From the archives of the dormant Garibaldi Gazette website, this extensive interview with Sean O’Driscoll last summer offers his views on coaching players, managerial styles, the limitations of England and footballing intelligence…
Twitter is funny old thing. ‘Ask and ye shall recieve’. Normally that means you tweet something and you recieve indifference, abuse, unintelligible babble and maybe the odd retweet. Sometimes though, you get a little bit more than you planned for.
Cast your minds back to a rather extraordinary Boxing Day last year by the Trent. The Al-Hasawi family were six months into their ownership of Nottingham Forest. After dispensing with Steve Cotterill (who deserves a lot of credit for helping to keep Forest an attractive product on the market) they went about chasing an ‘iconic’ manager. Rejections followed, most notably from Mick McCarthy and possibly even Harry Redknapp.
Enter Sean O’Driscoll (previously first-team coach), from stage left. At his press conference he had this to say when he was told by the media that he wasn’t quiet the iconic name the Al-Hasawi’s promised: “All the iconic names I know are dead. That would be a coup, wouldn’t it? Forest appoint a dead manager.”
I didn’t need anymore convincing that he was the perfect man for the job prior to that remark, but his unveiling further reinforced how ‘fresh’ this breath of air was for an ailing Forest. It was a far cry from, say, Steve McClaren who seemed occupied with smells emanating from the trophy room.
I couldn’t believe it. ‘They’ve finally made a forward-thinking appointment’, I thought to myself.
After keeping tabs on his work over the years at Doncaster Rovers and seeing the kinds of performances and expressive football he was able to draw out of a modest squad of players, I knew we wouldn’t get there overnight but I knew we would get there. And when we got there, it would be worth it.
Then it hit me. ‘He doesn’t have a chance in hell if some of our fans get vocal’.
It seems only at the City Ground do you get such wildly differing expectations that generally do not correlate with the previous season’s reality. Just survived relegation? Promotion next season. Surely. Even the cool-cats who were nonchalantly throwing the line ‘consolidation this season’ couldn’t be trusted. They want it all. And they want it, always. Football fans of the ‘music-video-attention-span’ generation high on sugar.
This kind of mercurial behaviour even seemed to rub off on the new owners. At first, the Al-Hasawis made calming sounds with their mouths, like yogic humming, stating they were in no immediate rush for promotion and that they wanted to build something more solid as part of a longer-term plan to get to the ‘promised land’.
Then came the rush of new signings and the expected ‘bedding in’ period. So far, so good. You could see steady progress. Like wet clay being gently shaped into something more solid. It wasn’t perfect, but that’s what progress is. It’s a messy pursuit for the brave, striving towards a defined ideal.
Then came the harsh reality. A baboon’s arse of a ‘happening’. The goalposts maddeningly ripped from the ground, culminating in the infamous and brutal Boxing Day firing of the man affectionately known as ‘SOD’.
I was ‘so gutted, like really, really gutted’, to use the parlance of our times.
We’d just beaten Leeds United 4-2 in an adventurous manner that evoked fond memories of past O’Driscoll excursions to the City Ground with his Doncaster side that used to play Forest off the park. Even fans who were hitherto unconvinced that he was the right man to lead the Reds were enthused after the Leeds game and the support for the ‘process’ was palpable at the final whistle.
But just as it felt like people were ready to trust the manager and to buy into a vision still in its infancy – the man with an itchy trigger-finger couldn’t take it anymore. A single shot was fired.
The Al-Hasawis wanted something else. They wanted… well, they didn’t know what they wanted so they fawningly asked Sir Alex Ferguson what he thought that they wanted.
The rest is history, and I don’t care for it much. But I’ve never quite dealt with the sacking of O’Driscoll. By dealing with it, I mean doing this. Writing about it. I know it’s not as if I was dealing with the fall of man or anything, but it’s football. And football is stupid. Brilliantly stupid.
This is where Twitter comes into it. After tweeting my disappointment about Sean’s sacking, I ended up in a dialogue with his daughter Haylie. After a back and forth, I asked Haylie if Sean would be interested in doing an interview for my newly created blog. I was pleasantly surprised (knowing of his aversion to interviews) when the answer was yes.
