James Lawton: McClaren's media skill no substitute for tactical nous

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The Independent Online

In fact, once you have drawn the necessary line between a human tragedy of huge proportion and a mere football match it is hard not to notice a point of comparison in basic strategy.

Both were massive cock-ups. Both exposed the guilty generals, first Field Marshal Montgomery at Arnhem, then McClaren a few miles down the road in Eindhoven. The foolhardiness at Arnhem was to create a salient impossible to support, one that turned into an ambush - a bit like the experience of four Middlesbrough strikers operating at the front of a hopelessly unbalanced team.

McClaren's media training was plainly visible in the aftermath of 4-0 defeat. He followed the basic instruction to stress the positives. He talked up his work at Middlesbrough over the last five years, skirting, naturally, serious regression in the Premiership in favour of pointing out the development of a fine group of young players. There was no mention - either by him or his chairman, Steve Gibson - of the shattering allegations from a senior player, Gareth Southgate, a few weeks ago, when it was claimed that the coach had lost the confidence of both Gibson and the dressing-room and that, after years at the helm, McClaren found his proposals for a January "shake-up" flatly rejected.

It was a game too far in Eindhoven we were told, but too far for what? Too far for weary limbs? Surely not after the rest afforded by the fielding of McClaren's young bloods in the final Premiership game at Fulham. Too far for a coherent set of tactics, a certain consistency of intention and shape when the game was just a goal away from perfect balance, a goal that might easily have come from Mark Viduka, twice, and from the penalty spot? Or was it a game too far to preserve the validity of McClaren's cool campaign for preferment in the eyes of the Football Association selection committee? "My CV speaks for itself," McClaren said at a pivotal phase of the race.

It was less than eloquent in Middlesbrough's worse than mediocre 14th place in the Premiership. It wasn't so resonant when West Ham, operating on a fraction of Middlesbrough's investment in playing talent, swept to Wembley a few weeks ago. On Wednesday night it was as mute as a Mafia suspect pleading the fifth amendment.

Maybe it was a game too far in the sense of England's World Cup quarter-final performance against Brazil in Japan four years ago, when McClaren was unable to drag his boss, Sven Goran Eriksson, out of the headlights that apparently prevented any effective change to an effort, against 10 men, that was plainly running into the ground. Perhaps it was a game too far in the matter of maintaining illusions, principally the one that a team was being led with appropriate nerve and tactical nous.

Against Seville, McClaren went to three strikers at half-time, when the game was still plainly recoverable, and then to four in the 70th minute, when the margin was still just one goal and it was Middlesbrough who were creating more danger. Middlesbrough were playing against a team for whom counter-attack was as natural as an evening stroll, a bite of tapas and a cold beer. Of course, McClaren claimed, and was unchallenged by the television broadcasters, that there wasn't a four-goal difference between the teams. Unfortunately there was at the end and you didn't have to be a football guru to know that the margin was hopelessly self-inflicted.

Some believe - crazy though it will always be to others - that McClaren got the England job on the strength of his Uefa Cup run and dramatic recoveries against Basle and Steaua Bucharest, teams of negligible standing in Europe.

So how must the FA leaders feel now? Will they hang on, clench-fisted, to the idea that McClaren merely had a bad night in Eindhoven? Or will they consider the recharged claim that they have snatched, like kids in a sweetshop, at the first hint of an agreeable flavour? Meanwhile, there are reports of Terry Venables being a "shock" contender to succeed McClaren at Middlesbrough. Shock contender? Venables also has a CV.

It includes a near miraculous saving of Boro's Premiership status a few years ago, an admirable and exciting stint as England coach, a La Liga title for Barcelona when Real Madrid were supposed to be beyond reach, a penalty shoot-out defeat in a Champions' League final, an FA Cup win for Spurs over Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, a brief but successful focusing of Paul Gascoigne's erratic if hugely talented view of the game - and, it maybe shouldn't be forgotten, a former player who represented his country at every possible level.

But then, six years before appointing Eriksson and eventually paying him £5m a year, the FA forced out Venables. This was just after he had lost a semi-final shoot-out with Germany, who then became European champions, in 1996. Now the FA has McClaren and his CV which speaks for itself. In the Soho Square headquarters some, if they were listening to the message of Eindhoven, may be inclined to put their white knuckles to their ears.

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