Thursday, 22 March 2007

Second Choice Steve? The McClaren Years - Part 1(2001-2004)

The England manager and his teeth

A week that began with Boro's new boss being criticised from all angles ends with his predecessor taking England's national team to Israel on Saturday. If Gareth Southgate has had a tough week, then the pressure that Steve McClaren, the man the nation certainly didn't want, has been put under puts that into perspective. His honeymoon period just about survived a 4-0 friendly win over European champions Greece but the knives were quickly drawn after a mind-numbing 0-0 draw with Macedonia and a farcical 2-0 defeat in Croatia. McClaren's departure hardly provoked dismay amongst Boro fans and he was far from being the people's choice. Despite his shiny new teeth and the help of Max Clifford, 'Second Choice Steve' can hardly look to the media to protect his reputation - which is surely a major reason why Fleet Street darling Terry Venables was appointed assistant manager. I can't help but feel that the man being pilloried from all angles is not quite the clueless buffoon he is widely portrayed as.

McClaren's first season on Teesside was in many ways his most impressive. With an impressive reputation from a spell as No. 2 at Manchester United, Boro had to compete with West Ham to secure McClaren's signature in the summer of 2001. The task in his first manager's job was steep. The previous season had seen Bryan Robson turn to Terry Venables to bale him out. In December, Boro looked doomed to relegation and had yet to win a home game. Venables completed a highly effective short-term job, tightening the defence by deploying the hitherto unused Paul Okon in the middle and galvanising the mercurial Croat Alen Boksic to some impressive performances, with stunning goals securing memorable wins at Newcastle and Leicester. Nonetheless, Robson nominally remained manager and his tenure only ended when he was booed off the field after the final game of the season. Venables depressingly decided that hanging around with Bob Wilson and Ally McCoist in an ITV studio was more attractive than managing Boro. We had stayed up but were burdened by a bloated squad packed with too many thirtysomethings on big contracts with little or no re-sale value.

McClaren's luck did not seem in as we crashed to 4 straight defeats to start the season. His first game, at home to Arsenal, ended in a harsh 4-0 defeat - Boro trailed by a single goal until the last five minutes when an Ashley Cole dive saw Ehiogu sent off and the home defence implode. Away defeats at Bolton and Everton followed before a thoroughly depressing derby defeat that seemed to suggest McClaren's luck was out. Colin Cooper gave Boro an early lead but another controversial red card led to a 4-1 loss. Two identical penalties were awarded in quick succession at opposite ends - Shay Given somehow escaped with a yellow to save Jonathon Greening's piss-poor kick before Shearer(pen) inevitably registered with Schwarzer sent off. After such a dreadful start, many expected Boro to fold but the side showed impressive resilience over the course of the season even if the quality of football was low. Many of Robson's squad were moved on and McClaren made some astute signings including Gareth Southgate, Franck Queudrue and, ahem, Allan Johnston. The back four of Stockdale, Queudrue, Southgate and Ehiogu provided a solid base for league recovery and some limited attacking flourish was added by a rejuvenated Noel Whelan and loanee Benito Carbone, to supplement the erratic Boksic. Boro finished comfortably in mid-table, amusingly scuppering much of Manchester United's domestic hopes. A 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March practically ended any title hopes while United were knocked out of the FA Cup, 2-0 at the Riverside. That FA Cup run only ended at the semi-finals, a Gianluca Festa own goal sealing another cruel Arsenal win. However, the cup run had achieved much, eliminating a lot of the negativity that built up amongst fans during the meandering later years of the Robson era. The atmosphere at Old Trafford was electric as fans took pride in a team that was finally showing real spirit and desire. There was no doubt the team lacked quality - that semi-final line-up included such luminaries as Johnston, Mickael Debeve and Luke Wilkshire - but McClaren did a superb job in taking such base material to build a mid-table team, 90 minutes from an FA Cup final, while trimming much of the fat from the squad.

