Saturday, 24 March 2007

Second Choice Steve? The McClaren Years - Part 2 (2004-2006)

England's boss tells the one about Steve Harrison, a cupboard and a pint glass

On Thursday, I discussed the early years of Steve McClaren's reign on Teesside, considering whether the widespread cynicism about his coaching talents was totally fair. It is fair to say that, despite some promise, the seeds of doubt had already emerged. Capturing the 2004 Carling Cup was a pivotal moment in McClaren's career, adding impetus to a team who appeared to be stuck in permanent mediocrity. The cup victory created exciting new opportunities for the club - whether McClaren took sufficient advantage of this is arguable.

In statistical terms, 2004/05 was McClaren's most successful season at Middlesbrough. 7th place in the league was the club's highest finish since 1975. For the first time ever, European qualification was achieved via league placing. McClaren invested heavily in the summer of 2004, reaping the Cardiff windfall to build a squad fit for Europe. Rockliffe press conferences seemed to be daily occurrences at points during those heady months. By far the most successful signings were the two experienced strikers poached to solve the team's long-standing ineptitude in front of goal. Mark Viduka (£4.5m from Leeds) and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (free from Chelsea) provided considerably more quality, experience and value than the near £12m pairing of Maccarone and Ricketts. McClaren had cut his losses with the lardy waster, dispatching him to newly relegated Leeds on a free. His 18 months on Teesside had cost £30,000 a week, £3.5m in lost transfer fee for a return of just 4 goals, two of them penalties. It does raise the question of what could have been achieved had McClaren invested in strikers of Viduka and Hasselbaink's quality at an earlier stage. Another free signing was the previous season's loanee Bolo Zenden, crucially on just a one-year contract. Returning to a Robson theme, McClaren padded his squad out with 'experience'. We can only hope that his much-touted investment in 'experience' in Tel Aviv tonight is rather more successful than the Boro careers of Michael Reiziger and Ray Parlour. Given that it seems an excuse to play Phil Neville, its hard to be confident.

From the early weeks of the season, hopes of a high finish were raised. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was a hit from day one, when he blatantly punched in a last-minute equaliser against Newcastle. Hasselbaink was a massive hit, scoring the first Boro hat-trick in some time during a 4-0 win at Blackburn where even George Boateng scored. The team even dabbled with the Champions League places on occasions. The inaugural European campaign began well. Banik Ostrava were the visitors for the Riverside's first continental fixture with the classy new strike pairing sealing a 3-0 win after a nervy start. In the group stages, two superb Bolo Zenden goals defeated Lazio 2-0. Despite losing 2-0 at Villarreal, Boro qualified for the knockout stages as group winners.

There were signs that European football was damaging Boro's league form. Generally playing consistently well, points were still being dropped on a consistent basis after UEFA Cup fixtures. The team struggled to reach the same fluency dropping points in bad-tempered, scrappy home draws with Bolton and Portsmouth, and lost without scoring at Everton and Tottenham. To put that in perspective, the only other defeats suffered before Christmas came against Arsenal (and that after going 3-1 ahead at Highbury) and eventual champions Chelsea.

Having raised hopes, the team's performances fell away after Christmas. Mark Viduka's injury in a dire Boxing Day defeat at Birmingham all but ended his season. On one of the few occasions early season goal-scoring form was recaptured, a 4-1 lead was inexpliacbly tossed away in the final ten minutes at doomed Norwich. The nadir came at the end of March when Peter Crouch ravaged our defence in a dismal 3-1 defeat at home to Southampton that saw the team slump to 9th. The European campaign was over by the end of March too. In the last 32, Boro squeezed past GAK 4-3 on aggregate despite the best efforts of Emmanuel Pogatetz. In the next round, the best efforts of Fabio Rochemback inspired Sporting Lisbon to a 3-0 lead at the Riverside. Two late goals from Job and Riggott weren't enough and an injury-ravaged sufferd a brave but terminal 1-0 defeat in Lisbon. This apparently amounted to the sum total of McClaren's scouting for the following season.

The team managed to scrape enouugh form over the last 8 games to sneak into Europe, based on the immaculate defending of the re-united Ehiogu and Southgate. Even so, it was a close-run thing. Spurs' European hopes were only ended with a deflected George Boateng goal during the penultimate game of the season and Manchester City would have stolen Boro's European place had Mark Schwarzer not saved Robbie Fowler's penalty in the season's final minute.

Despite earning another crack at Europe, there is a sense that more could have been achieved. The team played so well before the Christmas that Champions League hopes were raised. Despite playing dreafully most of the time after Christmas until April, we finished only six points behind 4th-placed Everton. That a team so one-dimensional could finish 4th after we had wasted so many chances to earn more points. With Liverpool distracted by the European Cup/total dross (delete as applicable), there has not been a poorer recent Premiership than 04/05 and no better opportunity for Boro to prove that they were actually capable of breaking the top four's monopoly. Despite the achievements, there was again some very poor football, particularly after Christmas, and with what was without doubt his best team during his time on Teesside, McClaren could have done so much more.

