When the two names at the top of Burnley’s shortlist to replace Owen Coyle were announced, eyebrows were immediately raised up and down the country. But upon closer inspection, both were fully deserving of consideration.
Brian Laws and Sean O’Driscoll were the two applicants considered by the Clarets to replace the departed Coyle, and of the pair, Laws was the most surprising. Recently sacked by Sheffield Wednesday, Laws’ time in Yorkshire appeared to split the Owls’ camp in half. Radio phone-ins and internet message boards were besieged by Wednesdayites, with roughly half praising Laws for his work at Hillsborough and just as many thanking the footballing Gods he had gone. It was point, counter-point as his backers claimed Wednesday’s tight finances left him hamstrung, while others replied he had wasted what money was available on the likes of Francis Jeffers. Soon, however, the discussion turned to his candidacy to replace the previously popular Coyle at Turf Moor. His greatest credentials appeared to be his role as a former Burnley player – as if that gave Laws an insight into the club no other manager could possess – and that he would come cheap, rarely glowing references for a manager about to be hurled into the snake pit that is the Premier League. But digging deeper, Laws is a solid manager and hopefully indicative of a growing trend in English football – trusting a young, British manager with a Premier League club. There are plenty out there with the required qualities, waiting their turn.
The runner-up in the race to replace Coyle, O’Driscoll, deserves credit for proving attractive football and Championship progression are not mortal enemies having fashioned a Doncaster Rovers team widely acknowledged as one of the most attractive outside the Premier League. The genial 52-year-old has done so calmly, away from the spotlight and with a dignity befitting the South Yorkshire town. Far from a keen self-promoter, O’Driscoll prefers quiet modesty as he goes about the task of taking Rovers to the next level. Although he admits to being disappointed at missing out to Laws, it did not show this weekend as Donny calmly dispatched Watford 2-1 at their Keepmoat Stadium home. For O’Driscoll to come so close to filling a Premier League vacancy speaks volumes about his good work in Doncaster since taking over in 2006. After 22 years with Bournemouth, first as player, then coach and finally manager, and just over three years with Rovers, O’Driscoll has earned the opportunity to test himself at the highest level but will have to wait until either another Premier League club comes calling or he guides Doncaster to a promotion even more unlikely than Burnley’s seemed last May. But if Coyle could take an unglamorous club steeped in tradition to the Promised Land, it is not impossible O’Driscoll could follow suit on the other side of the Pennines. Currently twelfth, five points outside the play-offs and with a game in hand on three of the teams above them, Doncaster fans could be forgiven for dreaming of being at Wembley in a few months time.
One of the other names impressing in the second tier has already had a taste of life in the Premier League, and that may be what is spurring him on now. Billy Davies took Derby to a surprise promotion in his first season in charge, but it proved too much too soon and County were practically relegated before Christmas with the former Preston North End boss sacked in November. Neither Davies nor the Rams’ players were prepared for the top flight and it told with just six points from his 14 games in charge. A ragtag group of Championship journeymen were anchored at the foot of the table with ex-Wigan Athletic manager Paul Jewell unable to save them. Now, however, Davies is threatening to earn another crack at the top flight with Nottingham Forest. They sit second in the Championship table, two points behind Newcastle United before the Magpies take on third-placed West Brom tonight. Even a Baggies victory would not dislodge Forest as they hold a four-point cushion over Roberto Di Matteo’s charges, and have risen to such lofty heights on the back of an 18-game unbeaten league run. Their only defeat since September came at the hands of Birmingham City, one of the Premier League’s form sides – and that was in an F.A Cup replay. Having endured crushing disappointment at Pride Park, Davies’ career is well and truly back on track with Derby’s east Midlands rivals.
Having been accused of tactical naivety during his time in the Premier League, Davies is showing why managers sacked at their previous club should not be disregarded. The lessons the fiery Scot learned in the Premier League could be what is carrying Forest up the table, as often more is learned from defeat than victory. Rafa Benitez, although under pressure at Liverpool, is a classic example. Having left Real Madrid, where he was a youth coach, Benitez’s first two senior jobs proved disastrous. First, at Valladolid, he was sacked after two wins in 23 games. Matters actually deteriorated in his second role, with Osasuna, where he was fired after one win in nine outings. After a promotion and relegation with Extremadura, Benitez eventually landed at Tenerife and gained another promotion, before great success at Valencia took him to Anfield.
Had Benitez been discarded after his calamitous time at Valladolid and Osasuna, Valencia would not have enjoyed one of their most successful spells in history, Liverpool would not have added a fifth European Cup to their trophy cabinet and reached a further Champions League final. Similarly, had Davies been ignored because of Derby’s terrible Premier League form under his stewardship, Forest would not be thinking of a return to the top flight after over a decade away. Brian Laws may yet fall into Davies’ category. Much hard work is still to be done at the City Ground, but Forest have the squad and Davies the nous to ensure the Reds’ long-suffering fans are celebrating in May.
O’Driscoll and Davies are just two of the talented, home-grown managers toiling away in the Championship. Gary Johnson at Bristol City, a former international boss with Latvia, Ian Holloway at Blackpool and Nigel Pearson at Leicester City are all doing fine work. Further down still, Colchester United’s Aidy Boothroyd, Simon Grayson of Leeds United and Lee Clark for Huddersfield Town, all in League One, show there is great depth to English football’s managerial talent pool.