From Chesterfield to chasing Champions League: The making of Sean Dyche

Richard Edwards
Sean Dyche has come a long way since his playing days at Chesterfield: Getty

It was an incongruous sight that fans of Northampton had grown accustomed to.

At every away ground Sean Dyche, the club’s then centre-back, would slowly and very deliberately pace out the distance between the touchline and the penalty box.

It was a solitary act that could have been dismissed as an act of superstition – something that needed to be done for the player to go onto the field of play with the peace of mind that his regular routine had been completed.

Dyche the player was as no nonsense as Dyche the manager (Getty)

In reality, it was something far more practical and revealed the lengths – quite literally – that Dyche would go to to gain an advantage over the opposition.

“He used to pace the pitch width-ways,” says Scott McGleish, the well-travelled striker who spent two years with the now Burnley boss at Sixfields. “He would walk from the side touchline to the edge of the box. He would do it at every away pitch and one day I asked him why earth he did it.

“The thing was that he knew the exact dimensions of the pitch at Northampton, so he would measure these other grounds so he could compare it. He told me it was all about the distances between his full-back and the other defender. If the pitch was a bit a wider then the distance had to be a bit wider, if it was a bit narrower then they could tuck in more.

“Just silly little things like that show you just how meticulous he was. He was an organiser but not just for himself – because that pacing wasn’t just for him – it was for the rest of the team as well.”

Dyche now has Burnley on the up and up (AFP/Getty Images)

Northampton was the final stop in a peripatetic playing career that began under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest – where the manager would call him ‘young ginger’ - and also included spells at Chesterfield, Bristol City, Millwall and Watford.

It reads like a Lonely Planet list of English football’s lesser lights but the experience he gathered in over 450 appearances has played a key role in developing a philosophy that has seen Burnley shine at unchartered Premier League altitude.

The club, of course, is no stranger to success but their most recent major honour – the First Division title in 1959/60 - came a full 11 years before Dyche was born.

The 46-year-old was just 16 when they almost tumbled out of the Football League entirely in 1987.

Those seem distant days in every sense as the men from Turf Moor continue an upward curve that sees them battling, not relegation from the old Division Four but for a place in the top four of the most moneyed league in world football.

Burnley could end up facing Europe's best next season (Getty Images)

The thought of tackling Barcelona or Madrid next season couldn’t be further removed from the rather more earthy surroundings of Chesterfield’s Saltergate home, where Dyche first smashed his way into the nation’s consciousness during the club’s run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1997.

“He was a right back when I first came to the club and he was a pretty technical player, he had a bit of quality about him,” says Tom Curtis, who played in the side Dyche captained to the last four of the competition. “He moved to play at centre-half and he was a tough lad. We had some good players in that team and that semi-final run really acted as a springboard for a lot of those boys.

“Dychey was captain all the way through and the whole thing was quite surreal. He was one of the guys who kept us down to earth because there were some young boys in that dressing room, the likes of Kevin Davies. We were really enjoying ourselves but Dychey was a sensible figure, someone the younger players listened to.”

That run ended in a replay defeat to Middlesbrough at Hillsborough following a pulsating 3-3 draw at Old Trafford that the Spirerites could feel justifiably aggrieved not to have won.

Dyche's side are one of the stories of the 2017/18 season so far (Getty)

Davies would soon be heading south to join Southampton and Dyche would follow him out of the door, signing for a Bristol City side that, like Chesterfield, was in the third tier of the English game.

Dyche has attributed the time he spent at Ashton Gate, in an ultimately unsuccessful spell, as having a crucial impact on his decision to eventually move into management.

Given the injuries he suffered in the West Country, where he would play just 17 matches in two years, he certainly had plenty of time to think.

“He was just a fantastic bloke first and foremost,” says Steve Torpey, the club’s former centre-forward . “He wasn’t in the side a lot because of injury, I think he had a slipped disc that kept him out for a long time, but he would still spend a lot of time in and around the group.

“I know he would get frustrated after doing so well at Chesterfield but he was a leader. When the going got tough he would always speak up, always try and get the best out of us. He was never scared to voice an opinion.

“You only have to speak to fans at Luton and Millwall to know how highly they thought of him when he was there later in his playing career. They like that kind of character, particularly at Millwall. I think the fact he didn’t have it all his own way as a player has had a massive impact on the way he manages."

Dyche has gone up against the likes of Pep Guardiola and held his own (Getty)

The way he approaches the game hasn't changed either. McGleish tells of how Dyche wouldn't be afraid to give younger players at Northampton a dressing down, not to be nasty, but to make it clear what was expected of him.

"The ones who wanted to progress would take it on board and move on," he says. "The ones who chose not to listen? Well they were the ones who thought they knew best. Most of them were playing non-league football within 12 months."

It's clear from seeing Burnley play this season that the current group at Turf Moor would run through a Lancastrian brick wall for their manager.

“He knows what he wants from his players, he knows the kind of players he can trust," says Torpey. "He didn’t have anything handed to him on a plate unlike a lot of the younger guys now.

“Their boots are cleaned, they’re fed, they’re watered, they don’t do much at all. You come down to League One and League Two and things are completely different. It’s a great grounding for a lot of players.”

As Dyche is proving, it’s not a bad one for managers either.

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