'As manager, you get ultimate control and can't blame anyone'
Bristol City manager Sean O'Driscoll has earned his reputation as a safe pair of hands, writes Seán Ryan
IT doesn't take much prompting to get Sean O'Driscoll talking football. Quiet-spoken, he is the antithesis of the ranting extrovert, but is nonetheless just as passionate about the game.
As a player, he won three caps for the Republic of Ireland, but the Bristol City manager is dismissive of that achievement: "It came about because Eoin Hand was manager and there was a trip arranged to South America when the Falklands War was on so a lot of the established international players pulled out and a number of League of Ireland players and people like me were given the opportunity to go."
He was at Fulham at the time, but he spent a large part of his career as a cultured midfielder with third division Bournemouth, and it was from there he launched his career in management, forging such a good reputation that he is always in demand, quite an achievement in a profession noted for its lack of security.
The sign on the door of his office at Ashton Gate says Manager, but he is listed in the programme as Head Coach. It's a situation he buys into. So much so, in fact, that he turned down two better-placed Championship teams to take over at relegation-threatened City.
Why would you turn down a club that's safe (Blackpool) for one that's in relegation trouble? "I was offered Barnsley and Blackpool," he responded, "but you have to go to a place that's right for you. In the way football is run, changing manager and bringing in a new one is the most difficult thing for a football club. Change is easy but picking the right one (to replace him) is very difficult. I felt at both clubs that there were better people than me already there for those jobs. I said I'm not the right fit for you. One club took my advice, the Blackpool owner had his reasons not to do so."
Considering he didn't have another job lined up, and there was no guarantee he would be offered one, this was a surprisingly generous action for O'Driscoll to take, but he doesn't see it like that. "No guarantees? That would have been the wrong reason to take a job. I was a couple of weeks out of work (after being let go by Nottingham Forest). I can't afford to take a break. I played lower league football and managed lower league all my life.
"Nottingham Forest was an opportunity and it came about because of my involvement there the previous season. It was a bit like the Irish cap – I was available and the owners were stuck for somebody. They wanted an iconic name, but wouldn't give him the guarantees he wanted. I knew the staff, I knew the players, so I was a safe pair of hands. Even if I was told this will last five months, six months, I'd still have taken the job. It was a great experience for me."
That it lasted only six months was a shock, not only to O'Driscoll, but also to Forest fans. When he was
appointed at Bristol City, Forest fans wrote to the City website saying how ashamed they were of the treatment given to him, and saying how lucky City were to have appointed such a good manager.
O'Driscoll takes a more philosophical approach. "That's football," is his response. "You can't do anything about it. I spent five years at Doncaster and got treated abysmally. I got them into the Championship, won their first trophy and kept them in the division for three years. They have a right to change the manager, but they should honour the contract. I did. I could have gone to a Premier club and other clubs. Then they decide to change the manager and I had to fight five months for them to honour my contract, which was a disgraceful way to treat me. At least Forest honoured my contract."
After he finished playing at Bournemouth, O'Driscoll had a variety of jobs at the club – coaching, physiotherapy, community worker, and manager. Is there less enjoyment being a manager than a coach?
"It's more stressful. The difference is you're the one ultimately taking responsibility for the decisions, where the coach just has an opinion. I went into Nottingham Forest as a coach originally. I had always been a manager and there is a difference. You can switch off easier. The ultimate decisions are not down to you even though you can have a big part in those decisions.
"As manager, you get ultimate control and you can't blame anybody else. That's the hardest thing about the job: taking responsibility for what happens on the pitch when effectively there are a lot of things you can't foresee and can't control. Alex Ferguson has just got knocked out of the Champions League by a referee's decision, a referee's opinion. Unless you've done the job, you can talk about it, but you won't know until you do it.
"You get enjoyment from coaching on the training ground because you have control, and can see development. On Saturday (as manager) you're looking for a result. If someone can tell me how you can get results without the players playing well, I'll do it every day, every week."
O'Driscoll believes a good coach can be a good manager, because the qualities required are the same for both jobs. "It's just that ultimate responsibility. You have to have influence over your players. Alex Ferguson has defined the culture of Manchester United. Would he get involved in day-to-day coaching? Not really, but he's there every day on the training ground and has an influence because he can change a practice, stop a practice. It's just a different form of coaching. Sometimes he's reinvented himself by bringing in different coaches, but he's defined the culture, which seems to get lost at other clubs when managers get swapped all the time."
