In March 2019, popular STAND fanzine was lucky enough to secure something of an exclusive as former Doncaster Rovers manager Sean O’Driscoll agreed to sit down with editor Glen Wilson and discuss his tenure at Rovers for the first time since it’s unfortunate end. That interview was first published in issue 99 of the print fanzine, and we’re happy to now bring it to you here, online.
“I’m not great in interviews you know,” says Sean O’Driscoll, with typical humility, as we sit down. And that may be true when it comes to the repetitive, predictable world of pre and post match media. Sean has never been a man for a soundbite, after all. But let him talk, let him run with his ideas, and it’s impossible not to be riveted by his passion for coaching, and his natural want to ask questions of, and overturn, football’s long-held conventions.
Now, Head of Coaching and Learning at Portsmouth (a role he thought he may’ve talked himself out of when the interview ended with “well, that was certainly thought-provoking”), Sean’s impressive coaching career includes stints with Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and England as well as his successes with Rovers. Not bad for someone who only began playing organised football at 18, a man who’d never entertained thoughts of becoming a professional player.
“No, it came as a bit of a shock I suppose as I ended up playing at quite a good standard without knowing it was quite a good standard. Just playing because I liked playing rather than having any thoughts about trying to make it a career.”
“I was stuck in an accounts department at an engineering firm wondering what am I doing here? So, that I had a chance to change course and join Fulham was a no-brainer for me. But I’d never been to London before, and I never understood clubs would pay money for you, and then you could negotiate your wages. So I ended up joining Fulham for less money than I was on working and playing non-league. Still, it was a surprise to the people I worked with, they never even knew I played football.”
Sean spent five years at Fulham, helping the club to promotion back to the Second Division in 1982, before manager Ray Hartford made it clear he was no longer part of his plans.
Joining Fulham came as a surprise to my colleagues, they didn’t even know I played football
“I went on loan to Bournemouth, and the fans there got a petition to sign me, and that was the start of twenty-three years, in which, I did every job there is to do at a football club”. That’s no exaggeration, such was the challenge presented by one of football’s most cash-strapped clubs that as well as playing in midfield, Sean also had stints as youth team coach, physio, football in the community officer; even groundsman. “We didn’t have a groundsman at the time so I got one of the big mowers and finally got chance to cut the pitch, which was the last thing on my bucket list there.”
When Mel Machin moved upstairs in 2000, Sean was the obvious choice to take over as first team manager. But the club’s perilous finances meant he and his backroom staff often had to get creative to help fund the team. There was a team photo on a boat bobbing in the bay to secure sponsorship from a local yacht company, even a fashion show that had Sean, and then assistant Peter Grant on a catwalk modelling swimwear. “And they weren’t just any old swimwear either, they were tight swimwear.”
Sean shakes his head at the memory, but these leftfield activities yielded rewards beyond the few hundred quid they brought in. “It was a case of lets not moan about what we haven’t got, lets try and generate stuff. And ultimately it developed the chemistry within the group. And that transferred to the football pitch as well, so it was a win win for everybody. It wasn’t a pain to do, because we had some good people there.”
More than two decades in, surrounded by good people and having enjoyed a successful stint as manager, it must’ve been hard to leave Bournemouth. “No, it was time. I’d had one or two opportunities to go and turned them down, because I would’ve just been going to fight fires somewhere else. At Bournemouth at least I knew the fires I had to fight.”
So what was it that sold Rovers? “They were quite a high profile club because John Ryan is that type of person, so they came with a bit of a reputation. And whenever we went up there, everyone was always really hospitable, even though the changing rooms were the worst I’d ever seen. I assumed the home dressing rooms would be miles better, but when I arrived [as manager] I went in the home changing rooms and ‘My God, these are just as bad as the away ones.’”
“But, they had momentum, they’d come out of the Conference, come out of League Two, had various exploits in the League Cup, they’d got a higher profile. John had bankrolled them but League One to the Championship was going to be a stretch and for the step to the Championship he needed something else. So that was the attraction. And the fact they were moving into a new ground. It was a case of knowing you’re not really going to get a better set of circumstances than this.”
