Something about Steve: Manager ready for a stint of national service

Steve McClaren is poised to become England's new manager today, having failed to excite either press or public. But the meteoric rise of an intelligent innovator who can be the life and soul of the party was always predictable to those who know him. By Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

Those who know Steve McClaren well say his public persona could hardly be more different to the man in private. Among friends, they say, McClaren is the life and soul of the party, a man who loves a joke and makes friends easily. But as his appointment as England manager draws near, it is safe to say that it is the more serious, defensive side of McClaren that is likely to be presented to a curious nation.

His has been a remarkable rise from the boy who grew up in York, a Leeds United supporter whose own playing career was cut short through injury. In 1990 he was made youth team coach at Oxford United, his last club as a player, and he has never looked back. His management career has been meticulously plotted, starting in 1991 when he got his Football Association full coaching licence in a class that included Alan Curbishley, Frank Stapleton, Joe Corrigan and Colin Calderwood.

Along the way he has forged friendships with a number of key figures who have helped to shape his career. From Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United to his agent, Colin Gordon, whom he first met when the two men played together at Bristol City. His protégé is Steve Round, now his assistant at Middlesbrough, while one of his closest friends at the end of his playing career was Ralph Milne, the former Scotland international who was much maligned during his time at Manchester United, but was also at Bristol City with McClaren.

McClaren, 45 yesterday, has earned his reputation for being guarded. While he is not as mistrustful of the press as Ferguson, he weighs every word carefully, testing it for controversy. In interviews you leave with the impression there is much he has left unsaid. But he is sensitive to criticism, especially earlier this season when he was chastised in the press for suggesting that his priority was success rather than a team that played attractive football.

As a coach he is known as an innovator and the inventor of the concept behind the ProZone system, a computer programme that tracks and measures every run a player makes during a match. He joined United as Ferguson's assistant at a golden time in their history, just five months before they completed the treble of 1999, and in 2004 he won Middlesbrough their first trophy - the Carling Cup - in 128 years. On Wednesday his team play Seville in the Uefa Cup final - as a player, however, his achievements were much more modest.

He was born in York in 1961 to Brian and Margaret, and has two sisters, Susan and Jane, and a brother, Tony. He attended Nunthorpe School where he is remembered as an exceptional sportsman, excelling in his father's sport, squash, as well as tennis, cricket and football. He was signed as an apprentice to Hull City where he worked under the tutelage of the club's formidable former player, Andy "Jock" Davidson.

McClaren's first years in football were an extremely traditional education, far removed from the one enjoyed by his promising batch of academy players now making the grade at Middlesbrough. Davidson was a Scottish disciplinarian who would have his young apprentices back in late on a Friday afternoon to clean the senior players' boots after their morning training session.

Along with his fellow apprentice Garreth Roberts, McClaren broke through into the Hull team that won promotion to the old Third Division in 1983. He was remembered as a cultured midfield player who could pass the ball well and who might have gone on to play for bigger and better clubs had it not been for a series of problems with his back that continually interrupted his development.

The former Arsenal winger Brian Marwood, who now works for the sportswear company Nike and commentates on Sky Sports, played with McClaren at Hull and described him as an "extremely skilful" player who was "highly regarded" at the club. However, Marwood also remembers McClaren's back problems becoming so acute that he wore a supportive brace at one time to try to alleviate some of the discomfort.

"Steve always wanted the ball from defenders. He was inventive and he liked going forward from midfield," Marwood said. "He was always on the slight side, tall but very thin. He suffered from back problems from an early age and that tended to catch up with him. Steve was a very bright lad and I believe he did very well at school in York. He used that intelligence to develop another path in his career. I'm delighted for him. He had to learn the hard way."

After 178 appearances for Hull City, McClaren left in 1985 to join Derby County where he won the Second Division title in 1987 under the management of Arthur Cox before being loaned to Lincoln City the next season. He signed for Bristol City in 1988 before moving on to Oxford United where his career petered out through injury and he took charge of the club's youth team before Jim Smith paid £30,000 in compensation to take him to Derby County as assistant manager.

The former Manchester United and Scotland international Joe Jordan was McClaren's manager at Bristol City - a relationship which ended when he swapped him for Oxford's Gary Shelton in what proved to be the last move of McClaren's playing career. Jordan said that McClaren had a "good instinct" for the game, a "proper footballer" whose passing was his strongest point.

"I also once watched the Oxford youth team he coached and I liked the way they played. It looked like they had been well-taught," Jordan said. "It doesn't surprise me that he went into coaching, the fact that Jim Smith, one of the most astute guys in the game, saw something in him is a great testament. The ultimate testament is that Fergie saw that in him too."

McClaren had played under some of the toughest managers in the lower leagues of English football - Cox and Brian Horton certainly fall into that category - and in Ferguson he saw life at the other end of the scale. Until this month, the closest he had come to controversy was when he dabbled with the notion of leaving Middlesbrough for Leeds in 2003, a quandary that did nothing to improve his relationship with his chairman, Steve Gibson.

The revelations about his affair with the Middlesbrough secretary Karen Nelson have been well handled by those who advise McClaren and he can thank the turmoil over Luiz Felipe Scolari's famous refusal for absorbing some of the shock.

For his wife, Kathryn, and their three sons it will have been a painful introduction to the kind of scrutiny that McClaren can expect when he is made the England manager.

The family may elect to stay in their home just outside the pretty Teesside town of Yarm rather than embrace the more high-profile life enjoyed by McClaren's predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson.

"Clever," was how the Swede described his assistant, who rejoined the England set-up before Euro 2004. With Sammy Lee, McClaren takes all the training sessions and has a rapport with the players that is very different to their relationship with Eriksson.

Eriksson dismissed the theory that McClaren was simply his passive assistant and said that they often disagreed on issues.

"When I took this job I told my staff I don't want to have people around me just saying 'yes'," he said. "I want opinions so we can have a discussion and of course Steve has opinions."

McClaren may be interested in the opinion of the man who launched his coaching career properly. Jim Smith said that "any of the top Premiership managers could manage England". "There's no mystique about it," he added. "Any guy who has worked at that level, especially those who have had teams in Europe like Steve, should be able to do it successfully.

"He knows the players, he knows the system, he knows the FA and he is a very good manager and coach. The players like him although I don't think that's always a good thing. They tend to like people they think they can handle. Most of all he's the luckiest coach I've ever worked with."

First impressions Driven coach from day one

Christian Dailly, the West Ham United and Scotland defender, was in the Derby team a decade ago when Steve McClaren began coaching at first-team level:

"I didn't know who Steve McClaren was when I joined Derby in 1996. Jim Smith said: 'I've got this fantastic coach who's going to be the next big thing.' He was very impressive, with imaginative, high-tempo training sessions, and he was into the Prozone type of computer analysis, way before most people. Jim and Steve's Derby side was the fittest, best-organised I've played in until now under Alan Pardew at West Ham. Steve dealt maturely with players - he set up a three-man committee to liaise with us - and was always looking to expand his knowledge. He used to ask me about Jim McLean's methods at Dundee United. Now he has the experience of coaching Manchester United and managing Middlesbrough, and I think he's ready for the England job. This is the best batch of players they've had. If he's promoted from within it will provide the continuity you need in international football."