Steve McClaren: Delight at returning to Twente vision
After failing to put out Forest fires, the former England manager is back at the Dutch club where he stunned football by winning the league. He may risk his legacy but he refuses to play safe
Steve McClaren will take his place in the dugout at FC Twente's Grolsch Arena on Saturday to what promises to be a warm welcome from the home supporters for the manager who delivered them the only league title in their club's history. After a 2011 that the former England manager would sooner forget, it will be just the tonic.
McClaren was appointed manager of Twente for the second time 13 days ago but the Dutch league has been on its winter break, which comes to an end on Friday, with Twente at home to RKC Waalwijk the following evening.
Twente are third in the Eredivisie, five points behind the leaders AZ Alkmaar, and they face Steaua Bucharest over two legs in the last 32 of the Europa League next month.
For McClaren it is a welcome return to the front line after an unhappy 16 weeks with Nottingham Forest, which ended with him walking away from the club in October, frustrated that the vision sold to him by the then chairman, Nigel Doughty, was not borne out in reality. Forest were in 21st position in the Championship when he left them after 10 games of the season; under his successor, Steve Cotterill, they are 22nd with prospects looking little better.
At Twente, with the stadium capacity now expanded to 32,000, in the 18 months since McClaren left, there is a strong feeling of optimism. So much so that when he spoke to The Independent yesterday there was a temptation to ask whether he risked his legacy at the club by returning. "If I had stayed after we won the title in 2010, then the expectation would be exactly the same," he said. "[Sir Alex] Ferguson has stayed at Manchester United for 25 years and he is expected to win the title every year. That is part of the job."
He left Twente with his stock high in Europe and joined Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, but struggled with the politics at the club and left after nine months. At Twente he has a close relationship with chairman Joop Munsterman and director Aldo van der Laan. There is an expectation that they work as a team in running the club, one the former Twente manager Co Adriaanse was not perceived as buying into.
Twente finally lost patience with Adriaanse this month and went back to McClaren, whose 2010 title had given them Champions League football for the first time in their history under his successor, Michael Preud'homme.
"The challenge is the same as it was when I left," McClaren said. "The club is growing and developing. We won the championship, and the ambition was to play in the Champions League. We achieved that.
"When I left I wondered, 'Could the club maintain it?' Obviously they have done. I have kept in touch with Joop and he has asked me two or three times before to come back as trainer [manager]. I always said I would love to come back because I enjoyed it so much here. It seemed like the right time to do it."
The Eredivisie's month-long winter break, part of it spent with his squad in Gran Canaria, has given McClaren time to assess the team. His side are one of five clubs at the top of the table – with AZ, PSV Eindhoven, Ajax and Feyenoord – who have a chance of winning the league. There are still a number of players who won the 2010 title with McClaren, including the defenders Douglas and Peter Wisgerhof as well as Wout Brama and Luuk de Jong.
It is a reality of life at Twente that the best players move on, and many of the stars of McClaren's title-winning team have done so. Bryan Ruiz is now plying his trade at Craven Cottage for Fulham; Eljero Elia has gone to Juventus, via Hamburg, and Theo Janssen, Dutch footballer of the year in 2011, was signed by Ajax last summer.
McClaren has not relocated his whole family this time – his youngest son Josh, 15, went to school in Germany when he was at Wolfsburg – but he has taken one ally. Joe, 23, his oldest son has joined the video analysis department at Twente. "The fans here are unique," McClaren said. "You ask Fulham [at whose expense Twente progressed in the Europa League]. It is becoming a major club in Holland and still growing. Look what we started. It gives me a chance to carry on."
Is there part of him that feels his decision to leave Forest has been vindicated by their recent struggles? "I went there expecting one thing and I left because they couldn't deliver it and they are still now a long way away. It was the wrong club on both sides. There was a distinct lack of ambition and I don't think there's any money now. They haven't spent a lot."
It might have been easier to wait around until the summer and pick up a team in England but McClaren's career has never been orthodox. "I wanted to be different. When I started coaching, I wanted to be innovative and do things a different way. What I have tended to do is take risks. I took a risk with the England job and it was a risk coming to Holland, it was a risk going to Wolfsburg and then going back to the Championship in England.
"This was a different challenge that I wanted to experience. I wanted to develop myself so that in the future I can look back on my experiences and use them to give something back to other coaches. That is the long-term aim."
Eventually, McClaren would like an involvement with St George's Park, the new Football Association centre outside Burton-upon-Trent that will focus on the education of the next generation of English manager and coaches. "My development has leapt forward so much from three years ago," McClaren said. "My development has always been a bit different, with different challenges, from being a coach at Manchester United to England and then moving abroad.
"These are experiences that a lot of people haven't had. Some of them haven't worked out for me but I have never played it safe or waited for the easy option. I have learnt so much working in Holland, which has a tradition of producing coaches, and even in the nine months I spent in Germany.
"I would like to give something back at the end of my career. I like coaching the coaches as well as the players and teams. When I have done what I want to do as a manager I would like to use my experience to improve and help our coaches."
Before then, however, there is an intriguing season unfolding in the Netherlands and quite a reputation to live up to. Saturday's opponents, RKC, are 13th in the 18-team table and games against Groningen (home), De Graafschap (away) and Heracles (home) give Twente a chance to pick up points before playing Vitesse (away) on 19 February, the first game against a team in the current top six of the table.
Should they eliminate Steaua, Twente have the prospect of a big Europa League tie in the last 16 against Schalke, which will give McClaren the opportunity to restore some of the pride lost in Germany after his departure from Wolfsburg.
Even by McClaren's standards, 2011 was distinguished by some dramatic ups and downs but you get the feeling that, come Saturday, he will relish being back in a stadium that truly appreciates him.
Steve in numbers...
13 Matches McClaren was in charge at Nottingham Forest.
63.3 per cent Win percentage in his first spell at Twente – compared with 23.8 per cent with Wolfsburg.
14 Years England had managed to qualify for major tournaments ... before Euro 2008.
2 Trophies won as a manager – 2004 League Cup with Middles-brough and the 2010 Dutch title with Twente.
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