National service on hold as McClaren favours day job

The Middlesbrough manager is the likely successor to Sven Goran Eriksson for England, but is happy to put club before country for now. He talks to Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

"Sven," he says with a grin, "how are you?" The distant Swedish voice faintly audible from the other side of the table is unmistakable. And suddenly we are contemplating not just the thousand problems of club management, but the additional thousand that accompany the national team too.

McClaren's world is a very full one and international breaks like the one we are currently in do not constitute any break at all for him. Today he takes his place alongside Sven Goran Eriksson as England's coach for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Austria, on Wednesday they face Poland and come next week he will be back in charge of Middlesbrough as they play Portsmouth. He says he would not have it any other way - he is an ambitious manager, passionate about what he has achieved in his four years at Middlesbrough and on the very brink of signing a new four-year deal with the club. Although it has been hard work along the way.

No club has typified the lurching fortunes of Premiership football this season better than Middlesbrough. A win over Arsenal, a draw with Wigan, and then a home defeat to Sunderland meant that chairman Steve Gibson was forced into a public affirmation of faith in his manager as the Riverside grumbled with discontent. A 3-2 away victory at Aston Villa last Sunday that saw Middlesbrough climb to 10th in the Premiership has been the most articulate response to the criticism and a smooth passage for England over the next week will lift the pressure even further.

It is his association with two famous regimes - as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United from January 1999 to June 2001 and his two spells as Eriksson's coach - that launched McClaren but it is his achievements at Middlesbrough of which he is most proud. He is above all, he says, a club manager and at Middlesbrough he believes he has built the infrastructure for long-term success: the right youth system, the right squad profile, the right staff - even if the style with which he has approached his "five-year plan" has drawn criticism.

"Fourth highest goalscorers in the Premiership behind Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United last season," is McClaren's immediate answer - and a persuasive one too - to those who accuse his club of failing to entertain with their football. His analysis of the falling crowds at Premiership matches is unfailingly honest - he prefers to see the 14,191 who turned up to watch the Uefa Cup first leg against Greek side Xanthi as " diehards" of whom the club should be proud rather than worry unduly about the 21,000 empty seats. As far as the style is concerned, managers are, primarily, he says, "there on results". "There are only certain ways you want to achieve those results and can watch your team achieve those results," McClaren says. "In the first year we were pragmatic ... and I said then I want to improve because I have worked at Derby County [as assistant manager] who were seventh in the Premiership when I left. There were some great players there and then I moved to Manchester United. I have been brought up on good football. Possession football. Attacking football. And that's what I believe in. Yes, we had to do that in the first year to survive. You have to get results to stay in a job in this game. But you can't let your principles go out the window and I took the culture from United and their way of playing. Passing and playing football.

"Attacking football, keeping control and keeping the ball as much as possible on the ground has always been the way we like to play. Over the years we have gradually improved."

On the nature of formations, an issue of some controversy with England, McClaren is insistent that the most important aspect of picking the team is the "blend" of players he uses. And he is entitled to feel proud of the 4-5-1 selection he chose that beat Arsenal at the Riverside last month. He is in his element on this subject. On, for example, the adaptation of a 4-4-2 formation to allow Stewart Downing a winger's role on Middlesbrough's left, that means an inside right like Gaizka Mendieta on the other side. "Not too many stars, not too many soldiers, not too many attackers," McClaren says. "You need team players who can win you a match." He has played 4-4-1-1 too and says picking sides is not just about "sticking round pegs in round holes".

McClaren talks like a thoroughly modern manager on tactics, especially the custom now to "pack the midfield" - a measure he says allows teams to gain control and give them a platform to "spring from" - but it is his analysis of what fans want from their teams that is the most striking. Middlesbrough's problem with attracting consistently high attendances predates his reign, but it is one that has come under greater scrutiny in a season in which there have been fears expressed about dwindling crowds.

"There is a greater expectation from fans now - 'well, entertain me' - whereas when I was a kid and used to go and watch Leeds, I just wanted Leeds to win," he says. "I just wanted my team to win - if they got to a Cup final, played well and lost I would still cry because they lost. If they won 1-0 with a jammy goal, the next day you would be wearing your scarf with pride. So are we losing that? That is a question I would like to ask.

"Are we losing our passion, and seeing the club doing well and the team winning? If you can win in style - great. If you can win - even better. From a fan's perspective those 14,000 who turned up wanted to see Middlesbrough win because it makes their week. It's no good playing Newcastle, having a great game and losing because their life is murder for a week. So, yes, we do have an obligation. I believe good football wins matches, I would always stick by my principles. But there are days when we can't play good football for whatever reason - the opponents, the conditions - but the message is still there."

The message. It is what McClaren hopes will permeate down through the different age groups at Rockcliffe Park, Middlesbrough's magnificent training ground, to the young players he believes will represent the future of the club. Downing, currently injured, is the vanguard of that generation and has already been capped for England, but McClaren says that he has plenty more. James Morrison and Tony McMahon, who is also injured, are already established as first-team players while behind them are Brad Jones, Matthew Bates, David Wheater, Andrew Taylor, Jason Kennedy, Adam Johnson and Danny Graham, who have all played for the senior side. A strong academy, McClaren says, was part of the attraction in joining Middlesbrough.

