In April 2014 I sat for over an hour in Steve McClaren’s office at Derby County’s training ground. It was on the record, one of many interviews that would be part of the book Up There, The North-East, Football, Boom & Bust.
The interview was to focus on Middlesbrough’s run to the 2004 League Cup final victory, specifically the week leading to the final with Bolton Wanderers in Cardiff, how McClaren approached it. This was Middlesbrough’s first major trophy in their history. It was the first major north-east trophy since Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973.
In that sense the interview would be narrow, but it was also the intention to divert into other parts of McClaren’s time on Teesside. In that sense it would be broad.
McClaren agreed to do it, which was the first hurdle cleared. And there was no mention of money changing hands, which is not always the case.
Prior to the interview we had a brief lunch in the players canteen McClaren had sausages and talked of the worrying dominance of mobile phone culture among young players. He was relaxed, confident, interested and open. Of those four words, many sports reporters down the years who had encountered McClaren would only recognise confident.
We had no great rapport with McClaren, or so it felt. As with a few of us who had covered his five years with Middlesbrough, I’d used the term anti-football more than once in the early days. Later I’d be more sympathetic.
Initially he’d appeared to regard the reporting collective as a necessary irritation, though there were days when he was agreeable and he had a relationship with the Gazette.
Most of all, he seemed ambitious personally ambitious perhaps beyond his ability as a coach-manager. This was seen during certain episodes, such as when it seemed McClaren would leave for Leeds United. Club chairman Steve Gibson stood by him despite misgivings. This turned out to be crucial to the club but more so to McClaren. He had arrived from Manchester United as Alex Ferguson’s highly-regarded assistant in 2001but he could have been sacked in 2002 or 2003. There would have been a 24-hourfuss, no more. By 2006 he was manager of England.
But on Teesside people felt McClaren had been over-promoted and, eventually, he was mocked. It cannot have been nice for him. Wally, brolly and all that.
He went east after that, to Enschede in Holland, on the German border. The locals, known as Tukkers, say they feel a long way from the capital.
McClaren had taken a risk with his first job after England. Had it gone wrong, he would surely have fallen off the radar. But it went right and once again, crucially, he had a good chairman.
At Twente, Joop Munsterman had the awareness, imagination and club ambition Steve Gibson had, and has, at Middlesbrough. In 2009 and 2010 I went to see McClaren’s unexpected progress at Twente and Munsterman said of his approach: We are working on three things: football, ambience, solidarity.
It’s a long way from Mike Ashley.
Munsterman talked animatedly about the infrastructure he wanted to give McClaren and in return, FC Twente won their first league title in 84 years.
McClaren was more relaxed than at Midddlesbrough and with England. To which he replied: Relaxed? I’m not away with the fairies.I’m harder, more focused, determined. After Twente, he went to Wolfsburg, which went wrong, then Nottingham Forest, back to Twente, then to QPR as a coach and finally to Derby County. At the moment we spoke, things had not gone wrong at Derby. They were going right and McClaren’s rehabilitation from the brolly days was less and less a topic of discussion.
He seemed to have changed, matured, and this was confirmed when we sat down and discussed2003-04s League Cup. It had been his third season at the club. In the first two Middlesbrough had finished 12th and 11th in the Premier League butit was at times painful to watch. Anti-football. Here in Derby, McClaren accepted that. He mentioned mistakes he’d made, always a good sign. He said he signed Michael Ricketts but realized after that Ricketts wanted to play a different style of game. McClaren held up his hands. It became clear just how much he had been affected by his first four games in charge ofMiddlesbrough his first four games as a manager.
Those were lost 4-0 to Arsenal, 1-0 to Bolton, 2-0 to Everton and 4-1 at home to Newcastle United(scorers: Shearer (2) Dabizas, Robert). After that Middlesbrough were bottom of the league and the News of the World headline was: Pointless and Clueless.
In Derby, without prompting, McClaren brought that up headline. It was about survival, that first season, he said. But it was when we looked at the start to his third season that he blurted out: My God, how did I survive?Then Middlesbrough began with a point from their first five games, which was a 0-0 at Leicester, who would be relegated. Again Gibson stayed loyal and from these ashes came mid-table security and the League Cup. Years on, McClaren was still aware and grateful for Gibson’s support. It just shows that it was in the third season that we started, he said. In modern football how many coaches are given the first two seasons? It shows how long it can take to build something. I was given time. I was given time. He was also given time, to an extent, by the media, local and national. More so than by the local population, it sometimes felt. More time than he would havereceived on Tyneside? It’s worth considering.
Make no mistake, McClaren has long been interested in Newcastle United, yet because of the ham-fisted staging of his alleged unveiling at St. James’ Park, it was certainly more time than he will get this autumn should things start shakily.
Ashley’s version of Newcastle United like to act big but really they think small. They have hung out their new manager and he needs to take them to task on it. SJP has an opaque culture; it needs to change.
This is not a media gripe. A small example: in Derby McClaren looked at the Middlesbrough back four who won the League Cup Mills, Southgate, Ehiogu, Queudrue and the two protecting midfielders, Boateng and Doriva.
What if, say, in the opening four games for Newcastle United, McClaren moved Coloccini into midfield to do what Doriva did? Many would nod and say that this could be Coloccini’s best position. What happens if there is general agreement on Tyneside about this tactical shift but it does not go well in those first four games?
To whom will McClaren go to for understanding and patience? Without access, without conversation, there is no understanding. To whom will he ask for time?
Time, it is one of the lessons of Steve McClaren’s career. Another is that Middlesbrough invested heavily in fees and wages. A third is that when he has done well, it is with a supportive chairman.
Support goes beyond time and money, it is about letting your manager breathe, allowing him to see and be seen. If McClaren is to prosper, to reveal himself, there needs to be access. Sometimes this can be ove rstated in the media, but in Newcastle United’s case the point is proven by the lack of access.
Lots of you have stopped caring. That damages Newcastle United, and unless there is change, when the new season starts,S teve McClaren will be damaged too. A new manager, any new manager, deserves better.
MICHAEL WALKER, AUTHOR OF UP THERE.
Michael has signed copies of his excellent book at The Backpage on St Andrew’s Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne. It will make an ideal Father’s Day present and its a cracking read.
For those of you who can’t get to The Backpage, the book is available via their website – click here
as well as the usual outlets as well as Amazon, click here