Football fans are often times left bewildered as to what would possess someone to become a manager in the current climate. With increasingly impatient owners desperate for success and with little time for acknowledgment of their past work, it often seems like a near impossible job. At least that’s what Nigel Clough’s reflection on the industry must have been following his dismissal as Derby County manager.
Clough had been in the hot seat at Pride Park for over four years, making him one of the longest serving managers in the league at the time. When he first took over in January 2009, the club – which enjoyed the best days in their history under Clough’s renowned father – were in the midst of a crisis. The previous season had seen the club relegated back to the Championship after a humiliating campaign in the Premier League that saw them claim just a single win and accumulate an embarrassing 11 points from their 38 games.
Their fortunes did not improve in the second tier as they struggled in 18th place following Paul Jewell’s departure, in danger of following the likes of Leeds United and Bradford City in tumbling down the football pyramid. But Nigel Clough steadied the ship by leading them to safety in addition to guiding them to the 5th round of the FA Cup, a run that included an impressive 3-2 victory at rivals Nottingham Forest despite falling behind 2-0 early on in the match.
However, it was defeat at the same venue at the end of September that proved to be Clough’s last game in charge. Clough left the Rams in 14th position on the Championship table, which ironically rather summed up his time at the club: never really mounting a serious promotion charge, but at the same time never really looking like relegation candidates.
Derby’s progress under Clough was deemed harshly unacceptable, but although there was no quick return to the Premier League, their time in the Championship may have been a blessing in disguise. A few years of building their squad and gaining experience in a competitive Championship was just what was needed after the catastrophic 2007/08 season, where they were painfully out of their depth.
The 2012/13 season also ended on an overall high for Clough, as he achieved his highest ever finish as manager by leading them to 10th place, just eight points behind Leicester City in the final playoff spot. But if Clough’s sacking served as a reminder of the fragile nature of football management, his successor is a figure who will already be well aware of that fact. It is safe to say that the pressure to deliver at Pride Park and any possible criticism from the Derby fans will be far from the worst that Steve McClaren has had to endure.
The former England manager sadly remains very much a figure of ridicule with some fans. If failing to lead England to Euro 2008 was not enough ammunition for his critics, the famous interview as FC Twente manager where he adopted a Dutch accent only diminished his reputation further in England. But those regrettable moments often overshadow some of the more impressive parts of McClaren’s CV. As Middlesbrough manager, he delivered a rare trophy to Teeside following their 2004 League Cup Final victory over Bolton, and in his final season led them on a memorable run to the UEFA Cup Final after extraordinary comebacks against FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest.
His success at FC Twente is also often underestimated; after a disappointing reign as England head coach, McClaren could easily have faded into managerial obscurity. But the Englishman chose the difficult route to regaining credibility, and the Dutch outfit immediately saw an upturn in fortunes following his arrival. Twente finished as runners up in both the Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup in McClaren’s first season in charge, a season dominated by AZ Alkmaar. But in his second campaign, he went one better and delivered the club’s first ever league title in a remarkable year that saw them drop just two points on home soil and pip Ajax to top spot by one point.
With impressive stats like these it is hard to fathom why McClaren has been unable to emulate this success in the three years since then. Following a brave but substandard spell as Wolfsburg manager, his first job back in England was also to end prematurely when he was sacked by Nottingham Forest after 10 league games following a poor start to the campaign. One theory is that McClaren works better in jobs were there is no pressure to deliver immediate success or honors. Wolfsburg were crowned Bundesliga Champions a year prior to McClaren appointment as manager, while Billy Davies had led Nottingham Forest to the playoffs for consecutive seasons before McClaren’s arrival.
There is also the argument applied to many figures that he is more suited to an assistant coach’s role rather than first team manager. His spell as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant coach at Old Trafford and his role in helping Harry Redknapp kick start QPR’s Championship season could certainly support that view. Whatever the reason, it seems likely that this will be McClaren’s last shot at management in his native land.
Many followers of the game will have deemed him lucky to get a second chance in England following that fateful night against Croatia six years ago. With Derby’s owners seemingly keen to bring back top flight football to the East Midlands sooner rather than later, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure. After a decent start, McClaren also has the likability and appeal to win over and connect with the Derby faithful. But as his predecessor will testify, sometimes that is simply not enough.