Sean O'Driscoll: a Primer
Nottingham Forest fans read on, for we are very pleased to welcome back Glen Wilson, steward of Doncaster Rovers’ Popular STAND Fanzine and late of award winning blog, Viva Rovers. Here Glen provides us with an insight into Sean O’Driscoll, recently installed in a supporting role to Steve Cotterill at the City Ground.
‘The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment’ wrote Nick Hornby and for the most part of course he is right. We are dreamers who specialise in crushing our own dream with pessimistic realism. We could win this… but we’ll probably chuck it away in injury time… again. We might win the Cup… but we’ll probably go out in the 3rd round to a bunch of lower league cloggers. We could ping the ball about like Barcelona… but we’re not likely to be are we? We’re just fucking Doncaster.
Or so we thought. Turns out some dreams can come true. Even an unfashionable pub team like ours could play football. Not just as a one-off either, like the time we retained possession against Nuneaton for a whole 48 seconds before Dean Walling shanked it into the Town End. But proper passing football. Regularly. Sean O’Driscoll came to my town. And he made it possible. He built a team that passed and moved, played fluid football, and all within sight of the chimney at Peglers Works. And I’ll always be indebted to him for that.
Five years O’Driscoll was at Doncaster and though it took a while to introduce the style of play he had in mind – indeed a 0-2 loss at Scunthorpe in that period was one of the most woeful Rovers performances I’ve ever seen – the patience was eventually rewarded. We lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. We won at Wembley… against Leeds. We reached the second tier. And we’re still here four years on.
It’s one thing to ping the ball about to get to these highs; it’s another to do it to survive. The expectation of a side punching above their weight, particularly a Northern one, is to become a disciple of Tony Pulis. Hoof it. Punt it. And play the percentages. But why try and capitalise on others’ weaknesses when you can play to your own strengths? Rovers got to the second tier playing a fluid brand of football and set out to stay there in the same manner, something that surprised people from day one, not least Paul Merson – ‘A different class of passing the ball’ – and it was.
In this brilliant interview with Goalfood, O’Driscoll gave a fascinating insight into the side he had developed: ‘We never do passing drills in training. We try to give people options on the ball and the thing I’m trying to coach is for the player to pick the right option, which is what the better players do. I get scouting reports which say ‘he gives the ball away too much’ but I’m trying to train the scouts to ask ‘was it the right ball to play?’ Football’s about giving the ball away – but was it the right pass at the right time? Sometimes I’m more concerned about that than I am about whether or not he completed the pass. I can’t buy someone for a million quid but I want to get someone in who can see options and can take the right one. I’m in a market where I can afford a player because he’s cheap but I have to know that I can develop him because he has the raw materials I can work with. Right pass, right time – that’s two out of three and I can work on the rest.’
And work on the rest he did. Something which meant he was able to get more out of players others had given up on like John Oster, and Brian Stock (who went from Preston’s reserves to a heralded international performance under O’Driscoll). And also nurture unlikely talents, like Mustapha Dumbuya, who had hitherto been travelling the London non-league scene like The Littlest Hobo, and Sam Hird, released by Leeds 150 Rovers appearances ago.
As great as the football was (and it was often phenomenal), throughout his time at Rovers O’Driscoll had his critics. It was suggested that he had no plan B. That passing football was all he knew. But of course passing the ball about is not in itself a tactic, it’s just a means to an end. The diversity of footballing approaches is too often simplified and too easily bracketed into formations, something O’Driscoll himself talked of in an interview in 2010, ‘When people say, “They’re a well-organised team”, what exactly does that mean? “Is 4-4-2 rigid?” We’ve just had an England team lambasted for that. People think 4-4-2 is tactics; it’s nothing to do with tactics, it’s a structure. Within the structure you can do whatever you want. It could be the most fluid system in the world. The problem with England was that their 4-4-2 was rigid. They needed to be fluid. But when you’re playing against Spain, do you need a fluid 4-4-2? Do you f***. You need to be rigid because they’re better than us. All I can do is send out a team with certain values and the players operate within that‘
Of course the downside of O’Driscoll’s approach was that Rovers’ squad was, in stature at least, decidedly lightweight. There’s a reason for the incredulity in which we’re told a player has “a decent touch for a big man” and that’s big lumps who are good in the air don’t tend to be able to deftly move the ball around midfield. As such Rovers often came unstuck against more physical opponents, and we spent five years being unnerved whenever opponents forced a corner, or a free-kick, or a throw-in, or a kick-off. Some of us were willing to forgive that Achilles heel in exchange for the flowing football going in the opposite direction. Others, perhaps understandably, were not.
But to suggest that O’Driscoll’s teams were hampered by only having one system is wrong; he built a side of intelligent footballers and as such it was not just the football which was fluid. The system was too. And so Rovers would not be averse to changing approach minutes into a game. After an away victory in November 2010 the opposition told reporters that Rovers had altered their set-up after quarter of an hour and that his side had needed to adjust to this at half-time. By the time he had been able to implement his changes Doncaster led 2-0. That manager? Steve Cotterill.
This fixture between O’Driscoll’s Doncaster and Cotterill’s Portsmouth highlights just what a juxtaposition of styles Nottingham Forest have now employed. O’Driscoll is a thoughtful realist. Cotterill, a paranoid blame merchant, as reflected by the post match interviews in which the latter perplexingly chooses to pin the blame for Carl Dickinson’s knee high assault on James Hayter on David Healy and the referee. If you watch Cotterill’s post-match interviews regularly then you’ll have noticed how unfortunate he has been. The whole world continues to conspire against him. Just as it did last week. And every week before that.
