TGG Podcast #42 - Sean Dyche: Building Burnley and beyond
Written by Simon Austin — August 27, 2022
DURING nine-and-a-half years with Burnley, Sean Dyche became one of the most recognisable managers in the country.
When he first arrived at the Lancashire club, in October 2012, they were 14th in the Championship. He went on to lead them to seven seasons in the Premier League and qualification for Europe for the first time in 51 years, before being sacked in April this year.
Dyche was our guest on Episode #42 of the Training Ground Guru Podcast and explained the lessons he had learned throughout his career, from being a trainee under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest to transforming the unfashionable Clarets both on and off the pitch.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.
1. LESSONS FROM BRIAN CLOUGH
Sean Dyche: He is a legend, there’s no two ways about it, but you have to remember that was a different era. Brian Clough was managing through his persona, not through tactical training and regimes and planning.
It was more about affecting people, so I learned a lot from that. Affect the person and you will be able to affect their performance, whether that’s by building rapport through fun, or through helping someone and engaging them. He had that power to affect people and that’s what you gain through experience.
It was about the environment he created at Nottingham Forest, that was the biggest thing when I look back. And the simplicity of it - everyone knew how Forest played, the youth team, the reserves, the first team. They talk about these things now - ‘the same thought runs through the whole Academy’ - like it’s some moment of genius.
Brian Clough was doing that 40 years ago at Nottingham Forest. Everyone at Forest knew how to play, how it worked and what the expectation was. It was very simple and very clear to everyone there. You put a trendy badge on it, but Brian Clough and Forest were doing that many years ago.
2. ARE LEADERS BORN OR CAN THEY BE DEVELOPED?
It seems like there aren’t as many natural leaders now, maybe because of the power of social media, which means people are more insular in their lives. That’s a viewpoint.
So developing leadership has become quite an interesting subject. Quite a lot of the management courses are about that. We all know certain people who have that way about them and I’ve always been like that. I’m not being arrogant, I have just naturally been more likely to put my head above the parapet, to be outspoken, to plan and organise things, to get hold of situations. It’s got me in a few scrapes over the years!
Others need developing or to have that extracted from them. That’s a big thing in football now - explaining to the players that there are different styles of leadership, not just one kind.
It’s a different era now. Players want information. You get to the point with some players - not all - where it’s a crutch to lean on and they’ll say, ‘You didn’t tell me this, you didn’t tell me that.’
Forest in those days was way different to that. The idea of doing a set piece or a corner, they would be like, ‘Look around for the fella who’s as big as you and deal with it,’ putting the onus and trust on you.
They were saying, ‘Look, you’re out there, you’re a player who knows what they’re doing, so we trust you.’ I think that has maybe waned a bit in the modern game, because it’s almost, ‘You didn’t show me.’
In those days it was stand up and be counted. I think there’s a balance to be found and knowing the people you’re working with is important as well, what kind of characters you’ve got.
3. CLARITY & SIMPLICITY
Managers now are under a bit more pressure to deliver more content, but in my opinion sometimes you have to strip that back, because it’s about delivering the right content. Players - human beings in general, in fact - can only take on so much.
Particularly in the last 15 minutes before they go out I’m giving very very basic information because the brain and emotions are already spinning. Less is more before kick off.
If you’re getting 10 minutes before a game and giving loads of information - ‘watch their left foot, watch their right foot; if they cut in you’ve got to send them down the line’ - then I would suggest you haven’t done the work in the week.
There’s nothing wrong with the basics. Before you think you can change the world of football, get the basics right.
4. LEARNING AND TAKING OPPORTUNITIES
When I was working at Chesterfield under John Duncan and Kevin Randall they had a big effect on me. The group was average but ended up being broken up for millions.
I was probably 25, 26, and starting to look a bit more at the team qualities. By the time I went to Millwall at 30 I was already doing my B Licence and I got my A Licence done at Northampton by the time I was 35, 36. Colin Calderwood was ever so helpful to me in allowing me some time to finish that during pre-season.
I was forming what I believed were some beliefs on coaching and management. From there I got a lucky break through Aidy Boothroyd at Watford, where I got a job with the youth system. That was a big break because it’s hard to get in at that level, whereas I was straight in at U18s and I always thank him for that.
