion between Murphy and Clapham following a Lancashire Junior Cup defeat at Morecambe in December led to Murphy’s instant dismissal.

Barry Hedley recalls “We had just lost, and he again threw a tamtrum in the dressing room. He was still in a temper in the bar afterwards when Mr Clapham came to have a word with him.  Bob, still seething, had a real go at the chairman and with the language that came out, that was it. Sacked.”

His reign in total lasted just 8 months and only 50 games. Looking back now, his record was pretty good with almost half of those games being victories (and another 9 being drawn). His short spell at Haig Avenue, and stories of the falling out, weren’t enough to dissuade Barrow from offering him employment until the end of the season however and from there he then moved on to Buxton where he was to stay for another seven years until his planned retirement from football management in October 1992.

Hedley suggested that Murphy was “Married to the game” so it was with little surprise that his “retirement” lasted less than 3 months.

When his beloved Mossley came calling they were bottom of the NPL and desperate for help. Despite his best efforts the team was relegated. The team was poor and Murphy didn’t relish the challenge of a complete rebuilding job so late in his career. He returned to retirement almost as soon as he had left it.

His impressive record of discovering and giving debuts to promising players over the years (our own Teale and Mutch included) tempted Howard Wilkinson’s chief scout at Leeds United to appoint him as a scout at the Yorkshire club. He held the position until Oldham Athletic tempted him away with a similar role nearer to his home.

When Mossley again found themselves manager-less in the 2001-02 season Bob couldn’t resist the temptation to step in to act as caretaker manager for a couple of games and he would later be appointed Club President.

Barry Hedley probably spent more time with Bob than most whilst at Southport and whilst acknowledging the toughness of his character he was still effusive in his thanks. “I learned a lot from him. He lived in Chorlton on a council estate in a two up, two down, terraced house. I felt very honoured when he invited me there once to pick him up to go and watch a player. He took me into his front room and there, in methodical order, were hundreds of files on players, teams, trophy’s and tactical drawings on the walls. That was Bob Murphy.”

Shaun Teale refers to Bob as “a diamond”. “He had all these little sayings that would crack us up.

Bob liked physical players so when Rob Sturgeon broke his nose, Bob had a simple way of making sure he was match fit. Firstly, he asked Rob, and when Rob said he was, Bob just threw a ball in his face. We all fell about while Rob tried to stop his eyes watering.

We used to train in a gym in Skem and if you lent on a wall Bob would fine you 50p with “there are no walls on a f****** football pitch”. If you phoned in with a bad stomach the answer you got was “put a f******” nappy on”, and if you dared not show he would wipe the floor with you. He taught me some very good habits and life lessons I carried with me through my career. I will always remember Bob as full-on but someone who always appreciated players who, like him, gave 100% always.”

Bob Murphy sadly passed away on Wednesday 17th February 2016.

One thought on “Bob Murphy – Gone but not Forgotten

  1. This is a brilliant account of how Bob ticked. I was lucky enough to play in the Mossley team at Wembley with Bob in charge. I could write a book crammed with stories about Bobs excentricities. However, without any doubt he was the most dedicated, hard working manager ever. As a foot note, I cringe when I watch Premier league players today turn away at a free kick. If any player in a Murphy team did that wait till the next training session. The said player had to stand with hands behind his back, up against a wall, where all the squad had to fire balls at him. Bob Murpgy RIP you gave me great memories, I didn’t realise at the time would live with me forever. Kevan Keelan

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