The Nick Townsend Column: Memo to McClaren: Get the best out of Rooney and you might rewrite history

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The Independent Online

On Tuesday morning, Steve "Interesting" McClaren, with comb having been applied carefully to conceal that awkwardly receding hairline, that slightly lopsided smile in place, his demeanour given a makeover by the sultan of spin Max Clifford, will present himself at London's Soho Square. It will be the first day in the new job for England's 12th head coach or manager since the species originated, albeit then possessing an entirely different physiology, with Walter Winterbottom in 1946.

There will be no grand reception like that which was thought to befit Eriksson back in January 2001; just a photo-shoot, we are told by the Football Association, who would seemingly prefer the transition between the two regimes to be as surreptitious as possible, rather than accompanied by cheerleaders toting pom-poms.

Rarely can a new manager - the man deemed capable by his employers of leading the national team from ignominious exit at Germany 2006 to glory in Austria- Switzerland in two years' time, or South Africa four years hence - have arrived in less exalted circumstances. The prelude to what should be a manager's proudest moment has not been propitious. And to a degree, he has brought that upon himself.

Instead of bounding in as his own man, extolling a freshness of spirit, he apparently comes complete with a holdful of advisory baggage. There are more apparatchiks surrounding him than a Soviet premier of old.

Clifford, employed by his "management company", is clearly a man of many talents, but ones more readily associated with damage limitation or tawdry public episodes. Then there is Terry Venables, a "technical advisor", and, possibly, Alan Shearer, a link, we are told, between McClaren and the players. No doubt there will be sports psychologists to follow. And what about "bling-busters", to help with improving relationships between various factions in the England dressing-room?

It is impossible to accept that this is all necessary. Seeking wise counsel is one thing; a self-protectionism that borders on and implies fear of dealing with the realities of the job is quite another.

Clifford, the PR guru who advised Faria Alam, the FA secretary whose affairs with Eriksson and then the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, brought opprobrium to the organisation, claims that dealing with the media is "like walking through a minefield". Only, it must be stressed, if that coach's extra-curricular activities come to the fore. And that could include the company he keeps and those he consults, as Glenn Hoddle discovered. Ultimately, McClaren will be judged on results, the style of play he advocates and whether he manages to induce the optimum from his players. Lest we forget, it was not merely England's elimination by a poor Portugal team that damned Eriksson, but their wretched performances beforehand.

Peter Taylor, the England Under-21 coach now in charge at Crystal Palace, says what McClaren should have already articulated and agrees that the national side should be more expansive and entertaining. "We are getting slightly better on that," he says. "Wayne Rooney is an incredible talent, who helps any team have some flair and attacking options. If anything we've got to have a bit more of that. We've got to have a bit more movement and ideas on how to beat an organised defence. Defensively, we're as good as anybody, and we could have gone on in the World Cup just by winning 1-0. Maybe we've got to be a little bit better going forward, and beat teams two- or three-nil."

It won't have required a genius to enlighten McClaren that he must distance himself from Eriksson as expeditiously as possible. But Clifford appears determined to do the job for him. He is already attempting to persuade us that "at the end of the day, Steve was not running or selecting the team when Sven was manager". Well, thanks for that, Max, but in the public's mind, no quick wash and spin can bring sparkling whiteness to the stains that have accumulated over five years.

Or, to put it in another way, it will take time before the endorsements McClaren has received as an aide to Eriksson are spent, like those on a driver's licence. But at least the Yorkshireman does have the advantage of having ABS fixed as standard. He may not be an acclaimed foreigner in th mould of Guus Hiddink, but crucially he is Anyone But Sven.

The timing is opportune. In only 17 days' time, England have a friendly against Greece at Old Trafford. Next month, there are relatively straightforward Euro-pean Championship qualifiers against Macedonia and Andorra. McClaren would have to be seriously negligent if his teams, containing a new captain, possibly some new personnel and presumably some radical thinking on strategy, did not portray him in a positive light.

The captaincy issue plays right into McClaren's hands. There is healthy rivalry for the right to be David Beckham's successor, and John Terry, Steven Gerrard and, for that matter, Gary Neville, would be worthy recipients of the armband. Where the new head coach must tread warily, though, is on Beckham's playing future, although for the moment the injury sustained against Portugal renders this issue an irrelevance. One suspects that in the Greece game the structure of the midfield will come under scrutiny. Can Frank Lampard recover his Chelsea form? Can Stewart Downing dominate the left as he has at club level? Can Joe Cole offer consistent evidence of his attributes? Will Michael Carrick's move to Manchester United mean that he will at last exhibit his prowess as a holding midfielder at international level that his displays at Tottenham promised?

And, just as crucially, how to deploy Wayne Rooney, and with whom, and how to quell those demons? On the latter point, McClaren's appointment does suggest that he will not indulge the striker. The Manchester United man admits in his autobiography* that he and McClaren have "had our moments over the years... he had a right go at me after that Northern Ireland humiliation in Belfast. He said I hadn't done my job right. My behaviour on the pitch hadn't been good. I agreed with him." He adds: "He's a good coach, always smiling. I'm glad he's got the job. I think he was the best Englishman available."

It is a difficult balance to strike, a coach's relationship with players. The suspicion is that Eriksson granted his men, and particularly the star chamber, too much laxity. Yet, since Winterbottom and then Sir Alf Ramsey first walked a line which is as difficult to tread as it is for a suspected drunk driver under the eyes of the cops, the response to managers' decision-making has always been familiar. They are revered rarely; derided often.

As Taylor contends: "Steve will know what he wants. That's the most important thing. He's got to stick to his guns, hasn't he? It must be an incredibly different job to manage England over a period. For me, to do it for one friendly was great. But do it over a time, when every newspaper is telling you what to do, and 'this player's rubbish' and 'you're rubbish', that must be difficult. You must be so single-minded and confident in your own ability, and that what you believe in is right. It's a great opportunity for Steve. I still think the players are hungry enough. We've still got a very good team, for at least another four years."

Far more sensible words than a whole coterie of gurus and advisers could counsel him.

* Wayne Rooney: My Story So Far (HarperSport, £17.99)

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