It was a really important time in my crossover from playing to coaching. I found I was a better learner than most people think. I was listening - to a great fella called Dick Bate, a legendary coach, who was an incredible influence on me; to Davie Dodds, the Academy Manager; and Aidy, who would always share time with you.
Brendan Rodgers came for a spell as manager and then Malky Mackay took over and took me as his assistant. You’re learning all the time and earning your spurs.
I wasn’t deliberately pushing all the doors open, it was naturally occurring. I was really enjoying the youth system, getting paid peanuts and working every hour, but I loved it and thought it was great.
The doors started opening and then you’ve got a choice: do you walk through or sit where you are? I decided to continue the journey.
5. STAYING THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE LINE WITH PLAYERS
Then I got the chance to manage Watford. Some of the players had been my team-mates, like Lloyd Doyley, legend that he is, and Adrian Mariappa, and you’ve got to manage that situation.
As I was maturing into the role some of them were definitely standing up to be counted. I needed help and the players were fantastic. And my staff as well - Ian Woan, Tony Loughlan, Alec Chamberlain. There was a good situation but it was still difficult with hindsight.
You’ve got to be authentic and that was one of my key things. Rather than try and turn into a manager and act really differently, I kept quite tight with the players. You can do it but there’s a line where deep down they know you’re the manager.
I’d be in with the players, have a bit of fun with them, but when the crunch time came they knew I was the manager.
6. HONEST BUT POSITIVE
When I first went in at Burnley I thought it was misaligned. The feeling of the fans was, ‘We should be back in the Premier League,’ but the feeling in the Boardroom was, ‘We should be cutting everything.’
Different Boards will have different views; different fanbases will have different views. The Board wanted the club to be solvent, that was a big thing, because they’d had years of financial problems.
I always felt the fans deserved the truth, but you’ve still got to do it in a way that’s very positive. Internally I’m trying to manage the contracts and manage players out of the club, but externally show that we’re being positive, so it was quite a tough period.
I remember doing my first big press conference and I said, ‘I can’t guarantee amazing football, but I can guarantee you will have a group of people who will give everything and there will be sweat on the shirt.’
Burnley is a very working-class town. They’ve had so many harsh times. I thought, ‘What would you expect as a Burnley fan?’ I would expect someone who would wear that shirt and give everything to win a game. The minimum requirement is maximum effort.
The first seven or eight months we were getting booed off half the time and I was copping a lot of it. That summer (2013) we had to get some really big players out because of money and contracts. We got three players in on free transfers who turned out to be fantastic - Scott Arfield, Tom Heaton and Dave Jones - and we sold Charlie Austin two days before the start of the season.
I think that was when the fans went, ‘Hang on a minute, that’s harsh’ and they sort of went with us then. There’s a real honesty to the fanbase there. If you turn it around and they accept you, then they will really accept you.
The rest of that season is history. We just started winning and never looked back. What a season that was to manage - players were coming in like kids in a sweetshop every day, just buzzing, ready and raring to go.
7. BUILDING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL
When we were promoted I said, ‘Look, by no means do I not want to stay in the Premier League, but surely you’ve got to build something that means something?’
The old training ground was a tiny place. There was one good pitch and one average pitch. There was this little referee's room where we used to do the media.
I don’t think you can look back and not learn from the last time (the club were in the Premier League, in 2009/10), when you put it all on the pitch hoping for the best but didn’t have the structure to support it. I said, ‘There’s got to be something bigger than that.’
They agreed and stood to their word. We didn’t stay up that season (2014/15), but they didn’t flinch and bought into the bigger picture, which was to build the training ground, which was fantastic for a club like Burnley.
They ripped out the keeper’s cottage and rebuilt it as the media centre, which made a huge difference to the branding and feel of the club. The training ground, for a club the size of Burnley, is fantastic. The pitches are amazing and the feel of the whole place is really tops.
They also had loads of money in the club, which there hadn’t been for years, and were in a very healthy situation. The fans were brilliant too, they got it. If the fans can grip hold of the truth of what the club is I think it gives you a way better chance of operating.
8. CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT
When we were building the club, I thought the strapline ‘legs hearts and minds’ fits. I felt it was appropriate for the club and the feel we wanted - a one-club mentality where everyone, fans, Board, manager, players, get the core value of what it is. An anchor, if you like, where people come into the training ground and know the environment.
