Steve McClaren will take his place in the dugout at FC Twente's Grolsch Arena on Saturday to what promises to be a warm welcome from the home supporters for the manager who delivered them the only league title in their club's history. After a 2011 that the former England manager would sooner forget, it will be just the tonic.
McClaren was appointed manager of Twente for the second time 13 days ago but the Dutch league has been on its winter break, which comes to an end on Friday, with Twente at home to RKC Waalwijk the following evening. Twente are third in the Eredivisie and they face Steaua Bucharest over two legs in the last 32 of the Europa League next month.
For McClaren, it is a welcome return to the front line after an unhappy 16 weeks with Nottingham Forest, which ended with him walking away from the club in October, frustrated that the vision sold to him by the then chairman, Nigel Doughty, was not borne out in reality. Forest were 21st in the Championship when he left them after 10 games of the season; under his successor, Steve Cotterill, they are 22nd.
Over in Enschede, with the stadium capacity expanded to 32,000 in the 18 months since McClaren left, there is a strong feeling of optimism. So much so that when he spoke to i yesterday there was a temptation to ask whether he risked his legacy at the club by returning. "If I had stayed after we won the title in 2010, then the expectation would be exactly the same," he said. "[Sir Alex] Ferguson has stayed at Manchester United for 25 years and he is expected to win the title every year."
He left Twente with his stock high and joined Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, but struggled with the club's politics and left after nine months. At Twente, he has a close relationship with chairman Joop Munsterman and director Aldo van der Laan. There is an expectation that they work as a team, one the former Twente manager Co Adriaanse was not perceived as buying in to.
Twente finally lost patience with Adriaanse this month and went back to McClaren, whose 2010 title had given them Champions League football for the first time in their history under his successor, Michel Preud'homme. "The challenge is the same as it was when I left," McClaren said. "The club is growing and developing. When I left I wondered, 'Could the club maintain it?' Obviously they have done. I have kept in touch with Joop and he has asked me two or three times before to come back as trainer [manager]. I always said I would love to come back because I enjoyed it so much here."
The Eredivisie's month-long winter break, part of it spent with his squad in Gran Canaria, has given McClaren time to assess the team. His side are one of five clubs at the top of the table – with AZ Alkmaar, PSV Eindhoven, Ajax and Feyenoord – with a chance of winning the league. There are still a number of players who won the 2010 title with McClaren, including the defenders Douglas and Peter Wisgerhof as well as Wout Brama and Luuk de Jong.
It is a reality of life at Twente that the best players move on, and many of the stars of McClaren's title-winning team have done. Bryan Ruiz is now at Fulham; Eljero Elia has gone to Juventus, via Hamburg, and Theo Janssen was signed by Ajax last summer.
McClaren has not relocated his whole family this time – his youngest son Josh, 15, went to school in Germany when he was at Wolfsburg – but he has taken one ally. Joe, 23, his oldest son has joined the video analysis department at Twente. "The fans here are unique," McClaren said. "It is becoming a major club in Holland and still growing."
Is there part of him that feels his decision to leave Forest has been vindicated? "I went there expecting one thing and I left because they couldn't deliver it and they are still now a long way away. It was the wrong club on both sides. There was a distinct lack of ambition and I don't think there's any money now."
It might have been easier to wait until the summer and pick up a team in England but McClaren's career has never been orthodox. "When I started coaching, I wanted to be innovative and do things a different way. What I have tended to do is take risks. I took a risk with the England job and it was a risk coming to Holland, it was a risk going to Wolfsburg and then going back to the Championship in England.
"This was a different challenge that I wanted to experience. I wanted to develop myself so that in the future I can look back on my experiences and use them to give something back to other coaches."
Eventually, McClaren would like an involvement with St George's Park, the new Football Association centre outside Burton-upon-Trent that will focus on the education of the next generation of English manager and coaches. "My development has leapt forward so much from three years ago," McClaren said.
"I like coaching the coaches as well as the players and teams. When I have done what I want to do as a manager I would like to use my experience to improve and help our coaches."
Before then, however, an intriguing season is unfolding in the Netherlands. Should Twente eliminate Steaua, they also have the prospect of a big Europa League tie in the last 16 against Schalke, which will give McClaren a chance to restore some pride lost in Germany after his departure from Wolfsburg.
Even by McClaren's standards, 2011 had dramatic ups and downs but you get the feeling that, come Saturday, he will relish being back at a venue that truly appreciates him.Reuse content