"There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes." You can hear those words of Brian Clough's faintly echoed in conversation with Sean Dyche, manager of surprise Championship leaders Burnley and a man whose formative years in football were spent as a teenager at Nottingham Forest.
Dyche is refreshingly reluctant to employ those fashionable words "philosophy" and "project" and he uses a lesson from his Forest days to explain the sceptical view that modern coaching "can get drunk on itself".
"There was a simplicity to the team at Forest [yet] there was complexity in the way they played – one thing I learned was the players have to have enough flexibility to be themselves," he says. "If you give them too much, I think it's very difficult to follow."
It is an approach that is getting the best out of a Burnley squad whose fortunes have been transformed in the 12 months since Dyche took the reins, following Eddie Howe's departure. The Lancashire club were then 14th in the Championship and had the division's worst defensive record. On Saturday, as they take on Queen's Park Rangers in Dyche's 50th game in charge, Burnley sit top after a run of six straight league wins, and have the second-meanest defence and second-sharpest attack.
It is their best start since 1897 and all the more impressive for the fact Dyche has not spent a single penny on transfer fees, which begs the question: just how have they done it?
The first step, he explains, was to build a framework that "keeps it tight and keeps you hard to play against". Only goalkeeper Tom Heaton has been added to the back four he inherited yet they have conceded just seven goals in 12 league fixtures.
Step two was "finding that freedom to attack, locked together with that work ethic". He saw positive signs last season, when Burnley finished 11th, and did not let the summer departure of leading scorer Charlie Austin – to QPR for a reported £4m – hinder that progress. "As a player, I played in clubs that had some challenges and we turned those into positives – I had four promotions," says the former Chesterfield, Bristol City, Millwall and Northampton centre-back. "If you lose a player, I've always made it clear it's an opportunity for someone else."
So it has proved with the impressive pairing of Sam Vokes and recent England Under-21 debutant Danny Ings – two players already at the club, who have hit 19 goals between them. "We did well with them in pre-season [and] they've delivered so far. Ingsy is more flexible with his movement and Vokesy more of a target-type player."
A keen student of European football, Dyche has also drawn inspiration from the Bundesliga's finest. He marvels at the tireless pressing and fast transitions of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and even introduced to Burnley's pre-season the "red zone" training – "short bursts of very high intense activity [when] you're pushing the body to the absolute max" – that helped give the German sides the edge in last season's Champions League. "Some teams keep the ball for the sake of keeping the ball," he adds. "I want quick, passing football through the units in order to open the opposition up, particularly on transition."
From his days captaining Chesterfield under John Duncan in the mid-90s, he has been a serious thinker about the game and his first opportunity to put his ideas into practice came at Watford, where he worked with the youth teams, then as Malky Mackay's assistant before replacing the Scot in 2011. He was sacked after a solitary campaign – and a creditable top-half Championship finish – following the Pozzo family's takeover. "People in my family have been made unemployed because of changes of business, I am not going to start crying over that," says the 42-year-old. "I remember the good things we did at Watford."
More good things are in the offing at Burnley, though he is reluctant to talk up the promotion prospects of a small squad, even if their work ethic and willingness are not in question. "I say to the players, 'Be the man that makes the difference'," he says. It is a simple request they are carrying out to a man.Reuse content