"We created a culture of professionalism where we had senior players as good role models for the youngsters coming through," he says. " Everyone bought into that. It was something I had helped to work at United so I knew how to build the culture. I took an example from United with the signing of Gareth Southgate. You don't just want a leader off the field, you want a leader on it too. I felt whenever I went into management I would want that Roy Keane type who epitomised the manager's culture, work ethic and professionalism. Gareth has come in and epitomised what we are all about and a great role model for the kids as well."

There is a gap in his squad's age-range profile, McClaren concedes, between his young players and those near the ends of their careers such as Southgate, Ray Parlour, Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. His summer signings of Yakubu, 22, Rochemback, 23, and Emanuel Pogatetz, 22 - all three described by their manager as "the future of Middlesbrough" - were designed to address that problem. Until Middlesbrough's generation of academy players matureS, there will be too few in that crucial age range, but McClaren says he will not countenance slipping out of the Premiership places between fourth and 10th.

For this week, however, the building of his club has been put aside and he is back in the service of Eriksson. Should the Swede decide to end his time in charge of the national team this summer, and there are few who believe he really sees a future with England beyond the World Cup, then McClaren will be among those who hope to be considered for the job - despite the reports that have suggested his new Middlesbrough deal rules him out of the running. For now, though, he is insistent it is Eriksson who is in control of tactics and team selection and McClaren is simply "there to support him" as England attempt today to address the painful memory of the defeat to Northern Ireland on 7 September.

"They [the England squad] are a great bunch of lads, they really want to do well, I know that," McClaren says. "Whatever has gone on I know the players, myself, Sven, the staff are feeling what the supporters are feeling. We have to put this right. We have got ourselves into this.

"At club level you have those kind of games. We [Middlesbrough] had it against Charlton at home. Pathetic, we got beat 2-0, but it's what you do the next game. We put it right, we beat Arsenal 2-1. Things like that happen in football, it is part and parcel of the game. Tottenham found out against Grimsby. You always have a result or a slip-up. We have had one. We need to be positive and put it right. All we need to do is win the two games at Old Trafford, they're home games and it is still in our hands.

"I've been a follower of football for many years. It does make me laugh when I read 'Chelsea have won the League with 4-5-1, it's about time England got with the times and dropped the 4-4-2 and played with a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3'. You can't win, you live on results. The squad, the players, the manager above all knows the best system. It doesn't always work. Hindsight is a great thing. We are in a good position and it's up to us. Fail, it's our fault."

Watching England train, it is McClaren who takes centre-stage and he who has come to know the team's most important player as well as anyone on the staff. The last enduring image of Wayne Rooney in an England shirt was in Belfast, shoving away David Beckham, swearing at Rio Ferdinand, yet his coach at international level paints a different picture of the player upon whom England are staking their hopes of World Cup success.

"He's [Rooney] tremendous," McClaren says. "Believe you me, we would have gone on in Euro 2004 if he had stayed fit. I am quite sure of that because he was the player of the tournament. He's got such great enthusiasm, he is a coach's delight. You cannot get him off the football field. When I went to Manchester United that was the difference, you couldn't get them off the field. They practised and practised. They wouldn't come in. I used to say, 'Last shot, get in'.

"Wazza is just like that, great enthusiasm. Nothing fazes him. He is going to be some player. We've got 19-year-old kids here and they have a hell of a way to go. Wayne's the same. He's only 19, what were we like at 19? Can we go back to how we were? What we thought? How we acted? You wouldn't go back to that way. You have to learn. That's what Wayne has to do. Take things on board, and if he makes mistakes he has to learn from them. And he will. He's at the best club to do that. He is working with England. He is just going through what most 19-year-olds go through - the difference is, most 19-years-olds go through it in the academy."

If one thing is clear about McClaren's involvement with England, it is that he loves the simplicity of the task he fulfils - "just a coach, I work with the players" - and the contrast with the day job. Opening the door back on to another busy afternoon at Middlesbrough he knows, better than anyone, if the FA picks him next summer to succeed Eriksson the schedule will not be as hectic. But the expectation will be greater than ever.

McClaren in driving seat: From journeyman player to England coach

Born: 3 May 1961 in York.

Playing career (midfielder)

Hull City: (1979-1985) 171 starts, 16 goals.

Finishes Fourth Division runners-up in 1983.

Derby County: (1985-1987) 23 starts, 0 goals.

Joins Arthur Cox's Derby in old Third Division and plays bit part as they win successive promotions to top flight.

Lincoln City: (1987-1988) 8 starts, 0 goals.

With injury dogging his career, McClaren joins Lincoln, who were relegated to Conference.

Bristol City: (1988-1989) 60 starts, 2 goals.

Plays for 18 months for Joe Jordan in old Third Division.

Oxford United: (1989-1992) 27 starts, 0 goals

Back problem ends McClaren's playing career.

Management career

Oxford United: (1992-1995) Becomes youth team coach, then coaches the first team.

Derby County: (1995-1999) Recruited as Jim Smith's deputy and leads Derby to the Premiership in 1996, then 12th and ninth in two seasons there.

Manchester United: (1999-2001) Alex Ferguson hires McClaren at the end of January 1999 and, four months later, United seal their historic Treble.

Middlesbrough (2001-present) Manager for first time. Boro have finished 12th, 11th, 11th and 7th in Premiership. Wins 2004 League Cup.

England: (2000, 2001-present) After Kevin Keegan resigns, McClaren helps Peter Taylor take temporary charge. United do not let him continue, but he starts again at Boro.