Sam Wallace: McClaren's Twente top the table to add shine to tarnished reputation

Talking Football

If it were any other English manager whose club were top of the Dutch first division, we would be consumed with excitement. But the English coach at the top of Dutch football is Steve McClaren. And McClaren's problem is that some people refuse to let him leave the past behind.

The renaissance of the former England manager's career has been a remarkable story, a brave fightback against the odds. Not many figures in English football – not many figures in English public life – have suffered the abuse and humiliation endured by McClaren. There will be MPs who resigned over the expenses scandal who are rehabilitated quicker. But McClaren has spent the last 14 months fighting back.

Saturday was the second anniversary of England's defeat to Russia in Moscow under McClaren, when they finally lost control over their destiny in qualification for Euro 2008. It was also the day that McClaren's FC Twente, undefeated in the league this season, beat AZ Alkmaar, the champions, who play Arsenal in the Champions League tomorrow.

Last year, McClaren inherited a Twente team who finished fourth in the league the previous season. Despite selling their best player, Orlando Engelaar, Twente finished second in the league under McClaren and reached the final of the Dutch Cup. That restored one coat of polish to a tarnished reputation but equally impressive was that McClaren stayed in Twente's town of Enschede – population 155,000 – to try to do it all over again this season.

McClaren is due to sign an extension to his current two-year contract and if he does leave Twente he is leaning towards a job in Portugal or Spain. His road to redemption is starting to look similar to that of another former England manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson.

There are, of course, some people who still find it funny to call him "Schteve" after his immersion in life in the Netherlands subconsciously furnished him with a Dutch accent. And it was amusing at the time to listen to McClaren give that television interview. But that was a year ago and if McClaren can grow up and leave the past behind, how about the rest of us doing the same?

McClaren's Dutch accent interview did make him sound a bit of a plonker but he was only attempting to be friendly and enthusiastic about his new club. He is not alone either. What monoglot Englishman would not admit privately that his own struggles with foreign languages have led him down some painful linguistic culs-de-sac while on holiday?

The pity about the Dutch accent episode is that it has obscured the brilliant job that McClaren has done at FC Twente. He plays a 4-3-3 system in the best traditions of Dutch football that Johan Cruyff has praised in his magazine column. Twente missed out on qualification for the Champions League only on away goals to Sporting Lisbon, a club with greater resources than those at McClaren's disposal.

Since then, McClaren has beaten Fenerbahce in Istanbul in the Europa League – in the same stadium where Fenerbahce beat Chelsea last year. But perhaps the most remarkable achievement of all is that McClaren has done it having sold around £30m of players since he took over at the club. He lost Engelaar to Schalke as soon as he took over and this summer Twente's Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic, 20, went to Internazionale in a deal worth around £12m. The winger Eljero Elia, 22, who was young player of the year in the Netherlands last season, left for Hamburg for £8m. Edson Braafheid, 26, a full-back, joined Bayern Munich for £2m.

McClaren has built his team all over again. From Vitesse Arnhem he bought the midfielder Theo Janssen, regarded as overweight and over-the-hill at 28, who has got back into shape and flourished at Twente. Ditto, Nicky Kuiper, 20, a defender who was rejected by Vitesse. The Costa Rica international Bryan Ruiz, 24, a winger, bought for £5m from Ghent, also looks promising.

It is tempting to think of McClaren as leading his coaching career in reverse. Eight years ago he was parachuted into big-spending Middlesbrough, having never before been a manager. Five years later he got the England job before his time. Now he has gone back to the start and embarked on a more natural route.

At Middlesbrough, McClaren had an enormous back-room staff which, in the good times, was taken as a sign of his modern approach. When things went wrong he looked more like a man who surrounded himself with advisers because he could not make his mind up. Yet he went to FC Twente alone and worked with the Dutch staff already there. Some will never forgive McClaren for England's lost summer of 2008. McClaren's problem was he used to care desperately what people thought; even when he said he did not, it was written all over his face. He was trapped by that preoccupation and acted accordingly, making his worst decisions, even the brolly, when he tried to anticipate how he would be perceived.

The best managers do not care. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger, they behave on the touchline and in interviews without a hint of self-consciousness – sometimes badly, it has to be said – and they are beholden to no one. It takes confidence to be like that, a confidence that McClaren is now building at Twente.

If it was Stuart Pearce or Steve Bruce managing the club top of the Dutch league we would be talking about them as a potential future England manager. That moment has gone for McClaren and rather than despair, he should feel liberated by it.

Dunne deal helps O'Neill silence his critics at Villa Park

It was suggested in this column in August that Aston Villa fans might wish to show a bit more faith in Martin O'Neill, given the very vocal disillusionment they visited upon him during the opening day defeat to Wigan.

Victories over Liverpool – at Anfield – and Chelsea on Saturday, which have taken Villa to sixth in the table, have ensured those critics have been noticeably quieter. The 4-4-2 system that left certain sectors of the support so disgruntled was the same system that defeated Chelsea. As for their gripes about O'Neill's failure to sign a decent centre-half replacement for Martin Laursen, I think Richard Dunne has put that one to bed.

Is lack of free pens really a World Cup deal-breaker?

Having studied the fallout from Jack Warner’s criticism of England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and the potential resignation as chairman of Lord Triesman from the 2018 board, the only material criticism I can discern of the committee is that they failed to sponsor the goody bags for delegates at a recent conference on football.

Never mind that England has the stadiums, the infrastructure and the football heritage, the real test comes when it is time to hand out free pens.

Again the question is: given who we have to suck up to, is 2018 worth it?

Fabio's stamp of approval

Great news that the England players have nicknamed manager Fabio Capello Postman Pat for his likeness to Greendale's finest. One only hopes that, unlike Pat and his CWU comrades, Capello will not be going on strike. He is the one man who always delivers.

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