The Nick Townsend Column: He won't see a Stevie Wonder headline, but McClaren's inner vision needs time

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The Independent Online

The praise may have been faint for some of his predecessors, but at least it was on the vaguely optimistic side of neutrality. Steve McClaren enjoys no such luxury, except from Howard Wilkinson and other battle-hardened members of the Buy English campaign. The reaction to the confirmation that the Middlesbrough manager is next in line to succession of our football throne was not so much a welcome, more an examination of his endurance.

Just over a week ago, the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, was preparing to offer some foreign exotica for our universal admiration, even though there was a suspicion that the wide, sweeping fauna of the Scolarus Brazilia might not thrive in this climate. On Thursday, Barwick attempted to delude us all that an indigenous houseplant, the Ginga Mcclarenus, which has hitherto preferred the shade, was always his preferred selection.

No one expected a warm response to McClaren's elevation, but it could hardly have been more callous in some quarters. "How long has he got?" was the front-page headline of the Sportsman newspaper, with a run-down of betting on his successor, of all things. Stuart Pearce is clear favourite, incidentally.

Curiously, the furore over his installation may just be one factor to his advantage. While the debate continued over Barwick's protestation that McClaren was his preferred option, the coach himself simply did as his television coach, the newcaster Katie Ledger, had bidden when she prepared him for an overload of lights and camera, and spoke positively about himself and in an upbeat manner about England. Bland soundbites mostly. Not too much information, and circumventing anything controversial.

Meanwhile Barwick sweated. He has rightly been castigated for the calamitous approach to this England appointment. Indeed, if so many FA heads had not rolled in an embarrassingly swift succession in recent years, there would surely have been more concerted calls for the guillotine here, too. Appropriately for the times, perhaps, he has adopted the Charles Clarke rationale of "I need to stick around to clear up the mess". Whatever the excuses now, the search and procurement methods were baffling.

Whether the outcome was as perverse as many imagine will become evident in time. Presumably, by then, there will have been an explanation why Guus Hiddink and Martin O'Neill (below) never progressed beyond mere possibilities. One cannot escape the probability that the latter was regarded as too much his own man.

Meanwhile, we are left to ponder England's future beyond 2006 under a coach about whom you suspect the headline writers will never have to tap out the words "Stevie Wonder"; this six-million-dollar man (and considerably more, over his four-year contract) is no Steve Austin, despite attempts to rebuild himself as a character with new teeth.

Yet there are reasons why the FA's Third Man - Arsène Wenger having also been said to have received approaches - merits rather more than derision on his promotion. McClaren provides continuity, conviction (of England's players in him and in his own attributes), and a CV which, although not sprinkled with conspicuous personal success, does yield glory by association.

Certainly it compares favourably with anything that other English managers can draw up. Sir Alex Ferguson, the nation's most successful club manager, is one hell of a referee for the Yorkshireman, who first came to the media's attention in the prelude to Manchester United's Champions' League final in that 1999 Treble-winning year.

McClaren told me then that at first it was "Stevie Who?" when he was named as Ferguson's No 2 and Brian Kidd's successor. He added: "All the people bandied about were big names, some of whom had played at Manchester United. Then along came Steve McClaren, who's not played at the top and has just worked his way up, before walking into the biggest club in the world... but the players are no mugs. They've thought, 'He's chosen Steve McClaren out of all the people he could have had, so he must be OK'. So, I've been on safe ground from the very beginning. I've built on that."

In essence, he has had to work diligently to establish a reputation; for the man who, as he put it, "failed as a player", even within the relatively lower reaches of the Football League, there was no glorying in a distinguished international career to inspire instant respect.

As he said, almost prophetically, back in 1999: "The great thing is, you look at all the people who've got to the top, and they've all been in the trenches. They haven't all been great players." However, he stressed: "You must have that humility that all great people have. It's the greatest gift."

His appreciation by Eriksson, with whom he has worked for six years, should prove invaluable, though that experience is two-edged, depending on whether you regard the Swede as one of England's most successful coaches or as one who was irresponsibly profligate with some prodigious talent through absence of vision. Soon the jewels will be handed over to McClaren's keeping. Can he be entrusted to cut them exquisitely to present a thing of beauty?

It is true the new man possesses his own clearly defined approach to coaching. Back at the pre-Champions' League final conversation, he enthusiastically discussed his belief in the late Vince Lombardi's approach to sport. One cannot but help sensing that there was more than a hint of one of the former Green Bay Packers head coach's famous aphorisms - "It's not whether you get knocked down; it's whether you get up" - in McClaren's reaction to an exam-ination of Boro's perplexing season which has climaxed in a Uefa Cup final. One minute, fans are hurling season tickets at you. The next, the FA are throwing a £12.5m contract at you.

McClaren spoke of that indifferent sequence, including a 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa and a 7-0 reverse at Arsenal: "You deal with it because you believe in yourself, the players and the staff. It was testing, which you have to go through to come out the other side and be better. I think it strengthened me."

It can do him no harm, either, that his cupboards have undergone a forensic search for skeletal dust. He has already come clean about the affair with his secretary; his media training under Ms Ledger is well documented; so, too, is his relationship with a personal guru, Bill Beswick. While conjuring dubious images of Glenn Hoddle and Eileen Drewery's healing hands, the sports psychologist, who has aided McClaren since his days as a youth-team coach at Oxford United, has always remained strictly in the background.

McClaren knows he starts at the nadir of public and media esteem, but insists: "I tend not to take any notice of polls. I know what I've done. I know what I can bring to this job. To be popular, you have to win matches, and that's what I intend to do."

Scarcely the most inspirational words to fall from an England coach's lips. But then McClaren knows his strengths and his limitations. For the moment, despite the antipathy towards him, he speaks with straightforward self-belief. And the strength of a man who has nowhere to fall.

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