'They were getting played off the park' - Richie Wellens on restoring Doncaster Rovers to a feared opponent and the similarities and differences between him and Sean O'Driscoll
It was the golden era of modern Doncaster Rovers history and new boss Richie Wellens wants to engineer a return to it.
In the mid to late 00s, Rovers did not only ascend to the Championship for the first time in half a century, they did it with a style that garnered plenty of attention and admiration.
Sean O’Driscoll’s Rovers side - of which Wellens was a considerable component - was labelled ‘the Arsenal of the north’ at a time when the Gunners were truly the best footballing team in the country.
More than a decade on, Wellens is preparing to mould the club in his image and eye-catching, attacking football is at the top of his agenda.
But it is not simply to curry favour and generate a warm feeling of nostalgia, the new manager knows how effective Rovers were during his first spell at the club as a player.
“I’ve seen the very best that this club can offer,” he told the Free Press. “I’ve been at Wembley with this club.
“It didn’t matter when we played in the Championship whether we were playing Newcastle, West Ham, Derby, Nottingham Forest - if they came to us or we went to them, they were getting played off the park.
“We didn’t know if we were going to win because at the time we didn’t have Billy Sharp or an out-and-out goalscorer who could take us to the top of the Championship.
“But we knew the quality we had in defence and in the midfield especially, teams couldn’t get near us at times.
“I’ve seen how good it can be.
“That’s the identity that I want for this football club going forward. Not just my identity but the identity of Doncaster Rovers
“A feel good factor, everybody within the club is positive, everyone knows which direction we’re going in and every signing that we will make, everyone who knows Doncaster Rovers will be able to see why we’ve made it.
“We want people who want to play for this club. We won’t be signing anyone who is umming and ahhing, or is using us as a second or third option. We want people who want to come in, develop and move this club forward.
“You only have to look at the surroundings, it’s a Championship club in the making, even though League One is really good at the minute with the amount of big clubs.
“It just gives you a good feeling coming back to the place.”
A big part of O’Driscoll’s vision for his squad during his time as manager was to have players on the pitch that could problem solve without too much interference from the technical area.
Wellens has spoken already of his desire to sign intelligent players this summer. During matches he has a specific vision for how he wants Rovers to play but hopes his players will be able to respond quickly to curveballs thrown by the opposition.
“We will put things in place in the week in training,” he said.“We will talk about it and show them visually with analysis stuff and then we will go out on the training pitch and run through various scenarios.
“When you’re a manager and you’ve done all the prep and planning, sometimes the opposition can switch out of nowhere on the pitch. If you’ve got players on the pitch that are clever and can work things out for themselves, then obviously you don’t have to work as hard as a manager because you’ve got players that can make decisions straight away.
“I think that’s what Sean developed over a period of time, that we could make our own decisions on the pitch and he would go with that.
“If he could see something from the bigger picture on the outside, he would give his input.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Sean O’Driscoll and what he achieved here
“He gave the club an identity and whichever club came here, however big or small, they knew what they were in for and if they weren’t on it, they’d get passed off the park.”
Wellens will always be indelibly linked with O’Driscoll and unsurprisingly cites his former boss as one of the major influences on his own coaching career.
But he says there are plenty of differences between the two.
“I’m not as clever as him, I’m not as dry as him,” he said. “I’m funnier than him though.
“I’m probably louder and more out-going than Sean. I’ll probably get my messages across in a different way. Although the way I get my messages across now as a manager is totally different to the way I did as a player.
“You try to take snippets from every manager you work with and Sean was a big influence on my career. I think the biggest thing I learned is that if you give players responsibility, you put on a lot of player-led sessions and you get it right, then they buy into it and it can be powerful and give them a hell of a lot of confidence.
“It took me time at Oldham to learn. As a manager I’m nothing like the character I was as a player. I needed to act and hold myself in a certain way to get the best out of myself as a player.
“Sometimes I’d wind the opposition up, sometimes I’d wind my own team mates up to then get a reaction out of me to be the best that I can.”