I WONDER how much further Sean O’Driscoll can go with Doncaster Rovers. And I wonder if he wonders too.
The Doncaster manager has had his chances to move on over the last couple of years, most notably with Burnley (he would surely have made a better job of trying to keep them in the Premier League than Brian Laws did) and Sheffield United (well, OK, he did well to swerve that one).
To his credit, he has decided to stay on at the Keepmoat Stadium to help Donny keep on over-achieving. And Rovers are over-achieving. A club who started 2003 in the Conference are, in 2011, enjoying a third successive season in the second tier for only the second time in their history. With one exception, Doncaster have improved their final league position every year during that time, while also swapping the atmospheric but run-down Belle Vue for a shiny new stadium.
Such consistent progress is very rare in any sport, or any walk of life. It has been an extraordinary period of success for the club. And thanks to O’Driscoll, they are doing it playing some of the most attractive football in the Championship.
Since the turn of the year, though, things have been tough for Donny. Not as tough as they were for a time in that first Championship season, when they picked up two points from 12 matches and looked set to be relegated by Easter. But tough all the same.
O’Driscoll, out of necessity, manages on a small budget by Championship standards, which equals a small squad. Injuries hit hard, most notably a groin problem that sidelined his top scorer Billy Sharp, just as the club faced a glut of fixtures that had been postponed at and around Christmas. A team who were on the fringes of the play-off race in late November has slipped close to the relegation zone by the end of February.
Such are the perils of Championship life. But O’Driscoll’s troubles were broadcast to a wider audience as a result of his performance at a post-match press conference following a 6-0 home defeat by Ipswich three weeks ago.
I wasn’t there, so I’m relying on second-hand accounts, but I’ve no reason to doubt them. O’Driscoll reportedly walked into the press room, sat down and said to the assembled reporters: “Go on, someone ask me a stupid question.”
The second question put to him was: “How disappointed are you, Sean?”
“That’s a stupid question,” O’Driscoll replied. “I am this disappointed.” He held his hands a couple of feet apart to indicate how disappointed he was, then got up and walked out.
It’s not unusual for the Doncaster manager to take a belligerent tone with the press. I remember after a home game against Sheffield United last season, he turned to the club media officer halfway through his post-match press conference to bemoan a lack of interrogation from the floor. “How can we have 25 journalists here and no one asking questions? It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand it.”
But on this occasion, perhaps due to the size of Doncaster’s defeat, perhaps due to the fact that he went further than usual, his comments were picked up by a wider audience. Martin Samuel, writing in the Daily Mail, accused O’Driscoll of arrogance.
You could certainly argue, as Samuel did, that the immediate aftermath of a 6-0 defeat is not the best time for a manager to start accusing other people of incompetence. But I just get the impression that O’Driscoll sees media duties as taking up valuable time he feels could be spent better doing his job.
For instance, when a tricky run of one win in 11 matches was halted with a 3-1 victory in Derby in midweek, O’Driscoll – for whatever reason – decided against basking in the glory himself, and sent out his assistant Richard O’Kelly to speak to the media instead.
Given all of this, those of us in the press room at Elland Road yesterday, after Doncaster’s 5-2 defeat at Leeds, were expecting O’Driscoll to be in prickly mood. Instead, we got a manager who was philosophical about the challenges he faces.
I asked him if, with the run of injuries and poor results, this was as tough a time as he has faced in his four-and-a-half years as Doncaster’s manager.
“It’s always been tough,” he said. “If you look at the division, there are probably us and Scunthorpe who you would look at and say: ‘Why are they in the Championship?’ We’ve had to live with that.
“Then to have had so many games called off because of the snow and have so many injuries as we’ve tried to catch up with our fixtures has been a problem too.
“But if we can’t compete in this division, then we shouldn’t be in the division. I’m not sitting here moaning about it. It’s something we’ve got to get on with.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to go on to the next game and make sure we’re competitive. If we’re competitive, then we’ve got a chance. If we’re not, we run the risk of … [three-second pause] … losing games, which is what’s happened.”
Those, to me, seemed to be the words of a man who has long since realised that keeping Doncaster in the Championship is an achievement in itself.
That place in the Championship was won three years ago by beating Leeds in the League One play-off final at Wembley. After a couple of false starts since then, Leeds have not only found their way back to the second tier, but look a decent bet to push for a place back in the first.
Simon Grayson plays an open 4-3-3 formation, which creates lots of chances but also leaves his back line vulnerable. They should have been out of sight by half-time yesterday – but extraordinarily, went in at the break level at 1-1. After they had spurned goodness knows how many chances to add to Max Gradel’s opener, they switched off and allowed Billy Sharp to equalise.
If that was a surprise, Franck Moussa’s goal to put Doncaster 2-1 up four minutes into the second half was inexplicable.
Leeds turned it round, largely thanks to Jonathan Howson, the captain and driving force, who equalised within a minute and then, after Luciano Becchio and Gradel had added further goals, rounded off the victory right at the end. Strangely, Doncaster had played better in the second half than they had in the first.
“The game should have been over by half-time,” Grayson said afterwards. “And it might have been if we’d been a little luckier and a little more clinical.
“In the end, we got the result we deserved. And we could have won three or four matches with the chances we had.”
Leeds, for all their attacking verve, will probably have to make do with a play-off place. And so there’s every chance that both sides will be in the Championship next season. I’m not sure how much longer they will both be there beyond that, though.