“Ultimately, when it comes to [Doncaster Rovers] I’d rather be relegated to League One than lose Sean O’Driscoll as manager”. They were my words. I tweeted them and everything. Just four days ago. It’s easy to trot out soundbites on Twitter and not be accountable for them, hell, I could go back now and delete it if I wanted. But the thing is, these words were, and indeed are, unequivocally true. Sean O’Driscoll has gone, and I genuinely am shocked, numb, despondent and angry. This news has hit me much harder than relegation from the Championship would do.
What hurts most is how this era of Sean O’Driscoll and Richard O’Kelly has come to an end. A succinct statement on the club’s official website, as brief as a death notice in the back of a broadsheet only with arguably less sentiment;
“It is with regret that the shareholders of Doncaster Rovers FC have taken the decision based on the long run of poor results, that Sean O’Driscoll and Richard O’Kelly have been relinquished of their duties. They felt that action needed to be taken to address the current position. They would like to thank Sean and Richard for all their work during the five years at the club including winning at the Millennium Stadium and Wembley. Dean Saunders will take charge of the game on Saturday against Crystal Palace.”
There may be a press conference still to come, but that is it, some of the most joyous years of watching Rovers, featuring the best football I’ll ever see at my home town club, curtailed in 88 words.
Now, there will be many, who look in from the outside a bit surprised at O’Driscoll’s departure, but will find a column reading LDDLLLDLDDDLLLLLDLL and that will satisfy their curiosity as to why he and Richard O’Kelly have gone. They being the aforementioned “long run of poor results” that is Rovers record from their last nineteen league games. It is, even allowing for injuries that have robbed much of O’Driscoll’s key players in that time frame, pretty dismal, but what are our ‘shareholders’ really expecting? Do they expect to be hurtling toward the play-offs? There is much more background to consider here, much more perspective needed.
Has it not occurred to the shareholders that of the key reasons why Rovers have endured such a “long run of poor results” is because they are, frankly, punching above their weight? Rovers have been in existence for 132 years; they have spent just fifteen seasons in the dizzy heights of the second tier. Only one spell at this level had lasted longer than the current one, and in Peter Doherty’s day there were greater attendances (for their was bugger all else to do and no football on the box in the 1950s) and no such thing as parachute payments. It may be a long run of poor results, but its being put together in a division I never expected to watch my club participate in.
Sean O’Driscoll, with Richard O’Kelly, for they are a team, lifted this club to heights I never dreamed of seeing them play at, whilst playing the sort of football I had long been led to believe was only performed in exotic foreign climbs, like Barcelona, Amsterdam and Swansea, not within a Sheffield United through-ball of the chimney at Pegler’s castings. In getting rid of the pair, ‘the shareholders’ have not simply disposed of a manager, they’ve gotten shut of an entire ethos and approach. Any man coming in now, will have to completely change the players’ approach to football. Is that really healthy when we’re up against it? The players have been recruited to the system, one with the long-term in mind, you can’t just ditch forward-thinking because you want more wins now.
On his first day as manager at Doncaster Sean O’Driscoll went out and signed Brian Stock from the depths of Preston’s squad and set out to build a team and a system around him. The players that have been brought in since, have been brought in to fit that system. They have been brought in because they have intelligence and adeptness of mind to adjust and play for the greater good of the collective rather than the individual. Who else would have brought the best out of Jamie Coppinger? Who else would have spotted the potential in Mustapha Dumbuya, who had been turned away from more London clubs than So Solid Crew? Who else would have kept John Oster away from wine, women and fire arms long enough to keep him at the top of his game?
Take just this one small excerpt from this brilliant interview given by Sean O’Driscoll to the Goalfood fanzine; “We never do passing drills in training. We try to give people options on the ball and the thing I’m trying to coach is for the player to pick the right option, which is what the better players do. I get scouting reports which say ‘he gives the ball away too much’ but I’m trying to train the scouts to ask ‘was it the right ball to play?’ Football’s about giving the ball away – but was it the right pass at the right time? Sometimes I’m more concerned about that than I am about whether or not he completed the pass. I can’t buy someone for a million quid but I want to get someone in who can see options and can take the right one. I’m in a market where I can afford a player because he’s cheap but I have to know that I can develop him because he has the raw materials I can work with. Right pass, right time – that’s two out of three and I can work on the rest.” Who else is going to think like that?
Yesterday, this website led with an article entitled ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ and top of the three reasons given was John Ryan’s public backing of Sean O’Driscoll. In his column for the Doncaster Free Press Ryan wrote; “For the people shouting for the manager’s head, I ask you the questions who would you replace him with? Who is better? I can’t think of any manager that is better equipped for the job, and those clubs who sack managers willy nilly end up relegated. The board and I are not going down that path. You only have to look at our neighbours Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday – need I say more?” Within 24 hours Rovers and their board had gone down that path. As U-turns go it is a combine harvester on a country lane; big, clumsy, and awkward.
