4 May ~ Just over two years ago Steve McClaren was between jobs, having famously failed to take England to Euro 2008. He showed up at the US national coaching convention in Baltimore to give a seminar or two, causing muffled sniggering among the handful of hacks covering this unglamorous event. Our excitement was not greatly bolstered when a press officer promised us an audience with the man himself and while he kept us waiting for several hours the air was rife with less than kind questions we considered throwing his way. Perhaps, Steve, you'll be looking for a job in LA where it rarely rains? How do you rate Croatia's chances in the summer? My goodness, we were a hilarious bunch.
When McClaren finally showed up, he sounded like the last thing he wanted to do at the end of a day enlightening US football coaches was to answer our questions on his next career move. He spoke slowly, in a monotone, and considered his responses in a ponderous manner that you might have kindly called "careful", but which more likely illustrated a lately developed contempt for journalists.
Surprisingly, however, beneath the tired voice there was a sense of dogged self-belief which only prompted further parodies once he'd left the room. McClaren clearly differed from the generally held view that he was no longer employable at the top level. His subsequent appointment at Twente Enschede, and the famous interview with a Dutch reporter where he spoke English with a comical foreign accent, hardly helped improve his widely held image as a public laughing stock.
In the light of McClaren leading Twente to the Dutch title this past weekend, the interview is worth reviewing. His success is no mean achievement given that over the previous 25 seasons the title had escaped Ajax or PSV Eindhoven on only three occasions (twice to Feyenoord and once to Alkmaar, in 2009). That Twente, who were runners-up last season, pipped a resurgent Ajax team to the Eredivisie championship is even more remarkable when you consider that Ajax scored 106 goals in just 34 games this season, with a goal difference of plus 86. Twente managed a comparatively meagre 63 goals but despite mostly using an attacking 4-3-3 formation they lost just twice all year. They won the title by a point, with a defence almost as stingy as Ajax's, and the Dutch press praising McClaren's tactical flexibility.
"I get great satisfaction from [coaching]," McClaren told us in 2008. "Not just from coaching individuals but teams and even England was a positive experience for me, a great experience. I've said before, I'm better for it, and I want to go out and prove that. Anywhere – I'm not restricted. I'm not going to rush. Somewhere that's ambitious and can challenge for top spots, whether that's in England or anywhere else, that's what interests me."
McClaren also reflected upon Sven-Göran Eriksson's appointment at Manchester City and Kevin Keegan's reappointment at Newcastle United. "It shows that ex-England managers are not dead," he said, "and are better for the experience, and people have got to realise that. I learned fantastic lessons. It was a great experience. Not a lot of people experience that. As long as I reflect and learn, which is what I've done, I'm more determined next time round, whatever that challenge is."
Outgoing German champions Wolfsburg will reportedly appoint McClaren as their new head coach this week, which would make him the first ever Englishman in charge of a Bundesliga team. His two seasons with Twente leave McClaren's club record looking impressive when you consider how many men have lead Middlesbrough to a European final. And though his lack of charisma during a ten-minute audience two years back did little to impress those who noted down his unenthusiastic mumblings, the substance of his words now batters my prejudice and reconfirms that smartarse critics on the game's sidelines can benefit from a good slapping down. Reflect and learn. There's not much fun in that, but it might serve us better sometimes when judging the game and the people it employs. Ian Plenderleith