If I think about Croatia I should not be back here, says McClaren

Derby County manager Steve McClaren.

Derby County manager Steve McClaren.

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BACK in November 2007, Steve McClaren trudged off the turf at Wembley Stadium preparing himself for the media storm that was about to engulf him following England’s failure to reach Euro 2008.

A 3-2 defeat to Slaven Bilic’s Croatia prompted many a tabloid headline similar in nature to the kind that had been heaped upon an England predecessor, Graham Taylor, during his much-maligned tenure 15 years earlier when the national team had failed to reach the World Cup 
finals in the USA.

The ‘Wally with the Brolly’ was the most memorable tag that stuck to McClaren following that wet, Wednesday night in north London. His time as coach of England was ended a few days later by the people who had appointed him 16 months earlier in the wake of Sven Goran Eriksson’s departure, the FA having been previously knocked back by a number of other candidates including ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, the World Cup-winning Brazil coach.

Given the Met Office’s forecast for thunderstorms at Wembley today – as McClaren returns to the scene of his greatest failure with Derby County for the Championship play-off final against Queen’s Park Rangers – it is highly likely an umbrella could be required again on the touchline.

But McClaren has already quipped that he will not be opting for a brolly whatever the weather today and, as he said in his pre-match press conference earlier this week, it is unlikely the memories of the last time he coached at Wembley will be on his mind.

“Absolutely not. If I’m thinking about that I shouldn’t be there,” said McClaren.

“The main thing about that experience was the failure to qualify, it wasn’t anything else; it was the actual magnitude of the failure to qualify.

“That is the biggest thing – it was nothing about anything else. As I said on the night, it felt like I’d let the nation down.

“That’s what I’ve had to live with. That’s the hardest thing. Nothing else peripheral, like the ‘Wally with the Brolly’.

“But that was a long time ago and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and we’re back there with Derby and I’m proud to be doing that.”

Although the Rams’ board could have handled the dismissal of McClaren’s predecessor 
Nigel Clough with a lot more tact – coming hours after a derby 
defeat to a Nottingham Forest side managed by former Pride Park boss Billy Davies – their decision to bring in McClaren has proved to be a masterstroke.

While Clough subseqently went on to turn around Sheffield United’s season, reaching a Wembley FA Cup semi-final and narrowly missing out on a League One play-off spot, there was always a nagging doubt over how far he could take the club once managed by his much-loved 
father Brian.

With the addition of a couple of astute loan signings, the 
arrival of McClaren seems to have unleashed the potential that was there under Clough, but not seen often enough.

The former Burton Albion manager had put together a talented, young squad, although the club’s fans thought there was only an outside chance of reaching the play-offs.

Under McClaren the same group of players pushed Burnley close for the second automatic promotion spot and, in finishing third, were five points clear of fourth-placed QPR.

Since his sacking as England coach, McClaren has gone a long way to rebuilding his reputation and a return to the top flight in English football would further repair the damage done seven years ago. His earlier success as coach at Manchester United, where he won the Treble, and his five years as Middlesbrough boss – which included a League Cup trophy and a UEFA Cup final appearance – seemed a distant memory in the wake of that defeat to Croatia.

After a few months out of the game following that dismal night in November 2007, the Fulford-born coach turned up in 
Holland, taking over the reins at FC Twente.

In an Eredivisie dominated by the likes of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, McClaren transformed the outsiders into title contenders, finishing second in his first season in charge and going one better by pipping Martin Jol’s Ajax team by one point the following year.

An unsuccessful few months in charge at Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga followed, and then brief spells in charge at Nottingham Forest and, for a second, less successful time, FC Twente before McClaren turned up as Harry Redknapp’s coach at Loftus Road – the team he now faces in today’s ‘£120m’ game.

Given his success at Derby as coach under Jim Smith in the late Nineties – the club went into decline after Sir Alex Ferguson took him to Old Trafford in early 1999 – his appointment as successor to Clough was always likely to be popular among the club’s fans.

The riches of the Premier League are within reach once again for the two-time champions, but as McClaren said earlier this week, it is more about the enjoyment than the money.

“We’ve actually brought the buzz back to Derby,” he said.

“It’s the same kind of feeling that we had when I was here with Jim Smith and with Arthur Cox when I was a player in the Eighties – that feeling that this club is where it should be, at the forefront, getting full houses.”

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