The Fergie way: Modest player, mighty manager

McClaren could not wish for a better boss at Boro
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The Independent Football

The declaration from Middlesbrough Riverside is still not in, but presuming his nomination paper did not go astray in Florida, Steve McClaren will be formally appointed as Bryan Robson's replacement on Tuesday. A lot of water has flowed under the Tees flyover in the past seven years, but in swapping Captain Marvel for Fergie's Lieutenant, Boro will be in the same boat in one respect.

As The Northern Echo pointed out when Robson made his fanfare arrival in May 1994, they were gambling on someone without management experience. "Only two men have captained England on more occasions than Boro's new boss," the North-east newspaper reported, "and both Billy Wright and Bobby Moore failed to succeed in the management game." In the same way that excellence on the field of play has never been a true indicator of managerial potential, service as a No 2 is no accurate gauge either.

Consider, for instance, the last assistant manager at Manchester United. There is no reason to suppose McClaren will go the same way as Brian Kidd, but as he outlined in these pages six months ago, he has no experience of controlling a team's destiny. "I help out," he said. "I advise. But I don't make decisions." McClaren has only been helping out at Old Trafford for two-and-a-half years, yet he will arrive on Teesside with a reputation as the brightest backroom boy in the game. Sir Alex holds him in such high regard he proposed him as his successor. And, of course, the powers that be at the Football Association appointed him as temporary assistant England coach in the wake of Kevin Keegan's departure last autumn.

McClaren, a 40-year-old Yorkshireman, is renowned for his confidence and ambition and also for his meticulousness. He records and analyses the individual performances of players on computers and insists on the players at Old Trafford using special Prozone beds, which relax muscles and reduce the risk of injury. He is also a keen student of the global greats of sports coaching, adopting the proven methods of men such as Phil Jackson, who took the Chicago Bulls by the horn, and the late Vince Lombardi, the legendary guiding light of the Green Bay Packers. Unlike Bryan Robson, McClaren never got close to greatness as a player. A more modest than marvellous midfielder, he played for Hull, Derby and Bristol City before finishing his career at Oxford, where he moved into the coaching side under Brian Horton.

"People have always been asking me where I've been in the game and what I've done," he says. "But if you look at all the people who've got to the top they've all been in the trenches. They haven't all been great players. A perfect example is the gaffer."

At present that gaffer is still Sir Alex Ferguson, but from Tuesday, McClaren will have a new boss. He could hardly wish for a better one, either. The loyalty chairman Steve Gibson showed Robson extended well beyond the call of duty. It remained unwavering through the relegation of 1997 and through two winless months of the 1999-2000 season, when the Riverside regulars started to chant for Robson's resignation. Robson could never have realistically survived the humiliation of an outsider being hired to dig Boro out of the relegation mire in the season just ended, but Gibson stayed admirably true to his man right to the end.

It was his insistence that Robson should make a dignified departure, facing the press alongside him last Tuesday morning ­ the proper way a manager ought to go, even if doing things the proper way was ultimately responsible for making Robson's position untenable. It was only right that Robson should have been urged to join the Middlesbrough players and their hired head coach when they acknowledged the Riverside crowd after the final game of the season.

It was inevitable, though, that the cheers would turn to jeers when Robson followed in Terry Venables' footsteps towards the centre circle. When Robson walked out of the exit door last week, it was only right for Gibson to point out that ­ unlike Bobby Moore, who failed to take Southend out of the basement division, and Billy Wright, who couldn't inspire Arsenal above mid-table mediocrity ­ the former Captain Marvel did at least make progress as a manager. "In Bryan's time," Gibson said, "we have moved from Ayresome Park with 10,000 fans, ninth in the First Division with a valueless squad, one of the lowest turnovers in the game and a not very bright future. Since then we've had three Wembley finals, five years in the Premiership, two promotions and we have a 35,000 crowd in a new stadium."

That progress came at a cost, of course. Robson spent £73m on players, a lavish amount by any standards ­ even if much of it was recouped by outgoing transfers. At times it seemed that Viv Nicholson rather than Viv Anderson was assisting Robson. The spend, spend, spend approach bought some rich talents ­ Juninho, Nick Barmby, Fabrizio Ravan-elli, Christian Ziege, Paul Merson and the faded Paul Gascoigne ­ but as the highly-paid hands came and went, the lasting structure of a team of substance never looked like being built.

That task now falls to McClaren, and at least he will inherit the spine of a half-decent side: Mark Schwarzer, Ugo Ehiogu, Paul Ince and Alen Boksic. He will inherit a lot of unsettled players too, though that is no bad thing. In offloading the likes of Andy Campbell, Gianluca Festa, Christian Karembeu, Paul Okon, Joseph Désiré Job and Noel Whelan, he can clear out some dead wood and increase his own spending power. He has already drawn up a list of potential recruits, on which apparently can be found such names as Gareth Southgate, Malcolm Christie, Francis Jeffers, Denis Irwin, Jonathan Greening and Mark Wilson.

The chairman's chequebook, it would seem, is in for another busy summer.

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