2005/06 proved to be McClaren's final season at the Riverside. It would match the double cup final and relegated vintage of 1996/97 as one of the most frustrating, exciting, disappointing and bizarre campaigns any team can have embarked upon. The 14th place league finish was the lowest in McClaren's five seasons, with a defence mainly marshalled by an ageing Southgate and an inconsistent Chris Riggott shipping goals at an alarming rate. The team struggled without Bolo Zenden, who had fled on a free transfer for the refuge of Liverpool's bench and an extra £10k aweek, and his supposed replacement, Fabio Rochemback, failed to replicate the Dutchman's impact. Emmanuel Pogatetz did not convince at left-back, with the increasingly sidelined Franck Queudrue growing unsettled. Yakubu Aiyegbeni scored the goals that a £7m price tag would suggest but not enough to compensate for a leaky defence. There were sporadic performances of excellence, most notably crushing Manchester United 4-1, but they were generally followed by dropped points. Only record-breaking Sunderland leaked more goals at home than Boro, with such inconsistency undermining any chances of breaking free from mid-table.

Injuries began to take their toll and the combined impact of a desperate 7-0 molestation at Arsenal and a soul-crushing 4-0 reverse at home to Villa led to vociferous calls for the manager's head as the team slumped alarmingly close to relegation. The stunning 3-0 win over the champions elect Chelsea that followed was hugely surprising but vital - with Stewart Downing back from a long-term lay-off and successive victories against struggling West Brom and Birmingham, Boro ended fears of demotion. That McClaren had failed to beat his lowest previous points tally with so many gifted players at his disposal and had the team producing some of the worst, most spineless displays under his tenure raised serious doubts over his abilities. This was undoubtedbly McClaren's team now and the league effort was nowhere near good enough.

McClaren salvaged his reputation with cup success. The League Cup run ended in the quarter-finals with an abject defeat to Blackburn. Progress in the FA Cup came slowly and painfully. Boro were embarrassingly held to a draw by Conference North Nuneaton Borough in the third round, needing a replay to defeat the non-leaguers and Coventry in the next round. Two Yakubu goals polished off Preston in an impressive away win next before an exquisite Mark Viduka goal helped eliminate Charlton at the second attempt in a 4-2 quarter-final replay win. This set up a semi-final against West Ham at Villa Park.

In Europe, progress was comfortable. Six successive clean sheets aided comfortable progress past Christmas as group winners again. An impressive 2-1 win in Stuttgart and an unimpressive 1-0 defeat in the second leg helped Boro into the last 16 on away goals. There we faced a Roma team who had just set the then Italian record of eleven successive league wins. On a sodden night at the Riverside, a penalty converted by Yakubu and won by a typically dramatic Hasselbaink collapse decided a tense game. Hasselbaink made an equally important and more admirable intervention in the second leg, looping a superb header past the keeper to silence the Stadio Olimpico. Just as Boro's travelling fans had weathered violence and intimidation, the team held off a Roma fightback to record an away goals victory. Mark Schwarzer may have been beaten twice but made some astonishing saves to complete one of the proudest evening's in the club's history. The task against Basel seemed simpler but a 2-0 defeat in Switzerland seemed to have ended the cup run, a feeling compounded when they went 1-0 up at the Riverside. The astonishing comeback to seal a 4-1 victory in the last minute somehow kept the Uefa Cup dream alive.

Boro faced successive semi-finals during a key spell in April 2006. In the first game, at Steaua Bucharest, a patched up defence marshalled by Ugo Ehiogu and Matthew Bates held firm as Boro escaped from a battering defeated by just one goal. Then came the trip to Birmingham to face West Ham. Inexplicably, McClaren changed to a 3-5-2 formation, deploying Stewart Downing centrally rather than directly against Lionel Scaloni, the man widely recognised as the Hammers' weakest link. Despite dominating possession, the team struggled to make chances and were defeated by a late Marlon Harewood goal. The depression that created only deepened as Boro's nervy defending handed Steaua a two goal lead. Once again, however, a desperate gung-ho effort to claw back into the game ended with last minute success. Massimo Maccarone was the hero again, sealing another 4-3 aggregate win a thumping far-post header. McClaren's attempts to deploy the same response after falling behind in the final were less successful. Sevilla ruthlessly exploited the gaps left, winning 4-0. Even if that scoreline seemed harsh, there was no doubting Boro had been outplayed and outthought on the big night in Eindhoven.

Overall, its seems hard to argue with the general scepticism towards McClaren. He did demonstrate an ability to get Boro playing well on the big occasion, with memorable victories over Manchester United, Chelsea, Lazio and Roma. However, he struggled to get the team playing with any consistency and lacked ambition against mid-table sides, often clinging to the counter-attacking style that worked much better against better sides. His tactical meddling went a long way to ending hopes of an FA Cup final and almost did for the Uefa Cup run too. His transfer record was decidely patchy - Zenden, Yakubu, Southgate, Hasselbaink and Viduka have all been excellent players but the money spent on the likes of Ricketts, Maccarone, Parlour, Rochemback, Wilson and Reiziger was for the most part simply wasted. McClaren's biggest downfall, however, was himself. His claims that fans needed 'educating' after tactical criticism smacked of outrageous arrogance from a man who could only manage one top-half finish in five attempts despite generous backing from Steve Gibson. His enthusiasm for taking the vacant positions at Leeds (in 2002) and Newcastle (in 2004), of all clubs, hurt his credibility among fans increasingly suspicious of his commitment. His angling for the England job while the team laboured in the lower or middle reaches of the league seemed ridiculous and, once again, arrogant. That he somehow got the national job still seems perplexing. The enthusiasm shown towards Gareth Southgate this season despite achieving similar results shows the benefits of a manager showing some humility and genuine passion for his club. McClaren often seemed to be treating Boro like a stepping stone when his results did not suggest he deserved any better job. Sadly for those who priorites lie with England not Boro, the national team have got a manager whose qualities matched those of his Boro teams - capable of moments of inspiration but ultimately not good enough to succeed at the highest level.