He came with credentials so good they glistened. Alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, he had guided Manchester United towards an undreamed of renaissance and was assumed to be the Scot's choice to succeed him at Old Trafford; he was, after all, the best coach in the country.
Instead, fearing he would not ascend to the throne, he struck out on his own, choosing a reborn, medium-sized club which, because of its owner's extravagant love, punched well above its weight. The dressing room was full of over-paid, under-achieving "names'' but no matter, he would sort them out on the training ground just as he had done at United.
He failed spectacularly. Blackburn were relegated amid accusations of players rushing for the lifeboats and Brian Kidd's reputation was never quite the same again.
Substitute Steve Gibson for Sir Jack Walker and Christian Karembeu for Jason McAteer and you realise that Steve McClaren's success at Middlesbrough is not guaranteed. The club may have among the best practise facilities in Europe but its training methods, as Fabrizio Ravanelli pointed out back in 1996, were among the worst until Terry Venables rode to the rescue in December.
Nevertheless, at Derby and United, McClaren proved he is among the sharpest training-ground operators in Europe and his message to the Boro players when they return to the futuristic complex at Hurworth next month will be blunt. "I am not changing,'' he said. "I know what brings success both on and off the field. The players will have every opportunity to prove they can go along with that. I have spent the last few weeks making tough decisions and I will go on doing that.''
Unlike Kidd's departure to Ewood Park in November 1998, McClaren's arrival at the Riverside is with Ferguson's blessing. What he described as "the toughest decision of my career'' would have been made easier by the realisation that he was unlikely to move from being Ferguson's assistant to becoming his successor. McClaren taking over the first team with Ferguson in the background would have been too much like the McGuinness-Busby axis that paved the way for relegation in 1974.
"There can be no better praise,'' commented McClaren on the support he had received from the United manager. "It gave me a tremendous boost to know he thought I was the man for the [United] job. I was told I was not going to succeed him in a roundabout way nothing specific was said and with a year left on my contract I had to secure my future. It was vitally important for me to have Sir Alex's backing. The relationship we have built up over two-and-a-half years has produced real honesty. He has advised me on numerous things.''
Ferguson's advice would have been unquestionably to choose Middlesbrough over Southampton or West Ham, both of whom sought McClaren's services. The United manager kept close contact with Bryan Robson during his seven years on Teesside and admired both the backing and the resources that Gibson gave his former captain. Yesterday, McClaren made pointed reference to their difficulties with United's plc regime. "Here there is no board, just Steve Gibson to answer to which makes a change. The most important relationship in football is between a manager and his chairman.''
The relationship between Gibson and McClaren will be very different to the one that the Boro chairman enjoyed with Robson, which was sometimes too close for the club's own good. Some claimed Gibson was overly in awe of one of England's greatest footballers, which, with Venables's arrival, left Robson in an embarrassing position.
McClaren had no choice but to insist on his removal and that of Robson's deputy, Viv Anderson, and it is likely that Venables will be quietly erased from the scene. As far as the new backroom staff are concerned, Steve Harrison, presently the assistant to John Gregory at Aston Villa, and Bill Beswick, a sport psychologist who has worked with England at under-21 level, are favourites to come aboard.
McClaren promised open, attacking football at the Riverside, something that was not much in evidence in Robson's later years and was especially absent under Venables. "I want to bring success here,'' he said. In moving from a club that has won 28 major trophies to one that has won nothing he may find success is a relative term.Reuse content