Given the English stereotype for complaining about the weather, it seems ironic that Steve McClaren’s decision to shield himself from the teeming London rain during England’s botched Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia should have been met with such derision.
The image of the Yorkshireman huddled beneath an umbrella on the Wembley touchline has become iconic in English footballing lore – perhaps modernity’s answer to Bobby Moore holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy; Gazza’s tears; David Beckham lashing out at Diego Simeone; iterations of the implausibility of a Lampard-Gerrard midfield combo; another penalty shoot-out gone amiss.
Somehow, a willingness to avoid pneumonia became indicative of national disgrace. Descriptions like ‘the wally with the brolly’ (Daily Mail), ‘brolly wally’ (The Mirror) and the slightly-more-inventive ‘water plonker’ (The Sun), transformed climatological good-sense into a laughing stock. Getting drenched when there is a viable alternative is apparently evidence of a real man’s man.
(Similarly, snoods have recently come under fire for being ‘indulgent’, in the words of Tony Cascarino, who overlooks the fact that snood-wearers typically come from more temperate climates than Orpington. In an acutely-disparaging winter which ground Britain to a standstill, surely some sympathy can be spared for the Moroccan and Argentinian contingency.)
McClaren’s departure was inevitable, because failure is no longer deemed tolerable. Every team – domestic and national – strives for continual progression, but only few accept that a backwards step can be perfectly healthy to keep things in balance, and doesn’t necessarily signify a crisis. Alf Ramsey’s England were knocked out in the Preliminary Qualifying Round for Euro 1964, but his contract was abided and he repaid the FA’s faith in 1966.
In a poor show of imagination, McClaren was inundated with umbrellas for Christmas 2007. To get back on the horse was going to be tough – after being appointed as an analyst for Five Live, the tactically-astute McClaren was barraged by the ever-incredulous Ian Wright. “They never ask the fans who they want as a pundit,” said Wright, who was probably earmarking the job for himself, in spite of having woeful tactical nous and a perennial lack of professionalism.
Wright’s indignation was probably on a par with many fans though, meaning a return to management on these shores would have been suicide, and therefore almost forcibly putting McClaren into exile. It was the invasive nature of the British press that had prevented Luis Scolari from taking the England job ahead of McClaren originally. So when the opportunity to manage Dutch side FC Twente arose, McClaren took the advice of the late Sir Bobby Robson – go, and go alone.
By staving off pressure from giants Ajax, Twente lifted the first Eredivisie title in their history at the end of the 2009/10 season. McClaren left England as a failure, but his feat in the Netherlands has all but erased the indignation he endured in his homeland. And not just because of the title triumph, which made McClaren the first manager to win a European top-flight league since Robson at FC Porto in 1996 – equally as important was the boldness with which he embraced a new country and culture. Cosmopolitanism seems as unnatural to the modern English footballer as driving a Ford Mondeo or reading a book, so McClaren was faced with a blank canvas – one which he decorated exquisitely.
The shift in the UEFA coefficients suggests that the German Bundesliga is becoming a heavyweight, and it became McClaren’s next port of call. However he endured a poor time at Wolfsburg in a highly erratic league, and was subsequently sacked earlier this month with the club looming over the relegation zone. It would be poor form to lather praise on McClaren for an Eredivisie victory and then make excuses for his poor Bundesliga performance, but it is worth noting that the squad he inherited displayed petulance that could rival the spoilt children of the Premier League – most recently, Diego refusing to allow designated penalty taker Patrick Helmes from taking a spot-kick, before thundering the ball against the crossbar. Perhaps McClaren is better suited to coaching than babysitting.
With his family based in England, it seems inevitable that McClaren will return sooner rather than later, when a combination of passing time and ambassadorial success has rectified his reputation at home. His latest European adventure in Wolfsburg didn’t have the same happy ending that he had in Enschede, but it will be just another life-lesson for the 49-year-old. The broad grin will be replaced by a wry smile, one which houses a wealth of new experiences which so few English managers have dared to try.