So, did he have a clear plan he wanted to implement at Doncaster? “I hate the words ‘football philosophy’, I don’t know what it means. My coaching is around understanding responsibility. People talk about principles of play and all this business, they trot out phrases like ‘we wanna be compact’, or now it’s ‘we want to play through the thirds’, but I never saw the benefit of focussing on technical tactical stuff, the Xs and Os. They’re part of it yes, but it’s more about what goes on before and after it.”
I never saw the benefit of focussing on technical tactical stuff, the Xs and Os… it’s more about what goes on before and after that.
“My approach was, do the players understand? And if they understand, can they take responsibility? And they’re not going to take responsibility if they don’t understand you. So, what do players understand? And trying to unravel that. Because, when you create an environment where the players can say ‘I actually don’t understand why I’m doing this’ or I can ask a player, why do you do that? Usually it’s because the coach has been telling them, but they have no understanding of why this is.”
Sean puts this natural questioning of conventions down to coming into football late, and therefore not having been institutionalised in football’s unwritten rules. It’s an approach which is fascinatingly nuanced but also, when its spelt out for you like this by a man who clearly has a passion for such lateral thinking, you soon find yourself shocked by your own inherent naivety.
“You’re defending a corner and your job is to stand on the far post,” says Sean picking up a small potted cactus from the table to illustrate said post. “I always think well, tell me what I’m doing. And the coach will go ‘well you’re on the far post’. ‘Yeah but tell me what, actually I am doing’. ‘Well you’re to stop the ball going in.’ ‘Is that it?’ Because I would be thinking well I’m the only one with no responsibility for marking anybody, so I’ve got my eyes and my ears too, so shouldn’t the man on the post then have a more important role? And what happens if I spot something and I think that’s more dangerous than this? Well I could’ve marked him, but I’ve got my post”.
Sean was just as inquisitive as a player, and he’s first to admit he drove his Bournemouth manager, Harry Redknapp, mad with it. “I’d just be going ‘why am I doing this Harry?’ ‘Harry, why am I doing this?’ I used to drive him up the wall. But still now I see things sometimes and I think why don’t people look at it that way? People either get that, or don’t get it, so you’re either a visionary, or you’ve a real good eye for detail or you’re just being a pain in the arse. I still get that reaction now.”
But back to Rovers, and trying to get the players to fully understand and explore their responsibilities as a team. “That was my remit, not to just play safe, but to try and mould a team that would try things and take responsibility. Not that we played football, not that we passed it. It was can we have a team that really bore out this ideal? So when you watch them you know this is a good team, but can’t actually understand why. Some people will say well they pass the ball really well, some people will say you’ve no wingers. They’ll look at the things that they’ve been programmed to look at. Whereas I suppose one of the things we were trying to do was think ‘how fluid can we get?’ as a team with the ball, without the ball. If we had a plan or a strategy, it was ensuring get that fluidity embedded into a team that could then not only get promoted from League One but actually survive in the Championship”.
With the greatest respect to Sean’s predecessor Dave Penney, this represented quite a departure, how did the players take to it? “They were a good bunch, they had the core elements of what you need. One or two didn’t really fit, they were talented boys but without being heavy handed it was a case of come on if I can’t change you pretty quickly to buy into what we’re trying to do then you need to go somewhere else. With others, like James Coppinger, it was like opening a door and going, go on then, all the things that you wanted to do, we’ll let you fly with it.”
“Then it was trying to recruit players within that, like Brian Stock. The first player you bring in, the supporters will judge you, but Brian was a no brainer. James Hayter as well. Players that you can really trust and start creating a team that could be as fluid in possession as they were out of possession. We wanted to improve the team, and we wanted the supporters to be proud of the way the team played.”
And we undoubtedly were, there’s no denying it took time to take hold, but as Sean insists winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy “bought us time”. The following season it really clicked and delivered a first promotion to the second tier in half a decade. But though wins in the Championship were initially hard to come by, belief among players and management never wavered. “When people talk about team spirit, you always hear about teams that are top of the league and doing well. We were bottom of the Championship and yet our team cohesion was fantastic.”
