In September, Steve McClaren was in the check-in queue for our flight to Zurich the day before Manchester United’s Champions League group stage match against Young Boys. Some United supporters spotted McClaren at the gate and asked him if he was attending the game. McClaren asked them who United were playing.
What a remarkable turn of events that, eight months later, McClaren is on the brink of returning to the club he first joined 23 years and three months ago. McClaren was by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side for only two years and three months but the period covered the Treble, two more Premier League titles and the Club World Cup.
McClaren had the privilege of managing United with Ferguson absent in South Africa for his son’s wedding during the November 2000 derby at Maine Road. Later that month, he assisted England caretaker manager Peter Taylor, eventually assuming the head coach role in August 2006.
Yet as of last month, McClaren was an ad hoc adviser at Derby County, recently relegated to League One. He has not managed or coached since his dismissal by Queens Park Rangers in March 2019.
McClaren was flying to Switzerland for a coaching convention at the start of the season and he was hardly obliged to know the identity of United’s opponents. He left in May 2001 and the last time McClaren was in the Old Trafford was for the Treble anniversary match in three years ago.
You would not have put it past Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who turned back the clock with most appointments while he was manager, to have approached McClaren. His imminent appointment to Erik ten Hag’s backroom staff at United feels incongruous, despite McClaren’s working relationship with Ten Hag at Twente. That was more than a decade ago.
McClaren has not had his ear to the ground at United for several years and has more recently occupied administrative roles at Derby and a four-month posting at Maccabi Tel Aviv. Mitchell van der Gaag is assisting Ten Hag, who unlike Solskjaer is present on the training pitch.
It was barely a month ago McClaren likened Ten Hag to Sir Alex Ferguson in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. His recollections of Ten Hag were genuine and insightful, but retrospectively sound sycophantic.
Since McClaren’s ‘wally with the brolly’ infamy, his coaching CV has been eclectic and some stints unmemorable. Coaching Twente to the Dutch title is arguably McClaren’s career-high. For certain football followers, the instant memory of McClaren’s residency in Holland is an interview where he inexplicably put on a Dutch accent.
Can anyone who does not reside near the Trent recall McClaren’s stint as Nottingham Forest manager? There were two spells as manager of Derby, where Ferguson prised McClaren from in February 1999, and one at the managerial graveyard of QPR.
McClaren’s reputation never truly recovered from that sodden night at Wembley in November 2007 when England failed to qualify for the European Championship. He was a worthy successor to Sven-Goran Eriksson the previous year and his five years at Middlesbrough were laudable: a seventh-place finish in 2004-05, an FA Cup semi-final in 2002, a Europa League final in 2006 and the club’s first major honour with the League Cup in 2004.
When Ferguson was set on retiring in 2002, McClaren was among the candidates to replace him. The United chairman Martin Edwards introduced McClaren to the media as ‘Steve McClaridge and when he arrived for dinner at the team hotel the night before an away game some of the players did not recognise him. The next day, McClaren oversaw the warm-up. United annihilated Nottingham Forest 8-1.
Ferguson was struck by how McClaren imposed his personality in training, Roy Keane welcomed a new voice and new ideas, using McClaren’s arrival as an excuse to push himself more in a changed environment. Jaap Stam felt McClaren brought an extra dimension to training with his video analysis and Gary Neville said he fitted in seamlessly.
That was all 23 years ago and is moot. Ten Hag evidently believes McClaren brings something to the table and, culturally, it is maybe advisable to have a prominent English backroom staff member to act as a conduit to the British players. Before Ten Hag fixes the team, he has to fix the dressing room.
McClaren is a familiar face and approachable. As England coach, he was prone to chummily referring to the players by their nickname and developing a similar rapport in a reduced role has some merit. Ten Hag is a demanding disciplinarian and he will need a buffer to ease the culture shock United’s indulged players are in for.
McClaren will soon be flying with the players rather than the fans.