SOD's law: can Sean O'Driscoll make the step up?
Concern over whether second-tier clubs can hang onto their star players can, at least, be temporarily suspended once the summer transfer window slams shut. Managers, on the other hand, can be prised away at any time of year.
And while the Premier League usually has the courtesy of actually getting started with the odd game or two before belching up a managerial vacancy for half of the Championship to fret about, this season there is already a position waiting to be filled.
When Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa this week, he did not create as much panic among chairmen up and down the country as might normally be expected. There are few managers in the Football League who tick even the majority of the boxes for the role at Villa Park, let alone all of them.
Nevertheless, there were still a few bosses that were mentioned in dispatches and, even if Randy Lerner is not interested, someone else might soon decide to approach their club to discuss a lucrative, challenging switch to the top flight.
One of the names that came up was that of Doncaster Rovers manager Sean O’Driscoll. Here, Doncaster fans Stuart Chadwick, Henri Southern and Jonathan Claire – along with Chris Lines, a supporter of O’Driscoll’s previous club Bournemouth and the man behind the excellent Narrow The Angle blog – give an insight into the man’s methods and ponder whether he could make the move to the Premier League.
What sort of state was your club in before O’Driscoll arrived and how have things improved since he took over?
Stuart (Doncaster): Not too bad in as much as we were an established League One team after promotions from Conference and League Two (aka Fourth Division) in successive seasons. However, we were still at our Belle Vue ground with the new Keepmoat being built.
Our then manager, Dave Penney, had done well but I think we’d reached our limit under him and his style of play. Off the field, our training facilities were distinctly average – we were an established 3rd tier team with Conference infrastructure.
Sean brought his team in and both on and off the field has improved immeasurably. We are a community club and players comment on the friendliness that they experience.
Henri (Doncaster): Our chairman is not the typical trigger-happy, knee-jerk decision maker but he decided a change was needed. Penney left “by mutual consent”, cueing much speculation of big-name replacements in the media, with names such as Kevin Keegan being touted for the post.
Needless to say, there was a definite underwhelmed feeling amongst fans when Sean “Who?” O’Driscoll emerged from the smokescreen as our new boss. The indifferent feeling continued a few months into his reign due to unimpressive results. Winning the JPT was a positive end to his first season in charge.
The next season, we made some good signings such as Richie Wellens in pre-season and were touted alongside Leeds United as favourites to win promotion. Continuing the trend of starting slowly, we were around mid-table at Christmas, before a late surge, eventually beating Leeds at Wembley to win promotion via the playoffs.
Since then, against all odds, Sean has established Doncaster as a steady Championship side with an outside chance of a playoff finish.
In addition to this, much has improved off the pitch since he took over in 2007. When O’Driscoll took over, he demanded that small details such as training facilities were improved greatly before spending any money on playing staff. I feel that the club will be well placed when he inevitably leaves, due to the long-term structures now in place.
Jonathan (Doncaster): The club was in League One but seemed to lack the right manager to back up the chairman’s claims of ‘Championship football within ten years’ and, despite some decent cup runs, the club needed someone to take it up a level.
Chris (Bournemouth): O’Driscoll had a hard act to follow in taking up the reigns after the largely popular Mel Machin. He kept the passing ethos going and we enjoyed several seasons playing “some of the best passing football outside of the Premier League”.
When he made the step up to Doncaster, he left with our best wishes. When we did get relegated under him, he brought us straight back up.
What style of play does he encourage and what formation does he play?
Stuart: Fast flowing pass and move. Players are comfortable in possession. Formations don’t really come into it. Sean has structures and players take responsibility for their actions.
They are encouraged to ‘think’ and not just play to some rigid formula. The midfielders and strikers inter-change and all players work hard to cover for each other. Think ‘total football’ – it’s an absolute joy to watch.
Henri: As Doncaster are now renowned for an easy-on-the-eye, passing approach, it’s easy to see O’Driscoll’s approach as idealistic and flamboyant. This is not the case. At heart, Sean O’Driscoll is a pragmatist, in the long-term results business.
It happens to be that the style he sees as likely to provide the ideal results matches the style that most fans like to see. Intelligent & patient are two words to sum up the O’Driscoll style of play.
Jonathan: With a distinct lack of firepower pre-Billy Sharp, 4-4-1-1 with James Coppinger behind a striker saw a decent finish in 2008/09 and with Sharp last year. 4-4-2 could be called upon this season.
Chris: Extremely easy on the eye, passing football. He’s not called the Wenger of the lower leagues for nothing.
What are his strengths and best result/performance yet?
Stuart: He gets a team to play football. It’s on the ground, never hoofed. “Best results” is a tough one – clearly being promoted to the Championship by beating Leeds at Wembley was a notable win but it was far from being our best performance.
For that, league games against QPR (check out Youtube) and the game at Ashton Gate last season when we beat Bristol City 5-2 spring to mind, but also beating Leeds at Elland Road.
Sean’s own strengths are his level-headed, unflappable approach. He talks sense and is honest. He also expects high standards but recognises when people take responsibility – even if they fail, taking ownership is key to him.
Henri: Sean’s strengths lie in his man-management. He’s quiet and seemingly uncharismatic, but he has the midas touch, as supported by the many success stories such as Brian Stock, Billy Sharp, John Oster, et al.
He’s also tactically very effective and versatile, deploying almost every modern formation in his time at Doncaster.
In terms of best performance, the 5-1 League One playoff semi-final win over Southend was the best display of attacking football you’ll ever see at that level. Outstanding, really, considering the pressure situation we were in.
Jonathan: The strengths of an O’Driscoll side would include the art of defending a tight lead. Donny have become 1-0 experts, because the manager knows how to grind out three points.
