the goalfood interview: sean o'driscoll - the quiet man

Roberto Martinez and his former Swansea team received plaudits in their debut Championship season and won many friends with their fluent style of play. Young, glamorous and not averse to a bit of Sky Sports punditry, Roberto was courted by none other than Celtic before rolling up in the Prem with Wigan. But deep in the heart of South Yorkshire fellow League One promotees were also playing their way out of trouble. Doncaster Rovers completed three promotions in six years to arrive at the Championship in 08/09 with the latter part of that pleasing on the eye success achieved by their current manager. But have you ever heard of Sean Michael O’Driscoll?

O’Driscoll achieved Rovers’ highest league finish in 50 years despite the club being anchored to the bottom of the Championship at Christmas, actually finishing much more strongly than the faltering Swans. In contrast to Martinez, he’s a quiet and unassuming man who steers well clear of the media spotlight. A player for 16 years and a Republic of Ireland international, O’Driscoll was given the ironic nickname of ‘Noisy’ while he played at Fulham. Softly spoken he may be but he has clear and firm views on football, the media, coaching, management, professionalism . . . and t-shirts. Goalfood’s Simon Harvey and Nick Gordon Brown spent the summer lull reflecting on a job well done with Goalfood customer and Donny manager Sean O’Driscoll at the club’s training ground at Bessacarr.

He’s the first person we meet at the training ground and he’s emptying the rubbish bins in a classic everyone-gets-their-hands-dirty-in-a-small-club kind of way. As we begin the interview he has only one request:
Don’t ask me stupid questions. You know what I mean. You come off and you’ve lost 3-0 and they ask how does it feel or ‘are you going to get relegated?’ What am I supposed to answer?

His disdain of the clichéd football manager, their media personas and clichéd responses will be a recurrent theme as we talk. Here is a man who simply wants to get on with the job and stay well clear of the politics.
To be honest, if you stay away from the media it’s possibly the best thing you can do because if you read everything that people write about you, one minute you’re this and the next you’re something else completely different. I’ve been here two and half seasons and I ain’t read a local newspaper yet.

Do you actually do many interviews?
I just do the local ones, one on a Wednesday and the others on Thursday like all the local managers and I leave all the other requests alone.

The club’s lack of a media protocol, with requests being fielded by the chairman, is perhaps typical of an organisation which has recently tasted life outside the Football League.
The club was in the Conference four years ago and suddenly you need to build the infrastructure as the team grows. In the past it’s just been team, team, team and you’ve got to go along with that because that’s the most important thing, but you’ve got to bring other things along with it or the whole structure will fall to bits.

Has that learning curve been a central part of the club’s Championship season?
No, not really. But you walk through the door thinking this is an ambitious club with a lot of potential from where I was at Bournemouth and then you actually come into the club, and I mean no disrespect to anyone here, but you think ‘they haven’t got that in place’ or ‘you’d normally have this in place’. I had a perception of what would already be established but it wasn’t to be. Bournemouth had nothing, but our protocols and our strategies were better than a club like this which has more financial clout. If you have money, the way you do things is important. Here, they’ve got away with just saying we could have this player or that. But now because they’ve come to a point where that’s no longer the case because they’re in a league where they can no longer compete, that’s when you have to fall back on your strategies. So we’ve been scrambling to get those together and those are the sort of things that people don’t see. People might not be interested in those things but if you’re going to maintain or stabilise the club and put firm foundations in place then these things are imperative.

Have you played a part in that process last season?
We started it. We came in and did a SWOT analysis on the club which opened a few eyes because I think they thought we were going to say ‘hunky dory’ but instead we said mmmmm – hang on . . . unbalanced squad . . . no strategy for the future . . .

I have a quote I use when people ask me about the future here. I say the chairman wants to win the European Cup in the next five years. It’s tongue-in-cheek but if you were going to win the European Cup in the next five years what are the things you’d need to do – you need to get promoted from League One, then the Championship, then finish in the top four – it may sound silly but that’s what you’ve got to achieve, certain things have to be in place. So I’ve just said if that’s what we’re going to do then what’s our scouting system? Perhaps we’d better start one because we need to attract better players and when we’ve done that we need to have better facilities otherwise players’ll think it’s a tip.

I’d like to level this building and build a new, swanky, £20 million, all-singing, all-dancing facility. We’re not going to do it so we’d better think about improving things. We’ve improved the changing rooms and the relaxation area, we brought a flat screen in and a table tennis table and new chairs in the lounge area. If you’re going to win European Cups this is where it starts.