Had it not been for the swiftness of his return to football with Bristol City, this would have been out there a mere three weeks after the Boxing Day incident, but football. Bloody hell. As it is, he took a moment away from his busy pre-season preparations at Ashton Gate to very kindly share his thoughts.
How do you interview someone who has become a bit of a hero to you? An innovative, roguish rebel who is putting the football world to rights and ’sticking it to the man’. Well, I tried my best to get him talking about Forest and football in general and, as expected, he didn’t disappoint. Enjoy.
1. How do you reflect on your time at Nottingham Forest? Any regrets? Would you have done anything differently?
You always have to learn from experience but we had to hit the ground running with three weeks to prepare a team to be able to compete in the Championship and we were experimenting with systems, personnel and combinations as we were trying to also win games. I’d never regret taking the job; it was a massive honour to manage Nottingham Forest and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. But if we knew what became apparent pretty quickly, ie that the owners had changed their focus on what they wanted from the season, we wouldn’t have gone down the route we did. We were trying to put firm foundations in place at a club which would have been close to going into administration again had the Al-Hasawi family not bought it. But it is a very delicate balancing act trying to build a club from the foundations up while the spectre of promotion pressure is also looming overhead. We were doing ok. We were a point off the play-offs without having hit top gear yet and we knew what we needed to do in January. I genuinely believed we would reach the play-offs last season but it wasn’t enough. The owners wanted to take the club in a different direction and that’s football, you move on.
2. Forest are often accused of being a club that trades on former glories. Do you feel the history of the club is hindering its future in some ways?
I tried to embrace the history of the club by inviting former players to the training ground to come and see what was going on and what we were trying to do because you cannot escape the history of the place. Does it hinder? It sets an expectation that sometimes is difficult to realise and you have to try to help people understand where the club actually is and the progress it’s trying to make. But you would much rather have that than something that felt disposable, meaningless and soulless. When the crowd sings Mull of Kintyre at kick-off time it’s fantastic.
3. You spoke of the need to instil a clear culture at Forest – to define the vague concept of the ‘Forest Way’. What were some of the ideas you were looking to put into place and are they similar to what you are trying to cultivate at Bristol City now?
The culture at every club is important, it is its heartbeat and defines what it is. Both clubs have tradition and history but tradition is not culture. We were trying to bring the club together, make the non-playing staff part of the process, to engage the squad more in the local community. to bring the U21s and youth team into the first team environment, all the things I think are important and would try to do at whatever football club I was managing at. We also wanted to develop an identifiable style of play to be synonymous with Forest from top to bottom. This is exactly what we are trying to do at Bristol City. Although the circumstances both clubs were in when I came in were very different the principals are the same.
4. You were rather unfairly challenged by some Forest supporters for being ‘reactive’ in your tactical approach to games – but isn’t that how everyone prepares gameplans and tactical approaches as they are relative?
If things aren’t going well you react to it, if things are going right, you react to it. Surely being able to recognise what is actually happening in a game and doing something about it is a positive trait? Tactically we never changed from game to game, we may have used different structures and approaches to games but the underlying tactics were always the same. One of the biggest eye openers for me was the expectation of supporters to see a 4-4-2 formation week in, week out. Even when I have utilised this formation in the past its always been in a fluid system. You can’t ever win. If you set your team up to counter an opposition threat and you win you’re a genius and if you lose well you worried too much about the opposition. That’s not being reactive, that’s trying to prepare the team as best as possible for what they may face in the game.
5. What kind of relationship do you look for with the owners of a club? How present or available do you expect them to be?
You need a shared vision for the way you want the football club to be run, the principals you want it to run by and what you want the club to be known for. The owners don’t have to be there all the time for that but the communication has to be clear. The lines got blurred pretty quickly at Forest as the goalposts moved. That is absolutely the owners’ prerogative and that’s football. But the only way a club is ever going to achieve success is if the manager and owners share the same vision for what they want for their club in the long-term.
6. Do you feel fans expectations of ‘the manager’ have shifted as a result of the well-documented behaviour of people like Jose Mourinho and Paulo Di Canio? Do fans wrongly place importance on a display of touchline passion and gesticulation as opposed to say a calm, discerning head?
