New, improved McClaren can prove Villa wrong for listening to their fans

Forest's manager should no longer be seen as 'wally with the brolly', reports Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

It is 1,301 days since Steve McClaren sought protection from the November rain in north-west London under a Football Association-branded umbrella while watching his England team throw away qualification for Euro 2008. What tends to get forgotten about that night against Croatia was that Peter Crouch was McClaren's only fit frontline striker and that, towards the end of the game, Darren Bent missed a chance just fractionally harder than the one he blazed over the bar against Switzerland earlier this month that would have seen England qualify.

Unfortunately for McClaren it is the brolly that gets remembered and more so than you might think. McClaren was due to meet Paul Faulkner, the Aston Villa chief executive, last week and was en route when the call came from Villa to say the meeting was off. The news had leaked on to the Villa fans' message boards and some of Randy Lerner's advisers lost their nerve when confronted with the prospect of being the first club to bring McClaren back to English football.

No such fears for Nottingham Forest's chairman Nigel Doughty at the end of last week, but then Doughty has never appeared the type to allow an online mob to sway his thinking. Tomorrow, McClaren will be introduced at the City Ground as Forest's new manager on a three-year contract with a mission to get this famous old club back into the Premier League after an absence of 12 years and counting.

McClaren has changed since that night of 21 November 2007 when an FA board hastily convened to decide unanimously to sack him. The two years in the Netherlands with FC Twente, the second of which saw him win the club's first Dutch title of the modern era, have altered his thinking about the game dramatically. At Middlesbrough – where he won the Carling Cup in 2004 and a place in the Uefa Cup final the following year – he could be cautious, but he does not see it that way any more.

At Twente, he played the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 system and was praised by Johan Cruyff for his team's attacking approach to games. McClaren wants Forest to play attacking football and he cites to friends the example of Norwich City and Swansea City who were both promoted from the Championship last season by playing stylishly.

There was an offer to return to Twente this summer for three times the value of the deal McClaren has signed at Forest and further interest from clubs in Turkey and Russia. But he wanted to return to England – his long-term aim since losing his job with the national team in 2007 – and the more he learned about Forest, the more the challenge appealed.

In his two seasons at Twente, and in the nine months he spent at Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga last season, McClaren did not bring a coaching entourage of his own, preferring instead to work with the existing staff. It will be different at Forest. But instead of appointing old friends and allies, McClaren intends to speak to the League Managers' Association for references for the best young coaches and maybe even conduct interviews – not a process to which football is accustomed. It was the same for McClaren who had never met Sir Alex Ferguson before the Manchester United manager invited him for a chat at the end of 1998 and appointed him his new assistant the following month. The Forest chief executive Mark Arthur said yesterday there would be a budget for new signings but McClaren will have to compete with much wealthier clubs.

At Leicester City, his old boss Sven Goran Eriksson, under whom McClaren was twice assistant with England, has much greater funds at his disposal. The same is likely to be true at West Ham where Sam Allardyce is in charge. The likes of Birmingham, Cardiff and Middlesbrough are all expected to spend more on players than Forest.

Despite Forest having reached the play-offs for the last two season, it is far from a given that McClaren will be able to get them into the Premier League at the first attempt and, for someone who has never managed outside of the top division in any of the countries he has worked in, promotion is still a major challenge. He will have to acquaint himself quickly with the players at that level.

The transfer committee Doughty convened at Forest, which includes David Pleat and was a source of such frustration for Billy Davies, will continue. McClaren, who knows and likes Pleat, does not have a problem with it and he anticipates he will make the final decisions. He had a director of football at Twente which worked well. At Wolfsburg, he found Dieter Hoeness less easy to work with. It is telling that since Felix Magath's appointment as coach there, Hoeness has also been sacked.

But what you sense McClaren really wants is to be given a fighting chance by Forest supporters, whose reaction to his appointment has been mixed, and the opportunity to coach and shape the team his way. I watched him take a training session at Twente in his second season. There was no doubting his acumen and – whatever the criticism aimed at him for being too matey with the big-name England players – there was no question who was boss.

Later that day, I asked him about his famous interview conducted in that mysterious Dutch accent he briefly adopted. He laughed about it and said that the worst stick he had got for it had come from his kids. Having bumped into him in press boxes over the last six months I have noticed that his voice still has an unusual cadence to it – that of a man who has spent a lot of time trying to speak slowly so people can understand him – but, really, so what?

It was interesting to hear Dave Whelan, the Wigan Athletic chairman, say over the weekend that had Roberto Martinez gone to Aston Villa he would have had no hesitation in appointing McClaren. It does take a strong chairman to appoint a manager with baggage. McClaren might have lost his chance of the Villa job over the last 10 days because of his past but if he can restore Forest to the Premier League then he will find himself at a bigger club than – with respect – Wigan Athletic.

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