How Steve McClaren bounced back, by the men who helped make it happen
“For us it was mission impossible. Here we were trying to recruit the man who had just been England coach – we shouldn't have had a chance of getting him. Luckily for us, for you he was just the Wally with the Brolly.”
FC Twente chairman Joop Munsterman is speaking to FourFourTwo just days after Steve McClaren had completed another significant step in restoring his reputation on this side of the North Sea – potentially one of the biggest rebuilding jobs currently underway in global football. His Derby County side had dismantled Brighton 4-1 in the second leg of their play-off semi-final to leave them 90 minutes from an unlikely return to the Premier League.
The win meant McClaren would have to overcome QPR – the club with whom he had started the season, working as a coach under Harry Redknapp – to reach the Promised Land.
Munsterman will be watching on from the Netherlands on Saturday, hoping that his former employee can secure Derby’s first promotion since 2014. He won’t be alone, though. “All Twente fans will be watching,” he tells FFT. “Everyone here still loves him, they still sing about him, they’ll all be willing Derby to win.”
For many of us, the abiding memory of McClaren’s ill-fated time in charge of his country is indelibly etched. Under foreboding Wembley skies, England made the relatively straightforward task of drawing with Croatia look next to impossible as, with more than a little help from Scott Carson, Slaven Bilic’s quicksilver side won 3-2 to end English interest in Euro 2008.
The question of whether Croatia were as good as England had made them look was answered a short time later, when a side led by Fabio Capello dismantled them 4-1 in Zagreb and 5-1 at Wembley in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. By that time, McClaren was very much yesterday’s man. In England, at least.
A new chapter
McClaren had first arrived at Twente in June 2008, taking over from Shalke 04-bound Fred Rutten. By the time Capello had done what proved beyond McClaren – namely qualifying for a major tournament – the only thing raining down on the former England boss were tributes from Dutch fans who recognised what an extraordinary job he had done at a club that had never previously won the league.
“It was a surprise for everyone in Dutch football (when Twente won the Eredivisie in 2009/10),” says Munsterman. “He really made this team – he turned them into champions with players who were not fantastic. Everything came together in that year, he did that.
“We couldn’t have won the championship without him. He was Steve McClaren, he was the former manager of the England team which meant the players listened to him. He had that special approach. He was so relaxed, not on the pitch – he was crazy – but he was so relaxed off it.”
McClaren had become the first Englishman to win a title in a major European league since Bobby Robson in 1996, but although his achievements with Twente earned the former Middlesbrough boss a few more column inches in the English press there was always a nagging suspicion that all he had done really, was find his level.
There was also, of course, the famous press conference, when McClaren answered questions fired at him in a flawless Dutch accident. The only issue being that he was still speaking English.
For both Twente and McClaren, however, there was complete agreement that they were made for each other. In an interview with the Daily Mail back in May 2010, Munsterman even compared the significance of the Englishman’s arrival at the club with that of Eric Cantona at Manchester United.
But despite restoring some of the sheen to a reputation battered by his time with England, McClaren was already looking for his next challenge – and found it with Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. “I didn’t think Wolfsburg were a good fit and I told him so,” says Munsterman.
Perhaps McClaren should have listened, because his reign as the first Englishman to manage in the Bundesliga ended badly by February with the club just a point off the relegation zone.
“We have tried to make things work for as long as possible, but we have lost faith that we can bring success,” said the club’s director of sport Dieter Hoeness.
Savaged by Wolfsburg
The final nail in McClaren’s German coffin came courtesy of a comical situation in Wolfsburg’s match against Hanover, when a squabble over a penalty between Diego and striker Patrick Helmes led to the spot-kick being missed and Wolfsburg losing the game.
“The players argued about it (the penalty) like kids in a playground,” said Hoeness. “And because of that we were beaten in a match that we should never have lost.”
Less than a year after being hailed as a hero in Enschede, McClaren once again appeared to be in danger of losing his way. His re-introduction to the English game was similarly disastrous, with a 110-day stay at Nottingham Forest in 2011 representing another low for a man who seemed destined to be viewed far more favourably in the Netherlands than his home country.
But even that love affair turned sour as a second spell at Twente never threatened to live up to the first.
It was little wonder, then, that eyebrows were raised when Derby sacked Nigel Clough and replaced him with McClaren back in September.
“Obviously there were a lot of questions asked when Sam Rush (Derby's chief executive) appointed Steve McClaren and sacked Nigel,” says former Rams captain Michael Johnson. “But because of Steve’s background as a player and (as a coach) working under Jim Smith, it made that transition a little bit easier than it would have been for someone not connected with the club.
“What he also did, very astutely, was appoint Paul Simpson, another Derby legend in his backroom staff and also Eric Steele, who came with such a reputation from Manchester United. Those appointments really won over the Derby fans.”
That, perhaps, was the easy task. But with the Premier League just 90 tantalising minutes away, he’s closer than he could ever have imagined to winning over others who still view him through sceptical eyes.
“He's so meticulous in the way he prepares the boys for training sessions and his tactical and technical knowledge is fantastic,” says Johnson. “Remembering him for what happened at Wembley that night is very unfair.”
A win on Saturday and McClaren will be wearing a grin as wide as the Wembley arch. And even if the heavens open, there won’t be a brolly in sight.