“I remember Matt Mills making a mistake at Sheffield Wednesday and coming in after the game. I didn’t have to say anything, we played really well, got beat because Matt had made a mistake. And we’re in the changing room and I remember Richie Wellens going ‘Matt I love you to death but…’ And it wasn’t about the mistake, it was ‘you’re better than this, and you can be better than this’. It was all about him being a better player – we can live with the mistake but it’s all these other things. And I’m sitting back going this is fantastic.”
“The thing with Matt, was, he used to hate training on a Monday. So eventually I said to him, don’t train on a Monday. Come in, but go in the gym, do your work, because all I’m doing on a Monday is having a go at you, so it’s lose-lose. And he just went upwards and upwards from there, because we applied common sense to a problem; a case of giving him that trust, and showing we had that trust in him.”
With James Coppinger, it was like opening a door and going, go on then, all the things that you wanted to do, we’ll let you fly with it
After a long slog of impressive performances yet narrow defeats, the team finally turned a corner at Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day. “When Martin Woods chipped the keeper after about 18 passes – not just side to side but probing stuff – it was almost as if the dam broke and all the players realised all the things we’ve been saying about ourselves, are actually true.”
“You go into a lot of the games hoping to win. Because you’ve done all you work, your prep and you think let’s hope to win. And I think, from the Forest game onwards because of the nature of the way we played and the goals we scored, the belief the team had trebled, just like that. And we went into every other game then expecting to win. And I know it’s only a word, but that difference between hoping and expecting, you can see it in teams that have momentum. There was the belief that, we might go a goal down, but we’ll still win”.
An oft-voiced supporter criticism of Sean was that he had no ‘Plan B’, I chance my arm and ask if that’s a fair criticism. “I don’t know, they’d have to articulate what a plan B looks like because I personally think we had plans A, B, C, D, E and F. In the Leeds game, the players flipped formation themselves. Coppinger came to me and said can we do this? And I said ‘if you think its right do it’, so the Plan B was with the players to go ‘how can we solve this problem?’ I’d listen to supporters shout ‘bring so-and-so on’. But then to do that I have to take somebody off. And for that striker to do well I have to put him in a situation where he can do well, not just throw him on and go well it’s up to you.”
I mention Portsmouth away, the 3-2 win, a game in which the team altered formation several times. “One of our KPIs, for want of a better term, was that we could flip things? So we started with a three and once Portsmouth sussed that out we flipped over to a four. Then we were 2-0 up, and they brought it back to 2-2. I said to Richard O’Kelly, ‘Rich we’re going to lose this. If we went a goal down what would we do?’ ‘Well we’d do this’. ‘Fuck it, let’s do it now’. That’s one of the things we used to say, if we were a goal down what would we do? Don’t wait to be a goal down let’s try and do it. And sometimes that’ll work for you, but again, the players have to buy it”.
There’s no doubting Sean’s connection with his players, but what about the chairman? Especially given that personality wise they’re the archetypal chalk and cheese, the sort of opposites normally only partnered in police buddy movies “It was fine. He was supportive, and he was enthusiastic. He’s built a business on his personality and the way he interacts with people, that’s what his strength is. He just did all the things that I wouldn’t ever do, so they wanted me to go on TV, and I’d go, ‘well I’ve got the chairman here’ and he’d go ‘oh yeah’. So it worked quite well to be honest.”
But when John sought additional investment for the club, and brought in new members to the board, things got more complicated. “John had always called the shots and taken responsibility, but now instead of one person, you had three different people, that dynamic had changed. I think everyone was doing it for the right reasons, but it was never joined up.”
“I went to the Board to say look if we’re going to keep what we’ve built going, then it’s cyclical, we come again. We sell these players, we invest the money into other players, but it will take time. We don’t want to sell somebody for £4million and then buy somebody for £5million, that just isn’t going to work in Doncaster. So we identify another set of players that we can mould, but it will take time, and so you may have to suffer getting relegated into League One before coming back again. Of course that went down like a lead balloon.”
