Steve McClaren: I survived ultimate failure. Now I fear nothing
Two years since he left England under a raincloud, the former national manager is enjoying his day in the sun, topping the Dutch league with FC Twente. In an exclusive interview, he tells Sam Wallace how he rebuilt his life, and why he won't rush back to the Premier League
Thursday 12 November 2009
On Sunday at the Grolsch Veste stadium in the eastern Netherlands the name of Steve McClaren was sung – as it at most home games – by the supporters of FC Twente, who know little and care even less about his past as England manager. All they cared about on Sunday was that their team had beaten Martin Jol's Ajax Amsterdam.
In the Eredivisie, which McClaren's team lead by two points, they have a very different attitude towards the man whose part in England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, two years ago this month, made him a national pariah. In Enschede, the quiet town in the predominantly rural region of Twente, they regard McClaren as a bright, innovative coach who is leading their club to hitherto unknown heights.
McClaren himself looks happier than ever. As ever, the ambition burns bright but he is, by his own admission, more "chilled" and more philosophical about a profession that he once scaled in record time: from assistant at Derby County to England manager in seven years. On the training ground he has even picked up enough of the Dutch language to get by – and accompany that famous accent that earned him so much stick recently.
It is a measure of McClaren's enduring good humour that, despite everything he has been through, he can still laugh at the interest his Dutch accent stirred. "I thought it was funny actually," he concedes. "My kids said: 'Bloody hell, Dad'. I'm afraid it is a natural thing. You get caught up and I try to change it. But now I speak English differently. They understand you better if you speak the way they do rather than just chatter on. [As for the mickey-taking] You've got to learn to laugh."
More serious has been the scale of McClaren's achievement at humble Twente. Second in the Dutch league and runners-up in the Dutch Cup last season, they are unbeaten this season despite selling their three best players in the summer. This month he signed a new contract that takes him to the end of next season. At Twente there is a profound respect for the man they call "trainer". Did he ever doubt himself?
"I never did," McClaren says. "I knew England were bad, we didn't qualify. Results dictate. I know that I live and die by that. But there were mitigating circumstances. The injuries were a nightmare. The squad would get together, another phone call, another injury. I realised: 'Not everything is going my way here'.
"We didn't qualify for Euro 2008 so they are the facts and I accept that. I knew what the circumstances were and why. I think the experience of coming here has served me well and it will in the future. The good times, everybody is okay, the bad times it is how you come through.
"When I look back in years to come [at England] I'll think 'Great experience'. I wish it was better but what an experience. What can be worse? What can they throw at you? I just get on with my job and try to be successful for the people around this club. That's the key thing for me, the fans, not the publicity we get.
"When this job came along I had no hesitation as long as my family were okay with it. I have got to say after seeing the failure with England I am not frightened of failure anymore because I've seen the ultimate. If that's the worse they can throw at me. You try to recover. This [coaching] is what I do and I couldn't think of doing anything else as satisfying and I think I'm okay at what I do. So I am not proving a point to anyone.
"The ideal example to follow when I came here was Louis van Gaal and how successful he has become. They remember he failed to qualify with Holland for the 2002 World Cup finals. But he recovered and won the league here. I looked at other coaches and said 'Yeah, they have all had failures.'
"They also talk about Dick Advocaat at Euro 2004 being lambasted by the press here for making substitutions in a game they [the Netherlands] were winning against the Czech Republic, he took Arjen Robben off and ended up losing it. He had to go to Russia for his rehabilitation – whatever they like to call it. Those are two instances where coaches have been successful, had a failure and have come back and been successful again. I like that."
McClaren has used his contacts in football to bring players to Twente, including Chelsea's Slovakian international winger Miroslav Stoch, who scored both goals in the win over Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova in the Europa League last week. McClaren still retains ties with the FA: England Under-21s coach Stuart Pearce was a guest at Twente's training ground last week.
