What we cannot do is get hung up on the ‘when’ will we get promoted. Whatever happens, when promotion does finally come, the club has to go up in a stronger, more stable and sustainable position than it was relegated in. That may be this season, it may be next, it may be another three seasons, and you cannot start to get frustrated and lose faith in the long-term goal if it doesn’t happen straight away.
Football being football, I could end up being one of the casualties of the transition process, as could some of the players, but if the fundamental principles that the club has decided it wants to govern itself by remain intact, I have absolutely no doubt at all this club will be back in the Championship in a much healthier, vibrant state.
When we went on our run of good results that was testament to the boys trusting in what we were telling them and doing their jobs properly. The turning point of last season for me was losing Jon Stead. He was the focal point of this functional approach, and again this is absolutely no criticism of the boys that came in as they have their own strengths, but we couldn’t quite replicate the same resilience or find the right formula to win after his injury.
We did look at the loan market but there was no one out there who met our criteria of being available, affordable and who wanted to come. Should we have broken the bank to get someone in? If you do that again, you are setting the precedent to keep doing it and for a club already carrying such huge losses you have to say ‘no more’ at some point. All you’re doing is putting a plaster on a broken arm.
Sometimes passing it out from the back might be the right thing to do but why would you persist with doing that if your centre-halves or sitting midfield player then kept getting caught in possession in dangerous areas? If players are comfortable in possession and don’t lose the ball, like Xavi and Busquets, it’s an easy option to give it to them. But sometimes your keeper or centre-half spotting a striker has peeled off his man into a dangerous position in the channel, and playing the ball up to him, is completely the right thing. If you keep getting joy that way and you play 15-20 ‘long’ balls into that space, does that make you a long ball team or an intelligent one?
It sounds so simple but from the youngest ages players in this country have never been challenged to think and make decisions like that themselves, they’ve always waited for a coach to tell them what to do. What we try to say is ‘Here are your options, what do you think is the right thing to do and why?’ If they pick the right option and it doesn’t come off we will still applaud the decision making, but if they continually pick the wrong option then you’ve got a problem.
The more times you can create environments in training where people can take responsibility, the better the team will be. People who get that concept fly very quickly, and although they may not always be the most talented boy, they are your glue, the unsung heroes in a team.
In any walk of life you want characters around you that you can trust, even down to the most basic things like punctuality. Why should footballers be any different? It’s just basic professionalism.
I personally don’t think Bristol City were a small fish in a big pond in the Championship. We had a wage bill that said we should have been mid-table. What we didn’t have was anything underpinning that, which is why we find ourselves where we are now with the club having made very brave, bold statements about the direction it now wants to go in.
How do we deal with being a big club in League One? There are plenty of clubs considered bigger than us who are either in the division next year or have been in recent seasons. Every single thing we do on the training pitch reflects what happens in a game on Saturday so I’d say all my coaching reflects the psychological side of the game. You have to play the situation not the occasion, which is why everything I’ve always done with players focuses on getting them to think and make decisions for themselves, not wait for someone to tell them what to do. That’s not about being a big club or small club, that’s about simply understanding and the more you practice and recreate that on the training pitch the easier it becomes in a game.
The process/outcome thing still gets misinterpreted by some people who think that, because you say you focus on the performance and not the result, you don’t care about the result or you’re not bothered about winning. Of course I’m bothered about winning! How can I not care about winning when I’m in a results-driven industry? But I have to understand the reasons behind every result. Then I can understand how we can improve and move things on, even in victory.
I’ve said it so many times but if someone can show me a way to play poorly every week and win I’d take it. But no one ever has so that’s why I focus on trying to make sure we tick all the boxes that make a good performance for our team, whatever they may be. The more boxes you tick, the likelihood is you’ll win more matches than not. You can still take positives from a defeat too.