It was Bristol City's wish to get off the manager merry-go-round that attracted O'Driscoll. "There's a lot of change in football with the Triple P – the elite performance player development programme – in which England players are developed and come into the system. It will get to the stage where the manager will be classed as a coach, over the team, and all the other things will be under a technical director."
Just like it's done on the continent. "Yes, we're a little parochial in the way we do things. Teams should put a head coach in place and have an under 21 head coach and an under 18 head coach. The under 21 head coach could in time be the head coach, so it's continuous, or they appoint another head coach who takes the principles of the club and evolves them."
If that sounds like he is planning for his own successor, it's not far out. "A succession plan should be in place," he acknowledged. "That's the way I would run the club, so that if I know my left-back is being sold in six months I can be looking for a left-back. I don't know what the average tenure of a manager in the Championship is but you should have a shortlist of managers in place."
Most managers would regard young assistants as a threat, but O'Driscoll, whose under 21 head coach is former Sligo Rovers boss Willie McStay, doesn't think like that. "I want the best under 21 coach I can get. If he's a threat to my job, fantastic, because that's the way it's got to work. If you can bring somebody who's going to add to the party that's the whole thing. I only know what I know and I have confidence in my ability, but football is ever-evolving and new people coming through will have difference experiences, some good, some bad."
When he came to Bristol City, the club was in trouble. It was the middle of the transfer window, but he didn't panic. He made just one signing – Kerryman Brendan Moloney, a full-back he knew from his Forest days. Another manager might have been tempted to sign four or five players, but O'Driscoll operates more sensibly.
"I asked the players, 'what do you need, tell me what have you done well and what you haven't', and to a man they said 'we should be better organised'. But whatever you do you're going to be castigated. Somebody will say you shouldn't do it (ask the players), but they're the ones who go out and do it, so it seems ludicrous not to include them in the decision. It's not that they define the decision. It means you understand it from their point of view and you go 'right, that's something we can do pretty quickly'."
The results since, and a spate of clean sheets, indicate that O'Driscoll has certainly brought organisation to the team, even if results elsewhere have kept them in the relegation zone.
However, some of his tactics have been questioned. "Football is stuck in such a rut," he said. "You go from zonal marking to man-marking with the players, and it's, 'Oh my God, why are we doing that?' They're very difficult animals. And the supporters are the same. If you play one up front, like every top team in the world, if you do it in the lower divisions you are looked at as negative. If we play two up front, we get murdered in midfield, but those nuances get lost. With what we've got, and what we can and should achieve, this is the way to do it."
And looking ahead, O'Driscoll sees a different breed of player looming. "No longer do they spend hours as we did as kids playing out the fields. Now it's all structured. All organised. My nephew is at West Brom and he's nine. It's unbelievable. They have video training and they give him homework. He accesses it all on an iPad, and if you say show us a third man run, he looks at the game, spots it and clips it. We learned all that playing morning, noon and night.
"The next generation of players will be analytical. The ones we have now struggle to dissect the information you can get from a game. You have to filter it down, and say, 'This is important, this is important'."
In the light of that, it's interesting that our conversation finished on a brighter note when I asked him if he had any interest in the League of Ireland scene?
"Yes, I signed Stephen McLaughlin from Derry City when I was at Forest. Our Irish scouts recommended him and he trained with the first team every day for a week. We were trying to develop a squad that could come into the first team. That was the way we were taking the club, and all of a sudden it changed, and they (the owners) wanted to get promotion straight away. Stephen did really well, the Derry chairman came over and we felt the price we paid was fair. It was money up front and if he played and developed they would benefit from that. There's no point in ripping people off. We wanted to make sure they were comfortable dealing with us.
"Another boy was over, Barry McNamee, and we were going to sign him. I'd still have an eye on him. He was terrific. Stephen was balanced and could handle the physicality, and Barry was like a little kid, but he never gave the ball away for a week training with the first team. I was speaking to Barry's dad and he lives in a village where everybody plays football all day – getting the 100 hours of practice they talk about. Both boys were accepted by the lads very quickly, and they only get that if they are impressed. They were both nice kids as well."
So, can we expect to see O'Driscoll at a League of Ireland game this summer? "Yes. I'm trying to put together a recruitment programme, which will include hopefully someone who will recommend Irish players to us."
The Bristol City boss is aware that retaining their Championship status would give him a better chance of acquiring Irish talent, so all plans are on hold until that target is achieved.