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Do not mention Croatia to Steve
One of the main qualities of leadership is to make the players around you perform better,” beamed an ecstatic Steve McClaren. “You can’t have too many players like that in your team.”
It was 11 July, 2001 and the new Middlesbrough manager had just unveiled his new £6.5m club record signing from Aston Villa, beating off competition from Chelsea. Within five years in which Boro won the League Cup and reached the Uefa Cup final with him as captain, Gareth Southgate took his first tentative steps in coaching in replacing McClaren, as the
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former England assistant stepped up to succeed Sven-Göran Eriksson at the helm of the national team.
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The two managers’ careers have been inextricably linked. And now for Croatia.
McClaren’s brief tenure with England will always be defined by that damp night at Wembley in November 2007. Needing only a point to qualify for Euro 2008 against Slaven Bilic’s side at Wembley, he mysteriously opted to leave a recalled David Beckham on the bench and instead started with Chelsea’s Shaun Wright-Phillips in a defensive 4-5-1 formation – a decision he later admitted was his biggest regret. Trailing 2-0 after
14 minutes following an error from Scott Carson in which the goalkeeper failed to stop a tame shot from Niko Kranjcar, McClaren introduced Beckham for the second half and saw England battle back to equalise through a Frank Lampard penalty and Peter Crouch volley.
But a brilliant goal from Mladen Petric 15 minutes from time meant England would miss out on qualification for a major tournament for the first time since 1993, with McClaren lampooned as the “Wally with the brolly” after the match for a decision he had taken minutes before kick-off.
“I always like to see the warm-up but I walked out and it was chucking it down with rain,” he explained to FourFourTwo in April. “I saw Slaven Bilic with a beanie hat on and thought, ‘I’m not going to wear one of those. I’ll get killed for that!’ There was this FA umbrella lying around so I thought, ‘I’ll use that, support the FA and keep myself dry!’ After thinking I’d get killed for wearing a beanie, instead I got killed for holding a brolly.”
Croatia – featuring a young Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings in midfield – went on to win all three group games at Euro 2008 against the hosts Austria, eventual finalists Germany and Poland before losing to Turkey in the last eight in a penalty shootout, while Russia, who had pipped England to qualification, went out to Spain in the semi-finals.
Yet McClaren’s failure was treated in much the same manner as Graham Taylor’s had been 14 years earlier after the doomed 1994 World Cup qualification campaign, though the tabloid newspapers stopped short of turning his head into a vegetable.
Spells out of the spotlight in the Netherlands – where McClaren
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led FC Twente to the Eredivisie title for the first time in their history
– and Germany followed before a series of short-lived appointments back in English football where he has struggled to replicate his earlier success which had begun as an assistant at Derby and then under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. But it was the influence of McClaren, who had two spells with Eriksson for England between 2000 and 2002 and another two years after Southgate had retired in 2004, that had persuaded the current England manager to leave Villa that summer 17 years ago.
“I was extremely impressed with the manager and what he wants to achieve at the club,” he said at his unveiling. ”There is never any guarantee of success, but there is a new era starting at the club which I want to be part of.”
Southgate was an experienced mainstay of the England team when he first met McClaren and fulfilled the same role at Middlesbrough in an unprecedented era of success. He has the opportunity to make history against opposition who must still send shivers down the spine of the man he eventually succeeded again.
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