The 4-2 Boxing Day win at Nottingham Forest a couple of seasons ago was great! That marked the start of a good run of results that ultimately kept us in the Championship.
Chris: Very calm, patient, measured. Even though he might not turn teams into world beaters, they are always lovely to watch and that is important to most fans.
Sean also has a keen eye for a decent loan signing (Jermain Defoe, for example). And scoring five goals in the League Two playoff final at Wembley was special.
What are his weaknesses and his poorest result/performance yet?
Stuart: He’s known for not being a lover of the media and, in the early days, this combined with his honesty to cause consternation to Rovers fans when he said the (local derby) game at Scunthorpe was not special. His whole approach was questioned.
It came at a time when people were wondering whether he was the right man – i.e. the first 12-18 months. Sean’s approach takes time to implement and, during that time, we saw some awful stuff.
One of the worst performances? I have already mentioned that Scunny game but Barnsley two seasons ago (October 2008), 1-0 up against ten men and we lost 4-1 after a total capitulation.
Henri: One thing that frustrates me about O’Driscoll is his substitutions. He never seems to get it right, invariably leaving it too late, ensuring “impact” players have little time to make any impact at all.
In terms of poor performances, I’d just group the dismal early months of his reign and point to that. It was a steep learning curve, training the archetypal physical, direct British lower league journeyman to focus on ball retention and intelligent movement, and there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Sean O’Driscoll was nicknamed Sideways Or Dropped, and many wanted him sacked. However, there certainly was light at the end of the tunnel, and we are reaping the benefits of that now.
A forewarning to whichever club takes Sean from us: you must be patient. It will be terrible at first, but if you stick with him it will turn out good. I promise.
Jonathan: Because of the style of football employed, a lot of players don’t suit the club and the squad looks very thin going into this season. Some important games were thrown away last season when Rovers had the potential to aim for the play-off places.
Chris: Occasionally could be more vocal, but it’s not an achilles heel really. He did take us down once, but the fans never turned on him.
Has he changed anyone’s position successfully or improved any previously poor players?
Stuart: Sean (and his backroom team) produce a team where the full team is better than the sum of its parts. We don’t have a team of stars and Billy Sharp’s purchase for £1.15million smashed our previous record of £300,000.
His first signing when taking over was Brian Stock on loan – he took him from Preston where he wasn’t quite making it. He’s now our captain, a Welsh international and the lynchpin of our midfield.
But other players that spring to mind are Matt Mills and Jason Shackell. Mills was bought for about £300,000 and sold for £2million. Shackell was going nowhere at Wolves and came to us on loan.
And do I need to highlight Billy Sharp? Languishing in the reserves at Sheff Utd, he’s now our player and I’m sure will be banging them in again this season.
Changing position – he put Jimmy O’Connor at centre-back from right-back when we had injuries and he is now recognised as being able to play across the back four – previously, he was only seen as a right-back.
Henri: Pretty much our whole squad. Stock would be a key name, but there are plenty of others too.
Billy Sharp couldn’t hit the proverbial cow’s rear-end at Sheffield United, but a loan spell at Doncaster transformed him into one of the division’s best strikers.
John Oster was an unremarkable, ageing journeyman winger: a free transfer to Doncaster and a season later and he’s a creative force in a midfield playmaker position. The list goes on. And on. And on. You get the idea.
Jonathan: O’Driscoll turned Matt Mills into a million-pound player. It was not particularly that the players were poor before but the system at Donny has definitely seen certain players excel. John Oster’s career has had a renaissance at the Keepmoat.
Chris: Not massively during his years at Bournemouth. Nobody leaps to mind really. He did quite a lot for Garreth O’Connor’s career after he came over from Ireland, bit O’Connor’s career stalled once he joined Burnley. Sadly, he’s back in the League of Ireland now.
Do you think he could hack it in the Premiership and do you think you can get promoted with him in charge?
Stuart: As a coach, able to spot talent, take it, develop it, produce a team and play beautiful football, of course he could. However, he’d need 18 months to create it and Premiership chairmen don’t give you that long. There would be a risk of relegation while he implements things and in today’s ‘instant results’ world, he’d be sacked.
Also, his approach to the media would turn them against him and I think they’d hound him out. It’s much better he stays with the Rovers and takes us up – with the backing of the board and the fans, I believe he IS the man to take us there.
Henri: Firstly, I have no doubt that we could make it to the Premiership with O’Driscoll in charge. However, it’s a matter of time before a nice mid-table Premiership club take him away. I’m dreading that day.
Could he hack it in the Premiership? Yes, without a doubt, but it requires patience. He’s not the type of manager to ruffle a few feathers and offer the quick turnaround that the chairman invariably demands, and I fear he’d get the sack within months, before his long-term plans bare any fruit.
All the best to him, though, when he eventually leaves. It’s just a matter of time now, unfortunately…
Jonathan: Doncaster have every chance of being promoted, especially this season. There’s a great vibe at the club since Sharp signed and O’Driscoll knows this division well enough to get the current squad promoted.
To survive at the top would be hard, but if the right players were available the winning system is in place.
Chris: It would have to be with the right club. The pressure at Villa would be a lot for him, he’s quite a quiet man who doesn’t court controversy or attention.
He’d be more suited to a Wigan, Fulham or Bolton. Doncaster have an outside chance of promotion, but I think they’re more likely to finish between 9th and 14th.
Many thanks to Stuart, Henri, Jonathan and Chris for their time and input. Please look Stuart, Henri and Jonathan up on Twitter for further insight into how O’Driscoll’s Doncaster side progresses this season, while Chris’s Narrow The Angle blog is certainly well worth a regular read.