And I’ve experienced it with every club I’ve been at too. Surely it’s just common sense? Every successful business has concentrated on putting foundations in place first, but in football the minute you say those things so many people still roll their eyes and switch off; they just want to hear you’re going to win 6-0 and get promoted. It’s that favourite British football cliché “passion”; people who go on about processes and outcomes can’t be passionate right? But if you’re saying stuff with no substance to back it up what’s the point? You have to judge people by their behaviours and not what they say.
I can communicate with fans in loads of ways but if what I’m saying isn’t backed up by what I’m doing it’s pointless. I might not always get something right but I’ll always be the first to put my hand up and say ‘I got this wrong but this is why I did it’. It’s up to someone whether they then accept that or not.
We’re in an industry completely governed by results but because you know that, you might as well do what you think are the right things to do because you’re probably going to lose your job one day anyway. I believe the way this club is now heading is the right way. If I owned my own club this is the way I would take it. If that makes me an Irish-Black Country Buddhist then so be it!
It’s one of those Moneyball type things. One of my biggest bugbears for years has been the number of goals conceded from throws in the final third; more chances come from throws than corners and free kicks because they are seen as innocuous, players switch off and don’t think marking from throws is important. But just watch how many times it happens!
One day one of the top coaches in the world will make this point and everyone will think it’s genius but we’ve been saying it for years. It’s such a simple thing to do – stay alert and concentrate on throws – it’s not difficult!
Even Wilfred Zaha, probably the most high-profile ‘winger’ in the British game at the moment has added so much more to his game, which has made him the real asset he is now. He always had pace and could beat a man but now he can switch wings, drop into midfield, play upfront – he better understands his own game, when he needs to defend and how he can contribute to the team effort.
You think traditional wingers and you picture immediately a 4-4-2 formation; we get so bogged down in formations in this country it’s untrue. What you want is flexibility and fluidity, intelligence and bravery. Get that in a wide man and you have got a good player.
I remember an interview with Arsene Wenger when he recalled walking around the pitch having just won the title and going through the season unbeaten, and all he was thinking was ‘how am I going to better this next year?’ – while he’s on the pitch! That’s what it’s like and the minute you start slapping yourself on the back is the minute things start to slip.
As an opposition manager two of my best team performances have come at Ashton Gate with Bournemouth on a Tuesday night and the 5-2 win with Doncaster Rovers. But you enjoy those because of the performance and execution of gameplan.
One of my strongest memories of this club strangely was an FA Youth Cup game at Ashton Gate on a freezing Tuesday night when I was youth team manager at Bournemouth. We were down to ten men when James Hayter, who I later had in my Bournemouth first team and also took to Doncaster, scored the most magnificent Glenn Hoddle-esque chip from the edge of the 18-yard box to win the game. As for Colin Clarke, he was an excellent finisher, which taught me it doesn’t matter how good a team you are if you haven’t got a goalscorer you won’t be successful.
Remember, be sure to let him know what you think. As I said above, I’ll happily collate and send on to the club so please feel free to comment in the comments section below (or via Facebook/Forum comments section) to get your voice heard.
Aside from the Thatcher's Gold quote I love this one
"I believe the way this club is now heading is the right way. If I owned my own club this is the way I would take it."
It demonstrates the total commitment behind what we're trying to achieve as a club - not all managers would be as bought into youth development and budget management as Sean is. It's a ringing endorsement of the club's 'pillars' programme from a man who has been in the game a long time. That's good enough for me!
What this also re-emphasises - yet again - is that we currently have a team very much in development, as I indicate at the tail-end of my season preview from a couple of weeks ago (http://exiledrobin.blogspot.fr/2013/08/its-here-at-last-exiled-robins-bristol.html). We've got a very young and somewhat inexperienced side, who are learning fast. They need time, Sean needs time, and we're the ones who can give them that.
My thanks once again to the Bountyhunter fanzine for letting me reproduce this, and to Sean and the club for offering such an excellent insight into the mind of our head coach.