An underwhelming choice - but the right one

Last updated : 18 January 2010 By Richard Oldroyd

He is not a universally popular choice. His CV as a manager, forged in the lower divisions, is not eye-catching. There are few promotions - although there are fewer relegations - whilst his recent record at Sheffield Wednesday is that of a manager whose club was treading water.

And it is difficult to identify a single characteristic, a unique selling point as a marketing man might say, by which Laws might have differentiated himself from the crowd. During 15 years in management, Laws has not gained a reputation as a results man, although he's done well enough. His teams have tended to play decent football, but he has never been perceived as a true purist. His work with young players his won him some praise, yet none of Grimsby, Scunthorpe or Sheffield Wednesday have produced a string of talented youngsters under his tenure.

Indeed, if Laws has gained a reputation based on anything, it is as a quirky disciplinarian: a launcher of chicken wings at misplaced Italian imports.

But that is unfair. Every walk of life is littered with people who never got the breaks. During the years he spent painstakingly building up Scunthorpe, Laws probably found that the reputation which resulted from his run-in with Ivano Bonetti counted against him whenever he expressed an interest in another job. Then, when he finally found himself able to land a bigger job, he found himself walking into a minefield at Hillsborough.

His performance, in keeping Wednesday a stable Championship team against the backdrop of a seriously unstable club, is hugely underrated.

The Deloitte report which suggested that Laws had been the best-performing manager in the Championship over the past 3 seasons should not be taken as an admission that Burnley are after a man who can do things on the cheap. It should be taken as an indication that he is a much better manager than the bare statistics suggest.

Yet the fact he has shown an ability to keep his teams above water with limited resources must have been a factor, and rightly so. The opinion, regularly voiced this week, that it is an appointment which demonstrates that Burnley are preparing for the Championship, ignores one thing: the Burnley board have made it clear from the outset that, although they will attempt to survive in the Premier League, those efforts will be tempered by a determination to make provision for the future, whatever division that may be in.

In that sense, Burnley have been preparing for a return to the Championship since the day promotion was won last May. In that sense, nothing has changed.

Most of us wanted a manager with Premier League pedigree, to reflect our new-found status as a Premier League club. But the reality is we are not. We forget too quickly that, at the start of the season, we bought into the ambition to upset the Premier League applecart by competing as Championship upstarts amongst the Premier League aristocracy.

We knew then that we had a wage cap and a limited transfer budget. We knew then that self-improvement and togetherness were going to be greater allies than the chequebook during this campaign. It is natural for supporters to move the goalposts in the pursuit of success but it is also unrealistic to expect the board of directors to follow suit.

And, deep down, one of the principal reasons Owen Coyle's departure sparked outrage was that we all knew its timing seriously damaged Burnley chances of survival. With a united and familiar squad and management, those chances probably stood at 50/50; after the upheaval surrounding Coyle's departure, they must be greatly reduced.

Established, ambitious Premier League managers do not fancy jobs with teams who are more likely than not to get relegated and who are unwilling to bend from their financial principles in order to enhance their chances of escaping the drop. This writer's preference was for Steve Coppell, but once it became clear he was not interested in the role, it was always hard to see more ambitious men like Alan Curbishley - who left Charlton Athletic 3 years ago in the hope of landing bigger jobs - regarding Burnley as genuinely attractive proposition.

That calculation also meant that the Burnley board had to find a man who not only could give the Clarets a fighting chance of staying up, but one who could be trusted to stay and continue the project in the event of relegation, particularly given the vast number of players out of contract in the summer.

He had to buy-in to the vision of building a self-sufficient club, from youth level to first team, capable of competing in the top echelons of English Football and with an ethos of playing attractive football.

Is it really conceivable that, when asked, Curbishley or any of his ilk would have been able to convince any interviewer that they were truly committed to the project - or that any of the so-called 'up and coming' candidates, with ambitions to reach the top just like Owen Coyle, would have offered that longevity?

Almost certainly, that was the common rationale behind the selection of Sean O'Driscoll and Brian Laws as the final two names in the frame. Neither man necessarily satisfied every one of Burnley's criteria. But they each ticked enough boxes to be acceptable candidates, and both offered good football, stability and progression.

And when it came to it, although O'Driscoll was the superficially more attractive candidate, he was also the greater risk: an ideal candidate to manage Burnley, but at entirely the wrong time. He has never managed in a town as intensely focussed on its football club as Burnley, let alone managed such a club in the Premier League.

An intensely private man, there must have been doubts as to how O'Driscoll would have coped with the immediately glare of a Premier League relegation scrap. Nor is it clear that he would have been able to walk into the Turf Moor dressing room and immediately impose direction on a squad still shocked by the loss of Coyle. Some accounts suggest it took time for O'Driscoll's methods to take effect when he first moved to Yorkshire from the South Coast.

That was time Burnley could not gamble on losing. Laws offered the greater chance of hitting the ground running, utilising the transfer window and galvanising an entire club immediately. He might not be the man for all seasons -but at this point during this one, he might just be the right man for the job.