I was on Tyneside this weekend and naturally asked everyone I met what they thought of Steve McClaren as Newcastle manager. There was a surprising unanimity of opinion. Everyone liked him, some felt sorry for him, but no-one was sure if he was any good or not.
This is a quite uniquely McClaren thing and was often said of him when he was managing Middlesbrough to a League Cup win and a UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven.
It now seems like the stuff of fantasy to think of Middlesbrough being successful in Europe, so surely, this must have happened through brilliant management? It seems logical, but no-one really thought that at the time. Rather, it seemed to be the players – Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasseilbaink, the mountain of potato that was Fabio Rochemback and Gareth Southgate – who pulled the club through, not McClaren. Indeed, in the greatest game in the club’s long, proud history, when we overturned a three-goal deficit at home against Steaua Bucharest to go through to the final, it is said that the captain, Southgate, carried off injured in the first half, was the man at half-time to rally the troops to a great second-half performance.
McClaren was definitely there, but what was he actually doing? He seemed to have one tactic and that was to throw everyone up front when we were losing. This worked brilliantly twice but when he tried the same thing with England, the results were less than stellar.
Nonetheless, I and many others really like the man. He always seems like a good guy, quick with a smile and a polite line for the TV cameras. He tries, periodically, to look serious and thoughtful, but a certain boyish naivety quickly leaks through that facade, which is why people like him, I guess. He seems transparent. But on the touchline, I’ve always thought he exudes nervous terror, his face pink with stress and sporting the look of a man cursed simultaneously with constipation and diarrhoea.
In short, he doesn’t instil confidence; he looks like he’s bricking it. Also, when England manager, he did frequently look like he’d driven the coach rather than coach the team. There was a strong flavour of National Express driver about him in blazer and grey pants.
Yet in the game he is well-regarded as a coach and that’s easy to imagine. Remember how he was always so keen to refer to “Big J.T” and “Stevie G” when he was England manager? It was like he was trying to be their mate, rather than their manager. It was the sort of thing a coach would do, but not a manager.
But that’s over seven years ago now. Perhaps he learned from that experience. Looking at his record since, it’s either very good or very poor. It suggests that he can either get a team playing for him or he really can’t. And if he can’t then it all turns bad very quickly.
And it was looking like that was the case at Newcastle until the spectacular and unexpected 6-2 win. But even while watching that, until the fifth went in, McClaren still looked like he was terrified they’d let in three and lose. He did try and bark out a few orders to shore things up as the sixth went in, but that seemed to be the extent of his involvement.
Was it possible to discern anything specific that he did to achieve this win, aside from picking the side? Maybe he had a secret plan to beat Norwich. Maybe he’d just done all the work in training and it brilliantly coalesced on the pitch. I find that idea hard to believe, not least because it all seemed to be such a surprise to him. And also because Newcastle still looked leaky and disorganised at the back. Six goals from six shots is unusual to say the least. It could all easily be a fluke result and I doubt Steve would be surprised if it was.
It all reminded me so much if his days at Middlesbrough in that triumphant season in Europe where, rather charmingly, he’d appear in front of the camera post-game with an amused, rather stunned look on his face, as though he couldn’t quite believe or understand why we’d won, but was very pleased we had. It was just the same at St. James’ Park on Sunday. No-one was more surprised that Newcastle had been any good than Steve.
It’s impossible to see him as an authoritarian or a man of vision, forcing his agenda through a football club, moulding and shaping a team in his image (one thin man left isolated up front, if his hair is anything to go by).
Arsene Wenger revolutionised English football by eating pasta, Big Sam had Kevin Nolan running on a large vibrating machine, Brendan Rodgers invented his own language, but what is a distinctively McClaren management trait? Close your eyes and try to think.
You can’t come up with one though, can you? You conjure his pink face, the tuft, the comedy Dutch accent, the stressed-out squinting or maybe the brolly, but nothing football-orientated at all. And that’s quite amazing thing to say about the manager of one of England’s best-supported clubs.
In a way, he’s a bit of an enigma – an enigma that everyone wants to do well, but nobody’s quite sure that he will and even if he does, whether it will be anything at all to do with him anyway.