Wouldn’t most fans think these sorts of things are already in place in Premiership/Championship clubs?
I don’t know. I think fans going to football matches supporting their teams is commonsense but I go to millions of games where people sit there and don’t support their team, they just moan and groan. Why do they bother going if all they’re doing is moaning at their team? I can’t see how that helps.

Do you think that’s a more modern phenomenon because fans’ expectations are raised and they want success quicker?
I just think it’s indicative of football generally. Football is exciting and popular, everybody can have an opinion and no-one’s wrong. You can play Championship Manager on your X-box and win the league and think ‘I’m good at this’. Everybody thinks they can do it better than everyone else.

So has this season has been a learning curve on and off the pitch?
When we came in their byword was Destination Championship but there was nothing underpinning it, no strategy as to how it was going to be achieved, just a strapline. All it did was to put the backs up of every other club in the division thinking we were the big-time charlies. It set us up to fail so we tried to get away from that. Everything now is about performance. We’ve taken away winning and losing and we talk about the performance levels that we need to achieve.
We wanted to get away from looking at whether or not we’d won or lost a game 5-0 to looking at our performance.

Football rhetoric gets up my nose. People say ‘I don’t care how we do it, I just want to win’. That’s fine, I’ll take 46 games winning 1-0 and playing crap but tell me how you do it. I can’t remember any games this season where we’ve played badly and won 1-0. We want to play well and I’d rather we win but if we’re going to lose I’d rather we play well doing it.

So on a Monday morning you can take positives from the performance?
Well, you can’t put your head in the sand, you have to be realistic about it and say you’ve done well on these things but not so well on these. You ask yourself why you played well and lost 1-0 and it might be that you switched off at a set play. Every team switches off at set plays, it’s not just a Championship phenomenon but there are better players with better delivery so they take advantage more and that’s the difference. So I tell our players that no-one can concentrate for 90 minutes but you’ve got to realise that giving the ball away in the last third of the pitch will lead to goals. When the ball goes out in that area never mind who should be in what position, we have to get the reaction first then the other things will fall into place. Nothing will matter if the players don’t realise the importance of that situation.

What you don’t want is a situation where you’re telling the players something and they’re thinking ‘this is just one manager telling me this and when someone else comes in he’ll tell me something different’. I tell them every game they ever play will have a structure to it, whether you play QPR, Sheffield United or Real Madrid, the game will have a structure and things won’t change. You can alter it but only in the way you want to.

Nine times out of 10, apart from us and Swansea, most Championship teams play the same way. The personnel will be different but the structure will be the same. At the start of each game you know the goalkeeper will kick the ball an average of 35 times so that’s 70 times the goalkeepers will kick the ball. Now you have choice of whether your keeper throws out, kicks or drops the ball. But if you think that the ball is only in play for 60 minutes out of every 90-minute game that’s a massive chunk of the game you can’t control and so you have to be in certain positions when the keepers are distributing the ball. Where you are in relation to what you want to do with the ball and what your opposition wants to do is at these times, is massive and it’s got nothing to do with football.

I don’t have to be a football expert to know that if he’s going to kick the ball into this area of the pitch and we want to win it, then it’s a logistical problem. How many people do we want to put in that position to gain possession and when we do get possession we can play the way we want to play. If we don’t then there’s certain things we need to do. These are the boring bits of coaching but they’re fundamental.

Do you find your players react to that?
Well I was a player for 15 years, I’ve done all my coaching badges, pro-licences and all that sort of thing and I’ve picked up bits from elsewhere but I’ve found that no-one these days asks ‘why we do it that way?’  All the sports that are innovative and forward thinking, like British cycling, have had people who have asked why do we do this and why do we train that way. When I was a player I used to lose on a Saturday and on Sunday morning I’d be running up and down hills and I’d think why am I doing this?

So is yours a more analytical approach to the game?
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.

It is commonsense but is it also common in football and do you think you’re in a minority in thinking this way?
Yes because the way football is run there’s no point really. 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.

I did the Warwick Business Course for football managers and we did a lot of essays and reports and one day I took the Sunday papers and cut out every sports headline, 85% of which were negative. It might have been Man Utd beating Spurs 6-0 but it wasn’t about how great Man Utd were, it was about how crap Spurs were. So you’re in an industry which pounds you with negativity all the time. You’re not going to change that but you can distance yourself from it. Radio Sheffield have their Praise or Grumble show but it should be renamed Moan and Groan because I just don’t know where the praise is.

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