Legs - if you’re in the Premier League with Burnley you’re going to have to run, don’t worry about that. People forget the simplicity of life. You’ve got to practice running to be able to run.
Heart - because you’ve got to care. And minds - because you’ve got to be open-minded to the challenge. Understand what you want to do and the reason you do it, which is going to take focus.
I’d have guests in from all sorts of sports and businesses. Tony Smith, Eddie Jones and Stuart Pearce came in and had total access, to all our meetings and everything, and they all said the same thing - ‘it’s just right here.’ That’s something I take great value in.
The manner of people, the feel, the energy, the environment, the relaxed feeling, the respect. That was a big thing for me and I really enjoyed that side of it.
9. STYLE OF PLAY
It used to tickle me when teams went to Manchester City and got rapped 5-0 and they’d say, ‘But we really tried to play.’ Why do something when you know they’re better at it than you?
My thought was always, ‘How can we be not as good as someone and get an outcome?’
It’s naive to think you’re going to go to Anfield and dominate the ball AND get an outcome. There has to be some key thinking - who are we playing and what can we do to affect them that will give us a better chance of winning?
You get teams you’re level with and a few - not many in my history in the Premier League - that you’re better than, and then you play more. But there’s got to be a bit of common sense wrapped up with all this stuff.
This is not development football, don’t forget, it’s first-team football. Whatever people say, it’s about winning. We didn’t win enough last season and I lost my job. Fact.
In my opinion, there are managers out there who are not fair to the players, because they get them in a situation where their skillset is not that. I don’t defend good football or bad football, because there are many ways of playing.
You play the top teams and it’s a long pass; you play Burnley and it’s a long ball. I get that. If I took away the chance away from Kieran Trippier to hit a long ball, then I would be doing him a disservice, because he can pass the ball any length and land it.
10. GETTING THE BACKROOM TEAM RIGHT
Another misconception is that I brought my assistants in because they’re my friends. No, I brought them in because they’re good operators, all Pro Licence holders. They’d earned the right by going through youth systems and getting the miles on the clock and they’re different to me.
If you’re all the same you’re not going to get the right outcome. I brought in a staff in who would give opinion, listen and also deliver. Me and Woany (Ian Woan) had an apartment in Whalley (a village near Burnley) and would stay there three, sometimes four nights a week, and sometimes (goalkeeper coach) Billy Mercer would come and stay with us too.
Management can be a very lonely place. Who’s going to motivate the motivator? It’s everyone else who’s done well when you win and when you lose it’s just you, but those are the rules of the jungle. That’s what you buy into, that’s the job.
11. WORKING WITH A TECHNICAL DIRECTOR
Because the Board were interested in me having quite a big input, the role of manager evolved into more of a hands-on-into-everything style. But another one of the myths - and there are many - is that I won’t work with a Technical Director. I didn’t run around Burnley thinking I could run everything; I allowed my departments to work.
I didn’t go in and tell the Head of Medical he didn't know what he was doing. What I did was oversee and try to bring it all together. When Mike Rigg came in (as Technical Director in December 2018) I worked really well with him. He was aware that I had a big say on everything, so he wasn’t under any illusions. I thought that worked very well and I still talk to him now.
Some clubs have changed, where the Technical Director is bringing in the players, removing players, and the coach is just a coach, which is where it becomes a bit tricky, because they say, ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t want to lose that player and I’m not sure I want that one coming in.’
If the lines of communication are clear and the outcome is clear I think it can work well though. It takes a lot of the nitty gritty workload away from the manager, because you’re like, ‘Why am I getting involved in someone’s contract?’
That’s where it can be very very useful because, especially in the Premier League, the manager has all sorts going on, managing the group and the media, and they have to stay fresh for themselves.
12. INVESTING IN YOUTH
We made vast strides at Burnley with the Academy from when we were first there to what it is - or what it was a year ago. It’s been different now with a change of ownership, different views.
I was a big believer in the youth system and trying to get it to work better. At Watford it was a massive thing. When I was manager there I think something like 48% of the first-team players had come through the youth system. I wanted Burnley to go Cat 1, I recommended it.
