England's manager in waiting still in love with beautiful game

Steve McClaren admits winning is everything but is desperate for his teams to play attacking football, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

Not every Premiership manager had the time to launch a peace mission to the Middle East or steal a few days with the family this week. While the other 19 of his contemporaries prepared themselves for the final charge to the finish line this season, Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren could be found in the drizzle of England's North-east hotel grounds fine-tuning the national team for their World Cup qualifiers.

The role of Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant is a job that the 43-year-old loves so much he knew instantly that he had made a mistake when he resigned the first time three years ago to concentrate solely on his club. Back at the centre of the England coaching staff since last May, McClaren would have regarded his last 10 days with the squad - and another six qualifying points safely accumulated - as an unmitigated success, had it not been for a dispute over the very principles of his coaching philosophy.

The Middlesbrough manager has found himself accused of signing up to a cold football pragmatism that sacrifices everything for the result. While McClaren has always, as Eriksson himself emphasised this week, placed winning matches above any other imperative, he has felt hurt at the implication that he is not a coach who nurtures attractive, attacking football at Middlesbrough and with England. And after a long coaching apprenticeship at Oxford, Derby and with the treble-winning Manchester United side of 1999, it is an allegation he is eager to deny.

"My philosophy is to win football matches and to do that you have to play good football," McClaren says. "Defend well, pass the ball well, attack well and score goals. But that doesn't guarantee you will play well because there are things you can't control. The opponents have a hell of a big say and so do the conditions: Azerbaijan away, for example. Sometimes, you do not perform well for a reason. In all of those circumstances, you have to find a way to win which is the most important thing.

"That is why I said my philosophy was winning. That is how you are judged. Some of the things that have been said would not have been said by anybody who knows me or where I have been. I started at Derby where we got promotion to the Premier League and finished up seventh. We did that by bringing in the likes of Paulo Wanchope because we knew that talent, that extra bit of skill, would make the difference."

After just five months at United, McClaren played his part in what was perhaps one of the greatest comebacks in English football history at the Nou Camp on 26 May, 1999. What he remembers particularly about that day was a team-talk delivered by Sir Alex Ferguson that urged his players to realise that their moment had arrived. "He talked about the things we had been through [defeats in previous years] and told the players 'Now you are ready and you are ready to win'," McClaren says. "That is the thing: 'You are ready to win'."

That is how he sees the progress of the current England side, a team that has been shaped by disappointment at the 2002 World Cup and at Euro 2004 last summer and now, he says, approaches the tournament in Germany next summer with a measure of maturity. "However painful it [defeat] is, you need to go through it," McClaren says. And however reluctant he is to consider it now, McClaren will be one of those in line for the succession when Eriksson goes.

This is the unusual background against which McClaren works, that he - as well as Sam Allardyce and Alan Curbishley - is regarded as one of Eriksson's most likely English successors and, every weekend, he adds a fresh page to his application. McClaren would never deny that he harbours great ambition, it was the same drive that took him from coaching Oxford's youth team to managing Middlesbrough within nine years, but he says he cannot allow himself to see further than his own club and today's trip to Crystal Palace.

"I am touted as the next England manager, I have always been very ambitious but I have never set targets," McClaren said. "At Derby, I had to do well, the club had to do well, for me to move on. Fortunately I went to Manchester United and that had to go well. Now I am at Middlesbrough and I have to be successful here. That is all I crave and that is why I am only thinking about making Middlesbrough doing well."

In ninth position, Middlesbrough are well placed to finish higher in the top flight than ever before in their club's history - they were ninth in 1999 - but it is a season that promised a great deal more. They were in the top six until February and the last 16 of the Uefa Cup until the injuries to Mark Viduka, Gaizka Mendieta, George Boateng, Malcolm Christie, Ugo Ehiogu, Colin Cooper and Chris Riggott took their toll. When the chance to reinforce the squad came at the start of the year, January passed without a single acquisition being made.

McClaren is reluctant to talk about his contract at the Riverside stadium, which has only a year left to run after this summer, although it is understood that tentative discussions have already begun. After winning the Carling Cup last season, the first English manager to win a domestic trophy for eight years, he has had to cope with the demands of a 10-game Uefa Cup campaign that was ended by Sporting Lisbon last month.

"I think there is a lot of frustration around the club at the moment," McClaren said. "Frustration because the first two-thirds of the season were magnificent. We were barely out of the top six since the beginning and we have played 10 games in Europe. We are the fourth top scorers in the Premiership [after the top three] and playing well.

"For Middlesbrough, an unfashionable club, to go into Europe for the first time in 128 years was a fantastic experience. I think if we had kept the team free of injuries, we could have gone further but we had 10 games. But we have sustained quite serious injuries that have put us in a position where we can end up disappointed. The last two or three months have not been easy. And for all Europe has been terrific, it has affected our season as a whole. We have won only one of the 10 games coming back [after midweek Uefa Cup matches]."

Accordingly, McClaren acknowledges, expectations have risen with the Carling Cup he won with Middlesbrough but he is now confident that he has created an infrastructure at the club which will safeguard its future. But it is the accusation that he has a coaching philosophy based upon suppressing the attacking instinct in a team that includes players like Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Bolo Zenden that eats at him, so much so that he returns to the theme more than once.

The game he cites was Middlesbrough's 4-4 draw at Norwich on 22 January in which the home side, to McClaren's disgust, came back from 4-1 down. It might stand as irrefutable proof that his Middlesbrough team is set out to attack - not that it was much consolation that night. "Our fans didn't say 'great entertainment'," McClaren points out. "They were massively disappointed that we didn't win."