Steve McClaren: 'We were the wrong fit. For the first time in my life, I had to walk away'
In a fascinating interview, Steve McClaren talks to Sam Wallace about his success managing at home and abroad, the stigma attached to him after his England failure and his hurt at being rejected by Villa's fans
In his 10 years as a manager, Steve McClaren has been through hell with England, he has won the Carling Cup with Middlesbrough, the Dutch title with FC Twente and has been the only Englishman to manage in the modern Bundesliga but until this season he has never been in a position when he thought he could best serve his club by walking away.
That was until 2 October when he held what was to be his last team meeting as manager of Nottingham Forest before a home game against Birmingham City and, as he recalls it, he could barely make himself heard above the noise from the Forest supporters outside protesting against the club's board under then-chairman Nigel Doughty. By the end of the game he had made his mind up that it was time to go.
For all he has been through, especially with England, McClaren has remained good-humoured and philosophical about the highs and lows he has experienced since taking his first management job at Middlesbrough in June 2001. Walking away from Forest, his first post in English football since he left the England one in November 2007 was not easy. He had been at Forest just 111 days, but he says that by leaving he brought matters to a head at the club.
Within a day, Doughty had also stepped down and put the club up for sale. The former Forest player and manager Frank Clark succeeded him as chairman. As for McClaren – sacked from Wolfsburg in February after nine months there – it has been an eventful 2011, if not quite the way he planned it.
"I just felt after that [Birmingham] game with what was going on, something had to change drastically," McClaren says. "I couldn't see that with the relationship I had by then [with the board] that I could effect that. For the benefit of the club and fans I thought [leaving] was the best decision.
"Ultimately the chairman has stepped down and I think in the long run the club will benefit, Frank Clark coming in was a very good decision. Steve Cotterill [his successor] has got experience of the Championship and generally I had no problem with the players. They will prosper going on now within a more settled environment which I never had before."
There is part of McClaren that knows he jumped too quickly in taking the Forest job because it came so soon after he had been rejected by Aston Villa on the same day he was preparing to attend an interview at the club. Villa had shown interest in him but appeared to pull out partly in reaction to some elements of their support who objected to McClaren on the basis of his time as England manager.
"That [Villa] was a big disappointment," he says. "I didn't do my due diligence [on Forest] well enough. I was disappointed [with the rejection from Villa] and wanted to show people. I thought it was a great opportunity – great club, great fans, great history and tradition. Unfortunately I knew very early from going in that we weren't on the same wavelength. I was set to move my family [to live near to Forest] and I stopped that one.
"We were the wrong fit. In the end other things were going on behind the scenes. For the first time in my life I thought it would be best for everybody, for the football club, the fans, the players of Nottingham Forest... that something had to change. The club had been crying out [for that] before I got there. [For] change in everything within the club. We didn't, by then, have a long-term plan and vision. I didn't have a relationship with the board."
The kind of signings which McClaren had hoped to make as he rebuilt Forest – the club had lost nine players in the summer – did not materialise. Targets such as Wayne Routledge, Jermaine Beckford, Nicky Maynard and Max Gradel proved beyond the Forest board.
There had been occasions before he finally resigned that McClaren had come close to quitting only to be talked out of it. "I felt that I took the situation to the very limit," he says. "In the end I remember the game at Birmingham, we were trying to have a team meeting in the dressing room and we couldn't hear ourselves think because of the protest by the fans towards the board.
"There was a lot of protest because years of frustration had gone by and I had come in on the end of it. Ultimately I reached a decision where I felt I couldn't change it the way I wanted to."
The lesson learned is that he will take more time picking his next job, whether it is in England or in Europe where people tend to remember him for winning the Dutch title in May last year rather than the pain of that failed Euro 2008 qualification campaign. We met yesterday near his home on Teesside and he acknowledges that he may have to pack his bags and move on again when the time comes.
For the time being he has turned down an offer to manage in Belgium from FC Bruges. "I think it was too soon [after Forest]," he says. "I know that come the summer I will have opportunities. So was Bruges definitely the right one? No, but it was very interesting. I felt I would be jumping from one job to the other. I wanted more time."
