Has the criticism aimed at Steve McClaren been too harsh?

Steve McClaren’s tepid, uninspiring reign as head coach of Newcastle United today came to an end this week. The way in which McClaren has been treated since he oversaw the dismal 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth has been shameful for all concerned, yet McClaren has remained dignified and professional throughout.

With the club having spent big this season, and with promises of top-ten finishes and challenging for trophies, the former England manager has led his theoretically talented squad to a record-low points haul of any Newcastle side in the Premier League era.

As his future has been decided, McClaren has come in for a barrage of abuse and criticism. Attacks have focussed on his ability as a manager, his personality, and even his magnificent hair-island. In the circumstances – and just six wins from 26 Premier League games are quite some circumstances – this criticism might seem fair. Arguably Newcastle, with the players they have, should not be in the position that they now find themselves in.

But there has also been an increase in people using his current struggles as a means to reduce his past achievements, making him out to be a footballing incompetent who didn’t deserve his chance at Newcastle.

Some had written him off before he had even had time to settle down in his new office. This is remarkably unfair, given the past achievements that McClaren can point to. He has long been seen as an excellent coach, and spent time as Sir Alex Ferguson’s number two, as well as being a coach for England between 2000 and 2006. So far, this reputation as a good coach has been maintained – it is his record as a manager that seems to attract so much derision.

And yet it is often glossed over that McClaren led Middlesbrough through some of the most exciting times in their recent history, winning the 2004 League Cup and leading them to an unprecedented and remarkable UEFA Cup final in 2006.

McClaren has also been one of the few English coaches to try his hand at management abroad – something that both David Moyes and Gary Neville have recently done, to the sound of praise from impressed pundits and keyboard warriors everywhere for being so darned brave. When McClaren did it, he was seen as running away from England after his hugely disappointing reign as England boss, hiding abroad and waiting for the storm to blow over. Why the double standards? After all, whilst abroad McClaren delivered a first ever Dutch title to FC Twente, being named Manager of the Year in the process. Moyes, meanwhile, was sacked with Real Sociedad stagnating, and Neville has been underwhelming thus far.  

Given the point I am trying to make, it would be hypocritical to not mention McClaren’s other European adventures. After leaving Twente, he spent less than a year at VFL Wolfsburg where he was sacked after a string of disappointing results. Following his spell in Germany, McClaren took over at Nottingham Forest, but his spell was cut short as he resigned after disagreements with the club’s board. He then made a swift but short return to Twente that proved to be much less successful than his first spell.

McClaren was then given a chance to revive his career with Derby County, who were seemingly making no progress towards promotion under Nigel Clough. Despite reaching the play-off final in his first season – having taken over a side sitting nearer the foot of the table than the top – things were again to go sour for McClaren, whose side suffered a spectacular collapse at the end of the following season to just miss out on the play-offs, having at one point seeming nailed on to win automatic promotion. Most critics lay the blame for the slump at McClaren’s door, but he can rightly point to a large number of injuries during Derby’s run in as at least having contributed to their decline in form. Moreover despite the way his career at Derby ended, he had a big impact at the club, transforming them from also-rans to a team that has consistently expected to challenge near the top of the table since his departure.

What is striking from looking at his career is the clear evidence that McClaren seems to thrive when expectations are low. Conversely, he struggles when expectations, rightly or wrongly, are high. At Middlesbrough, Twente (the first time) and Derby (initially), he was working with little-to-no expectations, taking relatively and contextually small clubs to bigger things. Contrast that to Wolfsburg, his return to Twente, his second season at Derby, and England, where expectations were raised due to his own previous successes or the illustrious nature of the roles, he struggled, and struggled badly. This is the same story as at Newcastle, where the stature of the club, the reasonable but vocal fan-base, and his own claims at wanting to win trophies put him immediately under pressure that he typically doesn’t thrive under.

McClaren seems to be a man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, but who inadvertently brings more interest upon himself. Odd Dutch accents and a memorable use of an umbrella have by far and away overshadowed his achievements as a coach and as a manager, and this seems unfair. Unfortunately, this is a symptom of modern football, where everyone has an opinion and the manager – sorry, head coach – is just there to be laughed at.

Despite all of the above, it is impossible to suggest that McClaren has done anything but fail this season, given the resources that were behind him. But that doesn’t mean that he is necessarily a bad manager, and it certainly doesn’t merit a reimagining of his past achievements as somehow the flukes of a man who was secretly out of his depth. Give the man his due: he failed, but he isn’t a perennial failure.



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