McClaren spent heavily the following summer, bringing in Juninho, George Boateng, Massimo Maccarone on big transfer fees and loaning Geremi from Real Madrid. A nasty case of pre-season knee knack sidelined Juninho until March but Boro started brightly with the returning Joseph Job becoming a surprise hit in Juninho's attacking midfield position. The early signs were promising, with a stunning 3-0 win at Spurs probably the most impressive performance. Home form remained impressive throughout the campaign with only two defeats and another victory over Manchester United, 3-1 on Boxing Day. However, the general promise of autumn did not last. Massimo Maccarone, so impressive in the opening weeks, increasingly looked uncomfortable with the physical nature of the English game and the folly of spending a club record £8.15m on a player with no top-flight experience was beginning to become apparent. An unfortunate habit of losing 1-0 away from home was developed, with some players, most notably Geremi, seeming thoroughly disorientiated when removed from the confines of the Riverside. Another solid mid-table finish arrived but some frustration was beginning to grow, particularly over the ineptitude of the expanding (literally in Michael Ricketts' case) pool of strikers. While the deadline day Derby double of Riggott and Christie does not seem such a terrible move now, the decision to splash £3.5m on Ricketts so soon after spending big on Maccarone has led to serious reservations regarding McClaren's judgment.

The 2003/04 season proved to be a watershed in McClaren's reign. The signs before Christmas did not look promising. Gaizka Mendieta arrived amid much fanfare but struggled to match the contribution of goals and assists Chelsea-bound Geremi had provided. Danny Mills arrived on loan, and while he was a tenacious presence at right-back, he did little to alter a team whose problems were further up the field. Chelsea loanee Bolo Zenden came to play on the left wing, and did so with little success. Juninho had returned to full fitness but McClaren struggled to accomodate him. Playing him behind two strikers proved more attacking but left the defence exposed, as the 3-2 defeat to Leeds early season demonstrated. McClaren increasingly opted for 4-5-1 with Juninho behind either Ricketts or Maccarone, who both looked woefully out of their depth. Fans were beginning to grow restless with the first serious complaints about a lack of entertainment and goals emerging. From November 8th to Boxing Day, Boro played four games containing a combined tally of a single goal . That came as Sun Jihai put through his own net in a 1-0 win at Manchester City that contained no shots on target from McClaren's side.

Things improved after Christmas as Boro began to score more freely and rose to the familiar surroundings of lower mid-table. Joseph Job found some consistency in the sole striking role while Zenden began to flirt with a central midfield position that suited his talents much better than the wing. Hilariously, Boro beat Manchester United yet again - two Juninho headers(!) and a superb 15-pass move expertly finished by Job secured a memorable 3-2 win at Old Trafford. By the far the most important development was the Carling Cup run. McClaren was certainly pushing his luck - defeating Everton on penalties, then doing the same at Spurs after Michael Ricketts scored a priceless 90th minute equaliser to keepn the tie alive. Juninho's goal earned a 1-0 win at Arsenal in the first leg of the semi, before Bolo Zenden ended 60 minutes of tension to double the advantage in the second leg. There was a brief scare after Edu scored but debutant Jose Reyes comprehensively beat his own keeper to seal a place in Cardiff and McClaren's first major final. Job scored before McClaren could reach his seat and then the Cameroon striker won a penalty which Zenden converted with something short of composure, slipping as he ran up and striking the ball with both feet, much to the chagrin of eagle-eyed ref baiter Fat Sam. Despite a horrible error from Schwarzer to take the score to 2-1 and a strong claim for a Bolton penalty in injury time, Boro held on and McClaren had become the most successful manager in Boro's 128 year history by default. He had won the trophy that had eluded all of his predecessors.

After such a commendable effort in his first season, Steve McClaren's Boro career seemed to be heading nowhere by late 2003. The £20m spent in the summer of 2002 had failed to provide the improvement fans had hoped for and expected. Having finished 12th with 45 points in the first campaign, two successive 11th placed finishes on 49 then 48 points did not suggest progress was being made. Moreover, the sterile football that had been tolerated at first was starting to grate. It was one thing to play such negative football when he was working on a small budget and trying to shift Robson rejects from the wage bill. 2 years later, there could be no such excuses. The impotence in front of goal was a real problem and troubling given that the thick end of £15m had been spent on Maccarone, Ricketts and Christie. In retrospect, the run to Cardiff seems marked with particularly good fortune - Everton or Tottenham could have easily eliminated us before the competition really got serious. Whether he could have survived another mid-table season and the inevitable rancour of disgruntled season ticket holders is debatable. By winning the Carling Cup, McClaren had earned himself a spectacular reprieve. This represented unchartered territory for the club and certainly had a huge impact on the club's fortunes for the remainder of McClaren's reign. That he could, and maybe should, have achieved more off the back of that achievement raises further doubts over whether his coaching talents merit the elevated status he now enjoys.

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