Interviews

The big interview: Steve McClaren - "Not qualifying for Euro 2008 was a crime, but ultimately there was one man responsible – me"

Portrait: Garrod Kirkwood

What was it like being No.2 to Sven and Fergie? Does he still have a future in management? And whatever happened to that brolly? Your questions answered in March 2018…

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Portrait: Garrod Kirkwood

There’s a big queue snaking along the High Street in Yarm, a few miles west of Middlesbrough. A celebrity’s in town and all the locals are determined not to miss him.

However, the man they're waiting to see isn’t Steve McClaren – it’s Rick Stein, signing some cookery books at the local Waterstones. Instead, McClaren greets FFT a couple of doors down at the smart Italian eatery Cena Trattoria, turning up virtually unnoticed. That suits the former England manager just fine: after a spell as coaching consultant at Israeli outfit Maccabi Tel Aviv, he’s now back at home to enjoy the quiet life with his family for a brief period.

“This was my place of solitude after the England job,” he tells us. McClaren knows that he will never completely escape the ‘Wally with a Brolly’ nickname, but while he politely declines FFT’s cheeky request to pose for some photos with a cocktail umbrella (“I can’t, the media would kill me for it!”), he’s in a relaxed mood and ready to speak candidly about a career that has delivered its fair share of highs and lows over the years...

At Oxford United, during his playing days

You played for Derby and Oxford, who were both owned by Robert Maxwell at the time. Did you ever get to have a ride on his yacht?
Gerry Brown, via Facebook

I didn’t, no! Robert’s sons were in charge of the two clubs then so I met them without meeting the big chief. But I heard stories from Jim Smith about the Maxwell days and the things that went on – I’d better not repeat them, though...

Did you always know that you wanted to be a coach or manager?
Andy Bryan, York

I had potential as a player but suffered a bad injury at Derby and struggled to play at the level I wanted after that. At 31, I already knew that when a chance to become a coach came along, it was something I wanted to do. Oxford was my apprenticeship, working with Brian Horton and Denis Smith. I loved going into the manager’s office after games. Jim Smith was there quite a lot. He’s an Oxford legend who would come to see the games and I’d always get his drink – a whisky. When he got the Derby job, he said that he liked the way I’d always served his drink and took me on as his assistant manager. Jim allowed me to be very innovative at Derby – we were the first to introduce Prozone, brought in a psychologist, used sports science...

Jim Smith was an early mentor

What did you think when Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards first introduced you as ‘Steve McClaridge’?
Iain Cross, Sale

I think that’s when I knew that it was a big job! One Saturday night I’d got a telephone call, “It’s Alex Ferguson here”. I said, “Come on... who is it really?” He said, “It’s Alex Ferguson” and I said, “Oh, evening Alex!” He asked me to join him as his new assistant, but Derby were playing United on the Tuesday night so he would speak to Jim Smith afterwards. I had to keep it quiet. We played pretty well at Old Trafford and only lost 1-0 but I remember thinking to myself during the game, ‘Do I want us to win here, or do I want us to lose?’ Jim was brilliant about it – he never protested about me going to Man United, because he knew it was a really good opportunity for me.

You'd never played at the top level before – did you have to prove yourself to the United players?
Steve Whitlow, Halesowen

Did I have to prove myself? Wow, did I. My first five months at Old Trafford were the toughest five months of my life, still to this day – from January 1999 to the end of May when we won the Treble in Barcelona. Every single night I would be up until about 3am, planning a session for the following day knowing it had to be perfect, as if it wasn’t they’d kill me.

I’d start putting cones out and Teddy Sheringham was the worst. He’d say to me, “Steve, did you have a glass of wine too many last night? Those cones aren’t in a straight line.” For everything it was, “Why are we doing this, Steve?” I had to have all the answers. Eventually, I was accepted because sessions were bright, intense and competitive. I had to make it that way, so the players knew it would be difficult but enjoyable. They were all competitive – it could have been a war zone every day, because there were so many winners within that United squad.

PLAYING CLUBS

  • 1979-85 Hull
  • 1985-88 Derby
  • 1987 Lincoln (loan)
  • 1988-89 Bristol City
  • 1989-92 Oxford

What did it feel like to win the Treble at the Camp Nou in 1999?
Thomas Aiston, Salford

Incredible. I remember thinking, ‘I just want to retire now!’ We went on a lap of honour after that Champions League final and I stayed at the end where the Bayern Munich fans had been, looking back at three-quarters of the Camp Nou still full of United supporters, soaking it up for five minutes. For somebody who hadn't had a great playing career and who was only five or six years into their coaching career, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

The next morning, the gaffer had all the staff in at The Cliff, our old training ground, with bacon butties and tea, planning the following season. That’s why Fergie was so successful for 27 years – 99 per cent of people would want to go off on holiday but he got the staff in, medals away, asking, “How are we going to repeat this?” Unbelievable! The bacon butties were decent as well.

What was the weirdest job Fergie ever made you do as his No.2?
Andreas Meyer, via Facebook

Manage the Manchester derby! He told me at the start of the season: “Steve, my son’s getting married out in South Africa and that day it’s the Manchester derby, so you’re going to have to take it.” Thank goodness we won 1-0 – David Beckham scored a magnificent free-kick early on. So my win record as Manchester United caretaker manager is 100 per cent. All I could think about was Alex watching the game and dying to call me – I think he did during half-time to say, “Tell that Dwight Yorke to start moving!” But he’d trust people to do their job. That was his other secret as a manager.

Two days after I joined United we won 8-1 at Nottingham Forest and I had this fear of ‘What can I actually bring to the team? What can I really coach?’ I went to see Alex on the Monday morning and asked him what he’d like me to work on, but he said: “Steve, what were you doing at Derby? Just do that – that’s why I’ve brought you here.” He told me to get on with the coaching, hardly gave me any feedback and never came over and said, ‘I want you to work on this or that’. He simply gave me a blank sheet of paper.

Two days after I joined United we won 8-1 at Nottingham Forest and I had this fear of ‘What can I actually bring to the team? What can I really coach?’

- Steve McClaren

You were on England’s coaching staff for the 5-1 win over Germany in 2001. What was the game plan?
Freddie Davies, Chelmsford

What Sven-Goran Eriksson provided the England team was pure simplicity. He’s the calmest man I’ve known in football, ever. Whenever we’d discuss decisions, we’d say, “Sven, what do you think?” He would often say, “I think, Stevie, we will sleep on it. We will see in the morning.” I think he knew what his decision was – I don’t think Sven’s ever had a sleepless night in his life, whereas I’ve had many! That was the big difference. He brought calmness and simplicity, we played with a 4-4-2 and he allowed players to play. It was just one of those matches where everything clicked into place and all the potential, which was always there with those players, suddenly came together. It was the most memorable night I had while working with the England squad.

Winning the League Cup with Middlesbrough

Should England have won something under Sven?
Andrew Rainford, via Twitter

People will always say that, but in major tournaments there are some things you can control and some things you can’t. In 2002 we had an excellent World Cup but just ran out of energy at the end. I remember the long train journey to Tokyo from Kobe, then the long bus drive and the heat. We played Brazil in the quarters – the first half was great but we ran out of gas. I thought the team would mature and get better, and it did by Euro 2004. That was our best time. [FFT: Had Rooney not got injured, would England have won Euro 2004?] Without a doubt. Portugal was the best chance because Wayne was in unbelievable form during that tournament and I just felt, ‘We are going to win this’. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

You led Middlesbrough to a first ever major trophy – the 2004 League Cup – and a European final, too. Would you say they are your greatest managerial achievements?
Jesse Ridgway, via email