You would hope that as many people who want to see jumping up and down on the touchline would also appreciate that public histrionics don’t make you do your job any better. When I’m on the touchline is probably when I’m at my calmest strangely; I rarely feel emotion, I’m just completely engaged in what is happening on the pitch. I have to remain as neutral as possible during a game, I’ve always been like that. Sometimes people have said to me after a game didn’t I hear the crowd ask me to give them a wave and things like that but I genuinely don’t! I’m not doing it to be rude, it’s just not on my radar at that time. If you’re winning every game no one cares about what you do on the touchline, if you’re losing everything’s a problem not just your touchline demeanour.
7. Managers can be the most harshly treated public components of a club. Players get away with indifferent form and can often be the cause of a manager losing his job. Do you feel players, as a whole, need to be encouraged to take more responsibility and accountability? How do you actually do that?
Definitely. The coaching culture in this country from the youngest age is ‘tell, tell, tell, tell, do this, do that, do this’. But that’s not the players’ fault, that’s the coaching structure and the coaches. And you can’t blame managers for not wanting to give players any free reign in making decisions on the pitch because we’re in a results industry and the manager’s neck is on the line constantly, Can managers afford for players to make mistakes through learning or is it easier to tell them what you want them to do and let the player suffer the consequences if they don’t, not you. The only way you can ever get a player to accept responsibility on the pitch is for him to really understand what’s being asked of him and the only way he will ever understand is if he takes responsibility for trying to understand and encouraging it in his teammates. It’s a vicious circle and if we ever can get over this being a alien concept in British football the game will be in a much healthier state for it.
8. You appear to be quite a brutal realist in your understanding of the ‘goldfish bowl’ lifestyle of a manager and the fickle ups and downs – what keeps you motivated in such a cynical business?
Developing players and seeing players fulfil their potential and go on to bigger and better things. It’s not always the players with the most obvious ability, it’s the ones you have had to coax, encourage and help find their niche that I personally get the most satisfaction from. Can I make a talented individual a more rounded team player, or can I help a player recognise what his real assets are compared to what they think they are to make him a mainstay in the team. That’s maybe more coaching than managing but that’s why when I came to Bristol City I insisted on the Head Coach title as I think more and more clubs will go down the continental route of having Directors of Football working with Head Coaches, and if you’ve got the right relationship between the two I think it is the right way for clubs to run. The circus that goes on around football I can’t control but it doesn’t mean I have to play the game if I don’t want to. You have to be canny about what’s right for you.
9. How do you deal with the uncertainty of your work situation and being away from your family?
As a player you could have to move at any time, and I suppose management has just become more like that in recent years. You can’t worry about the uncertainty or you become governed by the fear to do anything.
10. Would you agree that the role of the dictator-style football manager has somewhat declined in importance over the last decade?
Managers are still called ‘Gaffer’ and ‘Boss’ by players and staff but in what other industry does that happen? I’ve never understood it, it’s almost like using your first name is being disrespectful. It’s crazy! I’ve seen some horrendous decisions made in football clubs and they’ve typically been explained away as ‘Oh that’s what the manager wanted’ as if the club has no responsibility at all. If a club wants its manager to have total control as that’s the way its decided to run itself then fine as long as everybody understands that. The precarious nature of the job means managers feel the need to be in control of every aspect, but in no other sport would you find one individual holding so much power and influence over so many people. Sir Alex Ferguson was arguably a dictator-style manager but he was outstanding at getting the best people around him and trusting them to do their jobs while he oversaw everything. Being a manager of a football club is an awesome responsibility as what you do impacts on so many thousands of people that you will never meet in your life. Ninety minutes shapes your whole week and your life that week.
11. You’ve drafted in former Forest scout Keith Burt to work alongside you – are you happy to delegate responsibility? Do you feel the ‘Head Coach/Director of Football’ combination is a recipe for success?
