Steve McClaren took a road travelled by a select few English managers when trying his luck on foreign shores with FC Twente following a frankly disastrous spell in charge of the England national team. It was to prove a fine decision by the one-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

  • By David Lee Wheatley
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mcclaren trophyYork-born McClaren made a mark in the coaching world as assistant manager at Derby County before the offer to work alongside Ferguson at Old Trafford came along in 1999. Two massively successful seasons followed, but the ambitious McClaren felt the need to break-out as a manager in his own right, leading to the top job at Middlesbrough.

His time at the Riverside was a reasonable success, with the club’s first major trophy in the form of the League Cup arriving in 2004 and a remarkable run all the way to the 2006 UEFA Cup final on the back of a seventh-placed finish in the Premier League to qualify. Although well-beaten by Sevilla at the final hurdle, the journey shared by McClaren and Middlesbrough represented the finest period in the club’s long history to date.

While working at ‘Boro, McClaren had been busy assisting Sven-Goran Eriksson with the senior national side and he was granted an opportunity to fulfill the prized role of England manager when the Swede stepped down in 2006. The Yorkshireman wasn’t everyone’s choice to take charge, but nobody could deny the sterling work he’d put in on Teesside.

Having begun his tenure by announcing the end of hero David Beckham’s international career, the former Oxford United player handed plenty of ammunition to the press and fans should results go against him. However, he started with three successive European Championship qualification victories to quell the growing anger surrounding his appointment and subsequent banishment of Beckham.

England entered a period of struggle, prompting McClaren to recall former captain and leader Beckham to the squad. Matters briefly stabilised before an away loss to Russia which took England’s qualifying fate out of their own hands.

As it happened, the group eventually came down to the very last match at home to Croatia. Thanks to results around them, England simply needed to avoid defeat at Wembley to seal a spot at Euro 2008. On a wet, windy and ultimately harrowing evening, McClaren witnessed a capitulation from his team as they fell 3-2 to the visiting side, thus being dumped out of contention for the finals tournament.

McClaren’s position was completely untenable and he was swiftly relieved of his duties as England boss. Feeling he still had plenty to prove, McClaren began looking at various options and publicly touted an interest in a role abroad. He was fully aware that his reputation at home was severely tarnished due to the awful experience he’d suffered at international level, which made him look across the North Sea for his next challenge.

FC Twente went against the grain by installing a man pretty much exiled from his own country as their head coach in June 2008. Many fans questioned the appointment and the new man knew he had a difficult task in winning over sceptical supporters at Stadium De Grolsch Veste.

It was a journey that McClaren envisaged for some time, but he certainly thought the chance to manage abroad would come along in much better circumstances. With renewed optimism over his future career prospects and having seen one of his idols Sir Bobby Robson enjoy substantial success in Holland, Portugal and Spain, the Eredivisie seemed the perfect place to begin such an adventure.

Despite fans’ trepidation, the Enschede club revelled in a fine opening season with McClaren at the helm, finishing second in the league and remaining in European competition beyond the group stage of a highly competitive UEFA Cup pool including Schalke and Racing Santander, before falling unluckily on penalties to Marseille in the round of 32.

A satisfactory follow-up to such a fine campaign wasn’t in the offing when key players including Elia and Arnautovic were sold, leaving the club with large voids to fill in their squad. One notable replacement was Bryan Ruiz, but supporters had their doubts regarding their prospects of another top-two league placing.

Twente started brightly and sat atop the league standings by October, a position they didn’t relinquish for the remainder of the season in the face of extremely stern competition from illustrious rivals PSV and Ajax. McClaren duly delivered Twente’s first Eredivisie title in their entire history. As well as such an outstanding achievement, he also became the first Englishman to lift a top-level domestic league trophy in foreign climes since mentor and friend Sir Bobby Robson with FC Porto, who’d also captured the Dutch league title twice with PSV beforehand.

The feeling of redemption was palpable, as the ex-Middlesbrough man finally had the opportunity to shut up his critics at least for a little while. In winning the championship, McClaren was awarded the Manager of the Year gong after taking unfancied Twente to top spot one point ahead of Amsterdam giants Ajax.

McClaren’s next move appeared a rather knee-jerk reaction in order to ‘cash-in’ on his success when joining Bundesliga side Wolfsburg instead of leading Twente in their attempt to retain the title, while featuring in the Champions League proper. It unfortunately proved an ill-judged switch, as he was sacked in February of his first season in Germany with the club struggling badly.

Another move to Nottingham Forest turned sour even quicker when McClaren clashed with certain board members over the potential signings of two players the Englishman saw as vital to the team’s chances of challenging for promotion. Only ten games in and he was gone.

January 2012 saw McClaren agree a surprise FC Twente return and fans were deliriously happy to see him back in stark contrast to the pessimism of his first arrival at the club. He stated his main aim was to seize back the Eredivisie title and seemed genuinely enthused by the resumption of his role in Enschede.

The club ended sixth with McClaren in charge for the final few months of the campaign and then invested heavily in new signings in an effort to get back into contention for domestic honours. Dusan Tadic and Luc Castaignos were brought in and the season started very well indeed with six straight league wins.

In spite of that strong opening, Twente’s form faded and McClaren came under-fire from sections of the media for a defensive outlook and an unwillingness to allow his attacking players express themselves. He stayed on under increasing pressure until near the end of February 2013 before stepping down.

McClaren’s first spell with Twente will be remembered as a defining moment in the history of the club and he’ll always be looked upon fondly by fans who experienced that high-point in the English coach’s career. However, the decision to up sticks after that remarkable title win must haunt the Yorkshire native, with more than a tinge of sadness in the air over what might have been if he’d stuck around to discover just how far he could’ve taken the team.