As a partnership then O’Driscoll and Cotterill are the odd couple, the sort of pairing only usually thrust together in a sit-com, or a clichéd cop show. Cotterill the brash hot-headed detective. O’Driscoll the mild-mannered thoughtful sidekick. It seems the Forest board stumbled across a couple of old episodes of Dalziel and Pascoe and decided that was just what they needed. That a club would want O’Driscoll involved given his track record is understandable, it’s the partnership with Cotterill which is most surprising.
Cotterill is an old school tracksuit manager. He shows ‘passion’, that great virtue which supporters long for, albeit one which boils down to showing signs of mental illness on the touchline. O’Driscoll on the other hand is a thinker in casual slacks and he encourages his players to think too: ‘They can agree or disagree but if they disagree it needs to be logical. They can’t just disagree because someone in the stands or on the telly said something. But there’s no thought, people do things because they’ve always been done. If you speak to Harry Redknapp, he’ll tell you I drove him mad. I don’t know what players know, I’m gobsmacked at times by what they don’t know. They’re never asked to think. We breed players from eight years old who never ask “Why are we doing this?” or “How does this work?” — thinking players, who evolve. All our coaching philosophies here are about understanding your responsibilities. Some players fly with it, some find it difficult, some of the older ones want to be told.‘
Unfortunately modern day football managers are no longer solely judged on their ability to manage. For reasons I’ve never understood great importance is also given to the manner in which they display their self in front of a camera or microphone. Call me old fashioned but as long as a manager is proving effective at his primary role then whenever grilled by a reporter he can hum the speeches of Hitler for all I care. O’Driscoll has little time for the media spotlight; and as a result the media had little time for him. His lack of clichéd rhetoric was often derided as being negative rather than the frankness it actually conveyed. Indeed Taylor Parkes in When Saturday Comes once summed up his style in interviews as that of a man who’s ‘just been told his dog has three weeks to live’.
As Mike Whalley chronicled after a 6-0 defeat to Ipswich, O’Driscoll sat down in the press room and said to reporters ‘Go on, someone ask me a stupid question.’ The second question he faced was ‘How disappointed are you, Sean?’ ”That’s a stupid question,’ O’Driscoll replied. ‘I am this disappointed.’ He held his hands a couple of feet apart to indicate how disappointed he was, then got up and walked out. Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel subsequently accused O’Driscoll of being arrogant. Yeah, Martin Samuel. A rare case of the pot calling the kettle a pot.
When Rovers were winning O’Driscoll’s manner in interviews was viewed as pragmatism, as realistic honesty. When they started losing it became dour and negative, pessimistic even, and was eventually used as another rod with which to beat him, despite there actually being no real change in the content of his interviews. His replacement at Doncaster Dean Saunders has been lauded by the club and supporters for his enthusiasm when he talks to the media. He’s a breath of fresh air we’re told as he delivers more soundbites on the passion of supporters and the importance of youth. Whilst managers are being trumpeted for how they say things rather than what they say perhaps a behind the scenes role is a much better fit for Sean.
Prior to this week Sean O’Driscoll had spent his thirty years in the professional game at just three clubs; Fulham, Bournemouth and Doncaster. In terms of stature and expectation there can be no arguments that becoming involved at Nottingham Forest is a higher step. Forest of course have underachieved in recent seasons, something which has not been helped by a succession of managers keen to pass the buck. The Forest squad of last season was one of the strongest in the Division but Billy Davies’ constant bleating at underfunding was so persistent that ultimately it was taken as fact and created an even more divisive atmosphere at the club as the blame shifted to a board who had already stumped up more investment than most.
‘We are not or rather I am not, driven by the desire to get Doncaster Rovers promoted to the Premier League,” O’Driscoll told the Irish Daily Mail a year ago. “Too many clubs set that as a target and use that as the sole arbitrator of success. The result being poor, hasty decisions made for the wrong reasons, which in any industry is a recipe for disaster.’ When even at Rovers this realism was viewed by many as a lack of ambition – maintaining the club’s second longest second tier stint in its history seemingly not ambitious enough – then you have to wonder how Forest fans, the name of Brian Clough literally looming large over every game at the City Ground, will take to such pragmatism.
However as O’Driscoll has said: ‘To stay in this division and avoid relegation you need to do certain things. To win promotion you need to do certain things. Write a list and they’d be no different — except for money. They’d be things like organisation, attitude, discipline, so why treat it differently? But you have to articulate it: what does organisation look like to a Championship team? We think we know.’ At Rovers O’Driscoll didn’t have, or wasn’t trusted with, the money to turn a side surviving in the second tier into one pushing for the first and so he set his targets accordingly. At Forest that element is available.
Forest though have not hired a manager. They already have one, and a very prevalent one at that, bobbing around the technical area like an excitable Jim Henson creation. They’ve instead hired a first team coach who knows the game and who above all possesses an element Forest have been without for all too long; realism. ‘I was 22 before I came into the game and I’d been in work so maybe that’s why my approach is different. I wouldn’t say it’s analytical I think it’s just common sense… The average tenure of a job is less than 18 months. You’re trying to put something together which is long term and all that really matters is trying to win the next game so f**k everything else, managers just need to win the next game. Then you win the next game and you’re supposedly a better manager for it, then you win the next one after that and all of a sudden you’re going to jump ship because someone else wants you. The whole thing is cyclical.’
In my opinion there is no-one in football who deserves to be just another cog in that cyclical approach to the game less than Sean O’Driscoll. Though I remain perplexed as to how a working relationship with Steve Cotterill will unfold for him, my reaction to his appointment is one of delight. Quite simply there is no other man in the domestic game thinking like he’s thinking, and football was notably poorer for his short absence.
Glen can be followed on Twitter here.