McClaren the maker of players

Nick Townsend finds the new No 2 is widening the coach's horizons
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The Independent Online

You know you've made it when they spell your name right, as Steve McClaren might well have been reflecting this week. Like the jobbing actor appearing round the country in rep before on the stage of the national theatre, his emergence as assistant England coach has been singularly unspectacular.

You know you've made it when they spell your name right, as Steve McClaren might well have been reflecting this week. Like the jobbing actor appearing round the country in rep before on the stage of the national theatre, his emergence as assistant England coach has been singularly unspectacular.

So unremarkable, indeed, that, despite his influence over events at Old Trafford since early last year - including Champions' League and championship successes - Sir Alex Ferguson's No 2 still tends to appear as McLaren or Maclaren. With a profile so low that he barely gets a mention in matchday programmes on away trips, it gives the lie to the perceived wisdom that an England coach must possess a cupboard full of international caps, pockets bulging with gold medallions and have stirring tales to relate of exploits in a shirt bearing three lions.

However, that is because the rubicund Yorkshireman has made it his life's work to become a coach. Not a manager. Though he possesses an engaging personality, profound confidence and undisguised ambition, McClaren has, until now, tended to reveal those qualities only when speaking at coaches' and managers' seminars. Despite his insistence this week that he harbours aspirations to manage Manchester United and/or England, the contemplative McClaren will recognise that between manager and coach lie myriad extra emotions and increased angst.

If McClaren had any doubts on that, he should have cast a look at the glassy-eyed demeanour of his predecessor at Old Trafford, Brian Kidd, in April 1998, when as the manager of Blackburn Rovers he realised that he could not arrest the club's decline. Now, returned to a behind-the-scenes position at Leeds, Kidd has rediscovered his old jauntiness.

As McClaren says of his role at Old Trafford: "I help out, advise, but don't make decisions and the most difficult thing is picking the team. Alex gets the stick or the praise. One day I'd like to try sitting in that chair, but before that I want to be the best No 2 I can be."

If he was in industry, McClaren would be an archetype "post room to boardroom" success story. Though he has come to England's attention by the equivalent of royal appointment (i.e. stamped with the marque of Sir Alex Ferguson), the man who began football life as an apprentice at Hull City is a great advocate of "doing your time" rather than "fast-tracking". An honest midfielder with Hull, Derby and Bristol City, who finished his playing career at Oxford United, where he became player-coach under Brian Horton, McClaren, 39, concedes that he did not realise his full potential.

"There's always been people saying to me: 'Where have you been in the game? What have you done?' " he recalls. "Although I've never had it at Old Trafford. But if you look at all the people who've got to the top, they've all been in the trenches. They haven't all been great players. Many started at the bottom, and worked their way up. A perfect example is the gaffer [Ferguson], who played at a certain level, started at St Mirren and has ended up manager of the greatest club in the world. Managers, coaches, players need to have a little bit of that, know what it's like to work on the shop floor. You must have that humility that all great people have. It's the greatest gift."

Much has been made about McClaren's embrace of the latest technology, from the computers that record how every one of United's players have performed in each game to the introduction of Prozone beds that relax players' muscles and reduce the chance of injury. McClaren is not just a Professor Gadget, though, but a man who firmly believes in the capability of a good coach to draw the maximum out of a player.

"There is far more to coaching than putting on training sessions," he says. "You need to look closely at what motivates him, find out what is going on in a player's head if he is not playing, and how he needs to regain confidence. That is the coach's job, because the manager can't get too close to the players."

He adds: "You've got to find what it is that gets them up in the morning to come to training and to want to succeed and be the best and put up with all the intrusion into their private lives. It's not just about money or cars. It's about pride and wanting to succeed."

McClaren concedes that it was somewhat daunting to walk into a dressing room and find himself confronted by Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole. "Sure," he says. "They're all superstars, but I'd had nearly four years at Derby when we introduced more foreign players than just about anybody. Italians, Costa Ricans, Danish, Estonians, Croatians, we had the lot and they were difficult people to deal with; very professional people, but from different cultures."

Apart from the learning he has accrued by his own observation, he is also a disciple of men like Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls and now in charge of the LA Lakers, and the late Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. Their books, and those chronicling many other sporting endeavours, in Britain and abroad, dominate the library at his Cheshire home. "In the USA they're coaching superstars earning $50m a year. People like Phil Jackson had to deal with a man like Michael Jordan. In their books, they take you inside the dressing room or locker room, inside their heads and the players' heads and tell you what they were thinking."

McClaren adds: "I've said to the gaffer, 'you've written your biography, now write your philosophy, because that's what it's all about'. You should always have mentors in life. I had Maurice Evans at Oxford and Jim Smith at Derby. I learned a lot from Jim and not just about football. Also about red wine, cigars, and how to recover in the morning."

Some day, you imagine, we may just be reading The Wisdom of Steve McClaren. Or is it Steve McClaret...?

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