What are the board playing at? I’ve been contacted by a vast amount of Rovers fans thus far today and am yet to find a single person in favour of this move. How can we trust those who run the club if they are willing to go back on their word so swiftly? Hopefully this afternoon’s press conference will provide a few answers, because at current this looks like the latest in a number of episodes in clumsy mismanagement from behind the scenes.
First up was the short-sighted restructuring of matchday ticket prices, which have certainly contributed (alongside league position admittedly) to diminished crowds at the Keepmoat. And then in August we had the “Fund a loan striker” campaign in the wake of the injuries suffered in the first week of the season. With Billy Sharp, Ryan Mason and James Hayter all struck down the club wanted fans to dig deep and donate money to the club to fund a replacement. Off the back of the worst injury crisis the club had ever known, this was our contingency. Our plan B involved wealthy men asking less than wealthy supporters for more money. The fans did raise some cash, probably enough for a week’s wages, two at best. And yet now a month later we are able to bring in a new manager and place another on ‘gardening leave’. Who’s paying for O’Driscoll and O’Kelly? Who is paying for Dean Saunders? Can those who donated blindly have their money back?
What is notable about this for me is the club statement that proclaims this the decision of ‘the shareholders’. Now, unless I am drastically mistaken, the Viking Supporters Co-operative holds shares in the club. Was it as a body, or the Chairman of the group Gareth Thomas consulted in this move? Was it even asked for feed back? If it was, what was given. Surely the VSC could see that the majority of fans felt this was the wrong move to make. It begs the question what is the VSC and why is it there? Increasingly it appears to serve as the club’s go-to begging bowl and little else. Now I apologise to any committee members of the VSC if I am wide of the mark, but this is increasingly how the organisation appears on the outside.
So, to the reasons likely to be given for Sean O’Driscoll’s departure. What on earth will they be? There will be some folk who attempt to justify this by saying “Ah, well, it’s a results business”, but when wasn’t it? I’m 28, my football memory only goes back to the back end of the 80s, was the middle of that decade just a carefree jolly on the field. Did folk, having lurked in the Park Hotel for one more pint, wander into Belle Vue just after kick-off and ask the score to be greeted with “No idea, anyway who cares, its just a game isn’t it”? Bellows of “How long’s left ref?” met with “I’ve no idea, we’re playing until Ian Nimmo gets called in for his tea”.
No, football has always been a results business, in so much as the better your results, the higher you will climb up the leagues and the more revenue you will likely take. Sean O’Driscoll got results. He got this club the results to get into the second tier. He got the results to keep us in this division for the second longest spell in the club’s 132 year history, and he was surely best placed out of anyone to get the results to keep this Championship spell running.
“We felt Sean had taken us as far as he could” is another line you are likely to read on messageboards and probably hear in this afternoon’s press conference. It is another empty statement, only true now, in retrospect, when he no longer has the opportunity to take us further. Surely, maintaining second tier status was the sole aim and expectation to lie ahead of Sean O’Driscoll, after all only Peter Doherty in the 1950s had managed to do that longer than he. We may not have been edging upwards, but we were not heading down. This is the second most successful period in the club’s history, in a time when, with the influx of money for those dropping out of the top flight, it is much harder to be achieved. Every season spent in the second tier, regardless of position, the club was being taken further.
“He’d lost the dressing room”. You’ll probably hear that too. Again, another empty statement of football rhetoric, which usually means quite the opposite, ie, some overpaid premadonna has stopped listening to the manager. Only one manager in the history of football has ever lost a dressing room and that was Michael Caine in Escape to Victory, when his fell through the bath into a tunnel. And he still came out with the support of the players. Look at the tweets from Milan Lalkovic and Billy Sharp, both ‘shocked’, look at the recent interview from Jamie Coppinger (who had played under Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson and Kenny Dalglish) saying Sean O’Driscoll is the best manager he’s ever worked with. There was nothing but respect there.
So there you go, this club of ours has shown the door, unceremoniously, to statistically the second best manager it ever had, and in my opinion by far and away the best. That on it’s own would be bad enough. But to do say, just a day after publicly backing him in the local newspaper, and two days of saying we were not a club who looked to the short-term, just completely undermines the club’s current board. Is Dean Saunders really better in the long-term than the approach of Sean O’Driscoll and Richard O’Kelly? And more pertinently, how are we supposed to trust the board now?
It’s probably apt that the last words go to the man himself. In the aforementioned Goalfood interview Sean O’Driscoll summed up what is wrong with the way manager are appointed and retained; “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… 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.”
There is no-one who deserves to be just another cog in that cyclical approach to the game less than Sean O’Driscoll. I truly hope he is given time and backing in another job soon, because there is quite simply no other man in football management thinking like he’s thinking, and the game is poorer for it.
There is a club press conference scheduled for 2pm. Liam Holden of The Free Press’ should be tweeting updates from it. Follow him @liamhodenDFP