I think it’s more and more the way clubs are going to go. I’m not saying it will work in every club but managing up in a football club, with someone acting as a liaison between the playing side and the board can be extremely useful. The responsibilities of, and demands, on a manager day-to-day have escalated massively in the 13 years I’ve been a manager. Your phone literally never stops ringing from 6am to midnight with agents, media and all the other stuff you have to look after at a club. If you trust someone to act on your behalf in the boardroom, and vice versa, then it takes a huge part of the job off your plate day-to-day. One of the biggest mistakes clubs make is appointing Directors of Football who have no relationship with the manager so it takes a while to build trust, if either party is able to relinquish enough ground to make that relationship work at all. But a Director of Football should have a massive say in the manager the club appoints based on the way the club wants to run and the qualities they want in a manager. A manager does still need to have a relationship with the owner and board but I’ve found our Director of Football/Head Coach relationship invaluable so far.
12. How do you, personally, learn and progress as a coach? Do you feel the job allows you any kind of creative expression and experimentation in the face of perpetual expectation?
Bizarrely that sense of perpetual expectation actually gives you a freedom to do what you want because, the way football is now, the likelihood is you’re going to lose your job at some point so you might as well lose your job having done things the way you think were right and achieved recognition for it in the process. For everyone who says Forest treated me poorly personally there can’t be too many better times to lose your job than off the back of a 4-2 win, an excellent performance and leaving the team a point off the play-offs! I’ve always been interested in what makes successful people continually successful, whether that’s sports teams, businesses, individuals anything. The one trait they all have is they put their faith in the processes knowing if they tick all those boxes they more often than not get the outcome they want. If they don’t get the outcome they have a reference point to understand why they didn’t perform or they were beaten and learn from it to improve. It’s not what football fans want to hear half the time but for me it’s the only way that makes sense.
13. In your experience, do coaches in this country do enough to broaden their own horizons? For example, do they embrace sports science and technology enough?
There’s always a balance with sports science and technology; football’s played on grass with 22 players not in a lab. I’ve always been interested in all the elements of performance both physical and mental but you have to apply it properly. I have people come to me and say ‘Look at this stat, or look at that stat’ and my first response is always ‘But what does that actually mean?’ So what if someone runs 5k in a game? That stat alone means nothing. If my centre-forward, who’s been tasked with closing down defenders and stopping them playing, runs 5k it suggests he’s done the job he’s been asked to do, but if my centre half is running 5k I would ask ‘Why??’ There’s too much credence given to basic human effort in football in this country, that running 10k in a game is a badge of honour and reflects commitment in some way. But I’d rather a player ran 7k but used every metre more effectively than come out with 10k pitch coverage stats. There are so, so many things like that. Psychology is still sneered at in this country, and seen as a weakness or an emotional crutch, but all the top Olympic sports swear by mental training. The work Dr Steve Peters has done with British Cycling has been universally applauded yet in football any intervention like that is still greeted with cynicism. Players have to be convinced it works because it’s alien to them. It makes no sense.
14. You’ve spoken of your admiration of innovative managers like Roberto Martinez in the past. Do you sneak a grin when you see tactically adventurous smaller teams, like his former Wigan side, pull off an upset against bigger teams?
Not really but it just goes back to the point of preparing properly. Man for man a Wigan shouldn’t be able to beat a Man City but if you can spot where you can capitalise on their weaknesses and then make the most of your strengths you’ve got half a chance. Lose and you get accused of worrying too much about the opposition, win and you’re a tactical genius. Sometimes you just need players to be brave and, as easy as it sounds to the man in the stands, having the bollocks to take a risk on a football pitch is one of the hardest things you can ask them to do. Playing safe maybe the easy option as it stops the onus being on them if they make a mistake but how many ‘safe’ teams have won trophies over the years? The way Spain and Barcelona play requires bravery, the way Bayern Munich play requires bravery, the way Swansea and Bournemouth play requires bravery, it’s just a different kind of bravery to what we typically view as bravery in this country.
15. Managers have often called for the implementation of a transfer window of their own, allowing changes to be made at certain points of the season. Invariably, changes are often made either in the summer or just before January – could you ever see that idea working?
