10 February ~ So, the first English coach in the Bundesliga lasted barely six months in the job before being dismissed this week by VfL Wolfsburg. Steve McClaren arrived with glowing references from his time in charge of Twente Enschede but never managed to completely shake off the image of the Trottel mit dem Regenschirm (Wally with the brolly) and bring success back to the team built by Volkswagen.
Premier League football is perennially popular in Germany and, despite the ignominious end to his time in charge of the England team, McClaren was widely regarded as a good long-term appointment in Wolfsburg. However, since becoming surprise Bundesliga champions in 2009 under Felix Magath, the team from Germany's motor city have struggled to hit the heights again and the manager's job has proved to be too much for Armin Veh, Lorenz-Günther Köstner and now Steve McClaren. Gerard Houllier's decision to decline Wolfsburg's advances in 2010 now seems like a very wise decision.
It would be too simplistic to lay the blame solely at the feet of McClaren, who has enjoyed relatively sympathetic treatment from the German press. While the results do speak for themselves and Wolfsburg currently sit uneasily in 12th position, just one point off a relegation place, the squad expensively assembled by various trainers has singularly failed to gel. Talented players such as Diego, who was a revelation for Werder Bremen in his first spell in Germany, promised to be a guarantee of success. However, his influence has been limited and the general malaise affecting the club has even spread to normally reliable performers such as goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, guilty of some glaring errors in recent matches.
The transfer policy of managing director Dieter Hoeness is also being called into question: why let McClaren spend the money received from the sale of Edin Dzeko so freely and bring in five players as the transfer window drew to a close, only to sack him a few days later? It does seem that the manager was unable to mould the conflicting personalities in his squad into a cohesive unit, and it is unclear how much of a problem his lack of German was. His authority on the pitch was also called into question during the 1-0 derby defeat in Hanover at the weekend. Playmaker Diego won a penalty but refused to let designated taker Patrick Helmes step up, preferring to do it himself. He then blasted his effort against the bar. After the game, the Brazilian midfielder's stance was less than apologetic, while McClaren was clearly furious at this "unacceptable" behaviour.
However, on Tuesday it was McClaren's successor and former assistant, the 1990 World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski, who informed the media that Diego has been suspended for Wolfsburg's upcoming game against Hamburg. Whether Litti (or Herr Littbarski, as the one-time dressing-room joker now prefers to be known) will be able to instil more discipline into this collection of individuals remains to be seen. But if he should fail, tough times are ahead for Dieter Hoeness and VfL Wolfsburg – relegation would be a major embarrassment for the club and would sorely test the willingness of Volkswagen to keep pumping money into the team. John van Laer