Steve McClaren finds success in the Netherlands
English football manager Steve McClaren has broken his silence since his sacking as coach of the English national team in 2007 to talk to NRC Handelsblad. McClaren is now manager of FC Twente, a surprising second in the Dutch premier league and due to play Olympique Marseille in the Uefa Cup on Thursday. "It's not a step down. It's a new challenge."
Do not ask Steve McClaren if his management of FC Twente is a chance at rehabilitation. "Rehab? Like a drug addict?" says the Englishman who was sacked as head coach of the English national team in November 2007 and damaged by the coverage in the British tabloids. "No, I'm not in rehab. It was disappointing, but it's football. It happens. You have to learn from it, dust yourself down and hopefully become a better manager. That's what I hope to prove."
But it is clear his sixteen months as England coach have left their mark. He dislikes interviews, he says in a friendly way after our conversation at the FC Twente training centre in Hengelo. And he most certainly does not want to talk about the failure to qualify for the European Championship last summer. He wants to be left alone to get on with FC Twente, the team which has brought him second place in the Dutch premier division. "Someone told me that self-publicity is the worst publicity. My satisfaction is the team winning. We don't need to shout it from the rooftops."
McClaren (47) was born to a working-class family in Fulford near the northern English city of York. He played at midfield for the small clubs Hull City, Derby County, Bristol City and Oxford United, where he began his training career. In 1999 he moved from assistant trainer at Derby County to Manchester United as manager Alex Ferguson's right-hand man. "It was the hardest work of my life, but it was all worth it," says McClaren of a period in which the club became champion of England and Europe.
McClaren made his name as a progressive trainer who experimented with video analysis and sport psychologists. He has been a moderniser since his time at Derby County. "One of the key things we started was working with video analysis so we could analyse players during a game. Improve players and their performance because we had facts instead of opinions. We also developed the mental side of the game. You have to improve the individual mind of the footballer. Coaches tended to work on what I call the hardware, which is physical and technical, rather than the software, which is mental."
In 2001 McClaren was appointed manager at second division club Middlesbrough, partly because of his reputation as a pioneer. The results during his five seasons there were mixed, with a place in the Uefa Cup final of 2006 as the high spot. McClaren combined his job at Middlesbrough with assistant coach for the English national team. After the departure of head coach Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2006, the Football Association first approached Luiz Felipe Scolari to succeed him. The Portugese refused because of the intrusion the job would bring into his private life by the British media.
McClaren, the surprise number two on the FA's list, was prepared to take the job. His appointment was praised by colleagues and criticised by the majority of the fans. After eighteen months under McClaren, England lost against Croatia (3-2) at the newly built Wembley Stadium, the first time in fourteen years it had failed to qualify for a major tournament. McClaren, who had been under fire for months, was vilified by the British media. He was sacked on November 22, one day after the defeat; the shortest reign of any England coach.
He became an assistant coach for a League Two team and commentated for the BBC until FC Twente approached him in May. The talks lead to a two-year contract with the Dutch club. McClaren says he was not running away from England, although he does admit that premier league clubs were not queueing up to employ him. "Of course there are circumstances which dictate what you do and where you go. But I always wanted to work abroad." And: "It affected me, hopefully for the future in a positive way. Everyone has to go through downs. I'd had a pretty decent ride so far. I was probably due to fall, but it was a hard fall."
McClaren prefers to talk about Dutch football which he knew from total football, Ajax, Johan Cruijff and other top players and coaches. Before he moved to Twente he sought advice from Bobby Robson, another former England manager and once coach at Eindhoven club PSV. "Go on your own, son. You'll love it," he imitates Robson.
He followed the advice. "This club was already successful. Twente has good people and a very good organisation. So all I did was come and try not to get in the way," McClaren says.
He began with the same modesty he showed as assistant trainer at Manchester United. "The first game I sat on the bench there we won 8-1. What can you do? It sounds stupid, but sometimes when things are ticking along well, you can get in the way." And players at that level know what they need. "They all want to learn, to get better. They weren't satisfied. They were hungry. They were winners. That's what made them successful."
During his time with the English national squad McClaren was accused of letting his internationals' inflated egos affect their play. After the recent draw with Doetinchem club De Graafschap (2-2), forward Blaise N'Kufo said FC Twente should not be arrogant but should keep working hard. McClaren: "None of the players is arrogant. I call it lack of concentration, a lack of focus. You learn by experience, and you get punished like we did."
FC Twente with McClaren is in second place in the Dutch premier league behind AZ Alkmaar. Over the last few years the provincial club has become serious competition for the traditional top three of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord - all of which have performed poorly this season - through sensible financial and performance management. McClaren: "When I came here, Twente was described as the best footballing team in Holland."
The coach has made seven changes to the team but its performance remains good. Influential players like Orlando Engelaar and Karim El Ahmadi have left, but new players like Wout Brama, Eljero Elia, Marko Arnautovic and Kenneth Perez have fitted in well with a club which made the preliminary rounds of the Champions League last season.
McClaren: "Things will fall into place if you keep doing the right things every day. FC Twente is not a step down. It's a new challenge. I'm already looking at next season. If it doesn't take us ten games to get going, who knows what can happen?"