Sometimes managers’ jobs are untenable; football clubs have to blame somebody and that will never change. Sometimes, obviously the manager is culpable for the failings of a team or squad but how many decisions are made purely in terms of results, rather than the context of a club’s overall objectives for a season? I can see a time when you can only change managers at certain time during the season but that won’t stop clubs trying to get shot of managers outside that period, by putting them on gardening leave and other similar tactics. If that day ever comes the LMA legal department would probably have to double its number of lawyers!
16. Has international management ever crossed your thoughts or would you implode with boredom?
I don’t understand what international managers do for 10 months of the year. You see them at a lot of games at the weekends but then what? You never say never, and I wish that more English coaches from the Football League were considered for key roles in the international set-up because sometimes you get the feeling they are just appointing safely rather than acknowledging some of the coaching innovation that is actually going on below the Premier League. But I enjoy being on the training pitch with players day after day and feeling like you’re making a tangible difference to their own individual improvement and the improvement of a team.
17. How far are England from being anywhere near a major footballing final? Do you keep tabs on the international scene?
Watching the England football team frustrates the hell out of me. Sometimes the fear in the players is palpable, they desperately don’t want to be the one to make the mistake that then leads to them having the wrath of the media and nation rain on them. That’s why Rooney was such a breath of fresh air when he first broke through, and Wilshere more recently; because they played without fear, they were prepared to take responsibility on the pitch and if they made a mistake they didn’t let it cripple them. But that can get beaten out of a player. England players rarely look like they’re enjoying playing for their country, which is sad. The individuals we have had in this generation of players – Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Terry, Cole, Ferdinand – are unbelievably talented yet they have never succeeded as a group. Why? Because they are asked to play week in, week out one way for their clubs and then go off to England and are asked to play in a totally different way because the nation demands it. Is it any wonder we don’t succeed?
Spain and Barcelona could be the same team, Bayern Munich and Germany too. The successful international teams play in a way that is common in their domestic leagues, but we don’t. We can’t expect players who play like English players in the Premier League to suddenly play like Barcelona when they play for England, the whole idea is absurd. Yet that’s the criticism they have levelled at them all the time, that we’re not as technically good as other countries. We’re not but that goes back to coaching development at the youngest ages again. We want to win the World Cup then scrap relegation to and from the Premier League because teams will start trusting and blooding English players. Give international players central contracts too like England cricket and rugby have so that they can spend more time as part of the international set-up. We want to win the World Cup then let’s actually do something about it but we don’t really because the implications of the changes we would have to make would be unpalatable to our domestic game. We want our cake and to eat it. It’s unrealistic. But should we still have done better in recent tournaments? Probably.
18. What is ‘footballing intelligence’ to you? Is intelligence valued in this country or do we still rely on physicality in players?
Football intelligence is worryingly rare in this country and that stems from the coaching players have had at the youngest age where they are just told what to do, and don’t have to make decisions for themselves. Football intelligence only comes from a player understanding the game that is actually going on around him, not the game he wants to play in his head. But how do you ever develop that if you are just doing what you’re told, not thinking about it. Players with good football intelligence also tend to be good leaders on the pitch as they get what’s actually going on and is needed at any moment in a game. Of course there is a place for physicality, but there is also the tendency that if Plan A isn’t working let’s throw on the big man and see what chaos he can cause. When you’re neck is constantly on the line, as it is with managers in this country, the brave thing to do isn’t always the easiest and we wonder why it’s so hard for players to then show bravery?
19. Finally, you come from a family of Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters – would managing them one day be a dream come true or would it be too close to the bone?
You’d have to ask the family that! My nine-year-old nephew, especially, is the world expert on what Wolves should or shouldn’t be doing so it would certainly be unforgiving in that respect! I’ve only ever been at clubs where I thought I was a good fit, and I’d never change my criteria for deciding whether a job was right for me. Bristol City is a very good fit for me currently. For all the challenges that come with a rebuilding project, and that is what we’re undertaking here, the rewards are greater when you see the work you’re doing with the team, with individuals and with the club as a whole bearing fruit. Football being football some people want to see the results of that work yesterday, but progress is being made and we’re excited about the potential of what the club could achieve if we keep heading in this direction.
Follow the Garibaldi Gazette on Twitter: Follow @TheGaribaldiG