His life in management is very different to most English coaches and one day his experience might be put to good use by the Football Association in a different context. The differences in football culture that he has experienced abroad fascinate him and he watches the transition of foreign coaches to life in the Premier League with interest.
With the possible exception of Roberto Martinez, none of the Premier league's foreign managers are under quite so much pressure currently as Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea. "My experience in Holland and Germany was that the first six months are tough, hard," McClaren says. "It is exactly what is happening with Villas-Boas. He has to come in and adapt and they [the players] have to adapt to him. In the end they have to accept each other and in the end they will be successful.
"I know what he is going through because I experienced it in another country. Both times the first six months was hard and after that it was, 'Right', like a light bulb coming on.
"The guy [Villas-Boas] won four trophies in one year. Within football there is big respect. For me the most important thing is [the way you are perceived] in football. After [winning the title in] Holland, the LMA [League Managers Association] gave me a merit award for coaching overseas. That for me was as big as winning the trophy. As coaches we are a little club, a very close community. We are very competitive but very close.
"It does make me laugh with all the criticisms of Fabio Capello who has won everything in the world, yet people are questioning him. A conversation with him would be very interesting, how he has found the culture and the players and his real honest opinion of it. I suppose we will find that out after he goes."
It is almost six years since Sven Goran Eriksson was told that he would leave after the 2006 World Cup and the FA embarked on a chaotic search for his successor, eventually alighting on McClaren after Luiz Felipe Scolari had rejected them. That process will begin afresh next year and whoever is appointed, McClaren – a veteran of the England job – says the successful candidate should be given time.
"Harry [Redknapp] has got the credentials," McClaren says. "He has got the experience; he has dealt with big players; he has won; he has managed in Europe which I think is important. You have to start with some kind of platform. British, English managers, not many fit that criteria. He is one.
"If Big Sam [Allardyce] gets West Ham up I am sure he will come back into it. It's possible because there are not that many stand-out candidates. Or the FA set out on a long-term plan. It is a little bit like the problem the RFU have at the moment. You can pick an instant successful one like Jake White or Graham Henry from outside or you can pick one from inside.
"He [the one from inside] might be one the press know very well and pull to pieces and is not given a chance before he gets in. All the weaknesses are exposed straight away. Will he be given time? Find the right man and give him time. Get the fit right.
"The problem with English football is you have the FA and everyone fighting everyone else, the Premier League and Football League. You have the LMA, which is very strong, the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association] and everyone is not on the same page in terms of the national team. In Germany and Holland everything is geared towards the national team. Here, not so much."
There is a personal element to being England manager too. McClaren's three sons – Joe, 23, Sam, 19 and Josh, 15 – have grown up having to deal with the trials of being a manager's son. When McClaren took the Wolfsburg job in the summer of last year he and his wife Kathryn moved to Germany and took Josh who spent eight months in school there. But it is a moment when he was England manager that stands out most.
"After the Andorra game [in March 2007], the pressure was really building," he says. "I remember we had a family chat because it could have had an effect on the boys at school. I said: 'Look it's not just me going through this. It is everybody, the whole family. If it gets that bad we can always stop'. The boys said, 'Absolutely no way'. And we were lucky that we lived here and the school [in Teesside] was very good.
"They have been brought up in it anyway and it is part of their lives. It wasn't as if they didn't know. They had experienced it before but not to that extent. When I asked them [if he should quit] they said. 'But you're a football manager'. As they have got older they are probably more enthusiastic and understand it better than you think. Kids are very resilient. The wife might feel different but on that occasion she got outvoted. So we carried on!"
He is concerned by the perception that, as he says, English coaches "are not respected abroad – we are not thought of when jobs come up" – but he feels that is partly a result of English clubs not showing much faith themselves in home-grown coaching talent. He knows too that some people will always stigmatise him. But he is proud of what he has achieved and hungry for more. And he will make sure he picks the right option next time.
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