Richard Fleming: Steve McClaren still carries England failure


Steve McClaren.jpgIt was a bold move by the BBC, hiring Steve McClaren as a radio analyst for the 2008 European Championship, for McClaren had been in charge of the England national team that had failed to qualify for the international event in Austria and Switzerland.

This week, Newcastle United named McClaren as their new manager, replacing John Carver. McClaren had most recently been at the helm of Derby County in the Championship.

Since leaving the national team role under a dark cloud, McClaren had reinvented himself by coaching in the Netherlands and Germany, with varied levels of success. He also held jobs at Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, again with a little bit of everything thrown in.

I worked alongside McClaren in Austria. Indeed, we dined together as part of the BBC team in Vienna, and traveled together, to matches outside of the Austrian capital.

The night he arrived in Austria, we planned to go out as a group to make him feel welcome. There were a handful of BBC colleagues. We opted to choose the quietest, most low-key bar in Vienna – no easy task on a Friday night. Fortunately, the summer weather took a turn for the worse, a gentle drizzle was sure to dampen a few plans. That was, indeed, the case. The rain, though, provided another potential pit-fall, and one we were all too aware of.

On the night that England’s hopes of qualifying for the Euros were dashed, by Croatia at Wembley, rain had fallen over the famous stadium. McClaren took shelter under an umbrella, his face stone-still as he witnessed the end of England’s chances. The British press went on to label him ‘The wally with the brolly’, hence why the rain falling in Vienna presented the BBC boys with an issue.

‘We must not allow him to be photographed under an umbrella!’

His being at the Euros had angered some. ‘Why should he get paid for being at the event he failed to get England to?’ So, low-key was the approach taken. A quiet bar, a quick drink, a brief welcome and then we’ll be back to the hotel before anybody notices.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

When McClaren arrived, a broad smile across his face, he shook everybody by the hand, said his ‘hellos’ and took his seat at our table in a non-descript bar-cum-café, far from the madding crowd. We supped our drinks and planned the journey back to our hotel; only McClaren was not for such a swift return to his accommodation.

He led the way, out into the Friday festivities of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, from the relative safety of our sleepy bar, head-first toward the epicentre of Vienna’s nightlife.

Thankfully, the weather had improved, and so there was no need for the former England manager to take shelter under an umbrella. We did well to find a ‘quiet’ spot at the back of a bar, itself bustling with bodies. Then we dropped our guard. After two or three rounds, McClaren decided it was his turn to buy the drinks. Before we knew it, the BBC’s prized asset was positioned in the middle of a dozen kilt-wearing, booze-fuelled Scotsmen – who just happened to be in Vienna for a stag weekend -having his photo taken!

We had sensationally failed, but the look on McClaren’s face suggested he was taking everything a lot better than we were.

A week or so into the tournament, we were required to travel by train to a group match. The bookings, all made at separate times, meant we were split up for the journey. Steve McClaren, unfortunately, was forced to sit in a carriage, across from an Irishman who was happy to tell him how sub-standard he was at his chosen profession.

At the other end, we all met up and clambered into a taxi cab, headed for the hotel. McClaren was sat alongside me in the back of a five-seater car. I was positioned behind the driver, and so was able to see his every expression in the rear-view mirror. He was from Palestine, and a huge football fan.

“My son love Manchester United,” he said when hearing our English accents.

“But, tell me,” he went on, now with a frown across his furrowed brow. “Why you not here? Why England not qualify? We are very sad England not here.”

The driver had no idea who was sat over his right shoulder. I glanced at McClaren. We both allowed ourselves a little smile as he whispered: “Can they not just let it go?”

Seven years on from that trip, and eight years since his failure with England, and McClaren still carries the mark. That blot in his copy book has, I’m sure, been a driving force in everything he has done since. After his set-back with the Three Lions, he did what few English managers had done before him, or since – he ventured outside of England’s green and pleasant lands to start afresh on the European mainland, with Dutch club Twente.

McClaren is not troubled by challenges. He has a fine football mind, and has, arguably, coped with one of the most stressful jobs in the game, as well as the fall-out that comes with falling short. He has a tough task ahead with Newcastle, but as he showed on our night out in Vienna, he’s not one to hide.

FOOTNOTE: myself and Steve McClaren attended the same grammar school in York, albeit a few years apart. We sat at breakfast one morning in Klagenfurt, discussing cross-country runs, rugby in the driving rain on the Knavesmire (we had access to sports fields in the middle of York Racecourse, open to the elements), and the PE master, Mr. Bibby. Safe to say, it was a surreal conversation.

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