Getting it to the place where they (Academy players) can get into the Premier League, that’s key and it’s very difficult.
The thing with Academies is sometimes people think you can get a product in at the beginning who’s average and make them world class. You can’t, because development doesn’t work like that.
You might get average to better, better to good, excellent to world class, but not average to world class. When you look at the top Academies, some of the wealthiest are going worldwide to get players and even they cannot bring the players through that will miraculously get into the first team and become megastars. That’s how difficult development is.
At a place like Burnley, along the journey maybe they (the best young players) go to Manchester City, Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool, and you start losing them at 14, 15. Sometimes you end up gaining players too, like Dwight McNeil, who ends up playing lots of games at a young age and moving for a lot of money.
The Academy system is very good. Some of what they do now is amazing, but it’s not a perfect system.
13. GOING GLOBAL WITH RECRUITMENT
Apparently I don’t like foreign players, I’m Brexit football. Load of nonsense. We just had an outgoing Board that didn’t want to buy into foreign players, they were very risk-averse. They wanted the safe players who could probably be sold and make a few quid for the club.
We didn’t have the scouting system to go and get foreign players, the depth of scouting, so the ones we knew a lot about were often UK-based players, so you’re narrowing down the chances of failure.
That depth of scouting started to come under Mike Rigg, when he put more investment into the scouting, but it still takes a long time because - guess what - other clubs are in front of you and have been doing that European thing for 20 years.
Burnley had only been getting some depth into Europe for the past three or four years. Then the pandemic hit, so you can’t get out there and do the work you really want to. The new ownership were very much more open-minded and we brought in Wout Weghorst and Maxwel Cornet.
The challenge was recycling the team and having the finances to do that; to keep re-energising, re-believing, bringing younger players through. The problem was that during the two years of the pandemic the club was trying to be sold, so we didn’t put enough money into the team.
That’s not rocket science. If you look through the Premier League, everyone has to invest in the team and we didn’t. That was always going to have a knock-on effect. But that was two, three years ago. I was recommending then, 'Look, we’ve got to start putting new players in now and let them grow with the club and the team.'
That’s the bigger picture. It’s not just about the last six weeks I had there, there was a lot more to it than that.
14. BEING PUT IN A BOX
You get put in a box. It’s very easy to create and then stick with and roll it out. Burnley: back-to-front football, don’t like foreign players. Do you fight to change it? No, you’re just wasting energy.
I’m very much more open-minded about what comes next, about playing styles. People forget I came through at Nottingham Forest, who were playing modern football like you’ve never known.
They presuppose I’ve changed everything for my own way. I haven’t. I’ve looked at the players we’ve got; I’ve looked at the best chance that we can be successful and the best chance that they can be successful.
When you’re bringing in Michael Keane for £2m and selling him for £25m, that’s success. When you’re bringing in Danny Ings for a million and selling him for £9m, that’s success as well. Tom Heaton, we brought him in on a free transfer, just been relegated at Bristol City, plays for England, has seven, eight years at the club and gets sold for £9m at 32. They’re big successes.
Have you got more than just the simple things that put you in a box? I’m not being grandiose about it, I think I could offer something that could affect a different situation at a different club and if it needed a different style as well, while still remaining true to the fact of what I believe is important for any team.
When these things are thrown around - ‘simple, that’s all they’ve got’ - you’ve got to realise that’s just opinion. You know what you’re doing and the reasons for doing it.
15. HOW REAL WINNERS OPERATE
I deal with psychologists, but I sometimes say they’re limiters. I like the idea of having a goal and a focus but you have to be flexible as you go towards it, because many things can occur.
Don’t put too low a limit on it, or too high. I call it positive realities.
I remember when Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-1 away (January 2010) and Tom Cleverley was with us at Watford. Sir Alex rang Malkay Mackay and said, ‘I want him to come over and get in the dressing room.’
I spoke to him on the Monday and said, ‘Tom, what was it like?’ He said, ‘It was just like another day.’ Not high-fiving and running around like crazy. I remember thinking, ‘I like that, that’s how real winners operate.’
Winning to me just makes me feel right, it levels me out, gives me that nice warm glow. I love that feeling and search for that feeling. It definitely lights the flame in me when we win.
Once you’ve tasted it you want more and it becomes part of who you are.