Unfortunately for Sean, just as the team was struggling for results again on the pitch, his long-term pragmatism was countered by a brash head-turning boastfulness. Enter Willie McKay with a very different idea as to how the club could move forwards.
“If they had said to me, Willie McKay has said we want to do this, are you agreeable to it? I would’ve said no. Just pay my contract up, we’ll walk away and you can get on with it. But they never did. If you want to do that and you think it can work, fine, but I don’t really want that. I want to build something.”
“I wasn’t the manager for Willie McKay, which is fine, so they should’ve just offered me something and I’d have shook hands and it’d have been hunky dory, but they didn’t. I got a phone call at six o’clock in the morning. Dave Morris rang me. ‘Sean, they’ve sacked you, the new manager is coming in at eight o’clock’. I thought hang on, I’ve been here five years, and I’ve two hours to pack my bags. I honestly thought it was a joke at the time.”
“Richard [O’Kelly] was downstairs, he was staying with us, and I went downstairs and had to wake him up with ‘Rich, Rich, we’ve been sacked’. So we got to the ground, got all our stuff and went and that was it. Didn’t get chance to say goodbye to the players, didn’t get anything. And then things happened afterwards. They were trying to justify what they’d done, and they were trying to justify it by having a go at me. But I couldn’t say anything, because if you say anything then the terms of your contract will be breached, so they had me over a barrel.”
It must’ve been hard, I say, to be placed on gardening leave like that and not be able to speak out whilst your reputation is getting tarnished, but Sean is quick to correct me. “I wasn’t placed on gardening leave. I was sacked. I’ve not a problem with what they did, but if you’re going to do it, do it properly. When you think about all you’ve done, all the things you’ve achieved, and that doesn’t count for anything, that was the most frustrating thing.”
It wasn’t just Sean feeling let down at the club’s rapid change of direction. “One of the players rang me up, saying we’ve just stopped at a service station on the way to a game and two of the new players have got on the bus with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and nobody has said anything. The player is going ‘it’s taken us five years to build this thing up and within two months they’ve destroyed it’.”
“I just kept saying to [the players] ‘just do the right thing, whatever you’re doing just make sure you keep doing the right thing’. I’d just get the odd phone call. One of the staff rang me up, once he said. ‘Sean, I’ve seen it all now, Mickey Walker is riding around the training ground on a horse’. I went what? ‘He’s riding around training on a horse’. Apparently whoever gets voted best player in training gets a share of this horse. And I’m like, for fuck sake this is ridiculous.”
One of the staff rang me up and said. ‘Sean, I’ve seen it all now, Mickey Walker is riding around the training ground on a horse’.
It was undoubtedly a messy end to what had been a very exciting time for the club and the supporters, but not wanting this interview to end on a similarly down beat, I ask Sean what he’s most proud of from his time at Rovers.
“I think the fact that the club became a real focal point of what Doncaster stood for. I know it’s got its own problems, but the football club doing well, as it’s doing now, is really beneficial for the area, so what people said about the club reflected not just on the club and the people around it, but the whole town. And that then culminating in playing your local big name rivals in a final at an iconic stadium, I don’t think it can get much better than that can it?”
“And actually going there thinking ‘we’re going to win this’. I’m not sure I thought that at the time, but the players had a real belief that we were far better than them as a collective. Nothing against Leeds, but they were the big team, we were always in the shadow of Leeds because of the size of the city, so it was a case of the minnows having their time in the sun, that one day. It was a football club becoming an integral part of the town and the town’s fabric, and then actually having that moment where everybody can celebrate.”
Though Sean is undoubtedly frustrated by how things ended at Rovers it’s good to know that denouement hasn’t clouded memories of what were special times for our football club. Sean was, and remains a coach who thinks differently; a man who looks long-term thrown into a world of football management that refuses to look beyond next Saturday. I’m eternally grateful we got to experience the fruits of his mind week in, week out, in our town, as it’s hard to see a time when football will ever have the patience for an approach like his again. Thought-provoking? Certainly. A pain in the arse? Most definitely not.
This interview first appeared in issue 99 of popular STAND fanzine. Glen Wilson is the author of W C L D N, a reflection on World Cup football, modern day London and mental health.