There has clearly been a change in McClaren's perspective since the events of two years ago. Those who assume that he is desperate to take the first invitation from a Premier League chairman to come back to England would be mistaken. "No, no, I am happy here," he says. "As long as we continue to be ambitious my sole focus is on this job, not thinking about anything else. Maybe the end of the season things will be different. But I enjoy it here, I work for good people, I have good staff and I've got a good little team.
"I used to think: 'I want to be this, I want to do that'. What has tended to happen is that if you do a good job, opportunities come along. What they are, who knows? That's football so I live by the day now and don't think at the end of the season 'I would like to do this or I would like to do that'.
"I was very ambitious, very focused on getting as high as I possibly could but now I don't force things. I let things happen, let things flow so I suppose through experience I have chilled a little more. I am still very ambitious and want to win every game and be where we are [top of the league]. I want to stay and I want to build.
"After England it was a reassessment period. I asked myself: what do I like doing? I like coaching, I like managing, I like building a team. I like pitting my wits against other coaches. I like making people happy and enjoying their job. I like the fans to enjoy the game, I like the players to enjoy training and the games.
"My oldest son Joe, who is 21, came over here with me and saw the stadium and the training ground and said, 'Dad, you've got to take this job'. The family have been very good, very supportive. They have been through a lot as well. It's not just me although you sometimes think it is just you, they are [caught up in it] as well.
"My youngest is 12, we lived in the ideal place in Yarm [on Teesside] it's like a little cocoon. We had done quite well at Middlesbrough so we were well known and people were very good around us [after England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008]. Coming here has been hard but I try to get home once a week, twice sometimes. My family come over in holidays so it is a bit of an adventure and a new experience for them."
McClaren admits to watching far too much football on television when he is home alone without his family but he has not caught any of the England games under Fabio Capello. He gives the sense that he is revelling in the anonymity of his new home. The rural isolation of Twente – nicknamed the Tukkers, "farmers" in English – puts you in mind of a Dutch Norwich City, albeit currently much more successful.
"I don't think they know [about my past]," McClaren says. "One of the advantages I have is that the Dutch coaches have a lot of baggage. Because they are Dutch everyone knows their life story. With me they know a bit.
"I suppose it is a little bit like a foreign coach coming to England. It's an advantage in terms of perception. We don't know what baggage they have, we don't really know the details. Whereas in England you know the details of every English coach. So you can bring them up anytime. When they come from Italy and Spain you only know the big things like whether there are successful or not and invariably they are successful so they get respect straight away.
"I suppose that is an advantage that I had coming here. It was a clean slate, they knew a bit about me but they were only going to judge me on what I did here. Not what I did in the past."
Advice to Capello: 'quit while you're ahead'
Steve McClaren has advised his successor Fabio Capello that if he wins the World Cup next summer he should quit to avoid the fate of so many predecessors.
McClaren told The Independent: "In the end with that job you can't really win, the best thing is to get in, be successful and then quickly get out. So advice to Capello: win a World Cup and then quit.
"I think it is just the position you are in. It goes with the job, it goes with the territory. It wasn't as if I didn't know because I saw it with Sven [Goran Eriksson] and I was by his side when everything was going on. So I knew what it involved.
"I knew it [the criticism] was coming so I didn't take notice and I tried to keep away. People told me but I probably don't know the full extent of all the things that were said and done. But when I look back that's the fall-out from any England manager. They all got it. Sven got it, Graham Taylor got it, Bobby [Robson] got it early on. Everyone."
Capello is contracted to the Football Association until after Euro 2012. McClaren, 48, once vilified as "the wally with the brolly", is currently the only English coach whose club are leading a top-flight European league.
McClaren said: "Anyone in football has to be strong and if anything the England experience has made me stronger. It sends you one way or it sends you another and I had to make a decision, and the decision was to pick myself up and get back on the bike. I suppose that is something I have had in my character. Otherwise I could just very easily have kept quiet and drifted off.
"It [the criticism] doesn't bother me. I don't like it because my family don't like it, my kids don't like it, my friends don't like it. But for me it is part of the game and it doesn't really matter. People will tell me if things are out of order, if it is real rubbish – and I don't like that – but it is part of the game."
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