They say you should never go back to your former club, but one man who would disagree with that notion is Steve McClaren. After ending his two-year spell with FC Twente by guiding them to the Eredivisie title in 2010, the former England manager endured short stays with Wolfsburg of Germany and Nottingham Forest in his homeland. Now he is back at the Dutch outfit, which has given him “a good feeling” and left his sights set on domestic and European trophies.
“It’s a developing club, it’s ambitious. It’s still growing and that’s what excited me about the project again, that’s it still growing, and I want to be a part of that,” McClaren told FIFA.com during an exclusive chat ahead of their UEFA Europa League Round of 16, second leg against Schalke. A Luuk de Jong penalty earned the Enschede side a 1-0 advantage to take to Germany, but McClaren knows there is work still to do against the team sitting fourth in the Bundesliga.
“Before the game we would have taken 1-0 - Schalke are a very good team. In the home game it is important to win, it is important to keep a clean sheet, it is important to score a goal, and that’s what we did. So the outcome was ideal for us. Half a job done, but we know the toughest half is still to come.
“We go there and we know what a 1-0 result is like at home - it’s very fragile. You are vulnerable to conceding a goal, then you have to score three. But we know that Schalke are a team who are capable of scoring goals, they have [Klaas-Jan] Huntelaar and [Jefferson] Farfan back so they will be a bigger threat.”
Having led Middlesbrough to the final of the UEFA Cup – forerunner to the Europa League – in 2006, where they were beaten 4-0 by Sevilla in the Netherlands, McClaren has experience of navigating a team through the various challenges a European cup competition can present. On this occasion, he firmly believes Twente need to score an away goal if they are to progress to the quarter-finals.
“We just have to concentrate on our performance and really concentrate on trying to score an away goal,” said the 50-year-old. “That has to be our mentality. I don’t think we can defend all evening and not concede a goal. Although we may concede one or two, we know that if we score it can be difficult for Schalke.”
Twente are one of three Dutch clubs still standing in the Europa League, and while PSV trail Valencia 4-2 after their first leg in Spain, AZ have a 2-0 lead to take to Italy for their second leg against Udinese. “I’m pleased about the profile of Dutch football,” McClaren said. “I think that’s important, that people get the message out there. When you talk about Dutch football and the Dutch league, it’s got to get more credit.
"You look at the likes of Ajax in the Champions League and but for a freak result, they would have gone through to the knockout stages. Then they played Manchester United and won at Old Trafford. PSV, AZ and ourselves are three teams in the last 16 - it could have been four. I think it proves that the Dutch league is very strong.”
Wide open in the Eredivisie
A glance at the Eredivisie standings instantly proves that analysis to be true, with six teams in touching distance of top spot as the campaign nears completion. Although Twente are currently third and have a game in hand on leaders AZ, McClaren believes the league has improved during his time away.
“It’s got a lot tougher than when I was here. There was a breakaway of three teams – us, PSV and Ajax - but now the teams below have got stronger. AZ were always there, the champions the first year I was here, so they will always be strong with their belief and mentality. The likes of Feyenoord are coming back as are Heerenveen, who a few years ago were a big force.
"So nobody has broken away as yet. There are ten games to go in the league and any one of six teams can win it. There are no easy games. I think that’s a trend that’s going throughout football, but certainly in the Dutch league. Every game has been very, very difficult and no team has really taken the bull by the horns and really gone for it.
"We are in with a one-in-six chance of doing it. As the games whittle down and the pressure comes on, mentality will be a key thing. Have we got the mentality? I don’t know and I’ll certainly find out in the next couple of months.”
Few would have questioned Twente’s mentality after their stunning 6-2 victory over PSV in Eindhoven at the beginning of the month, a result McClaren confirmed was one of the finest of his career, but a subsequent defeat by NEC at the weekend has kept the coach cautious.
“I think the performance, the way we did it – away from home, a top team like PSV – was a great result and shows the potential of this team," McClaren said. “But it also shows the vulnerability of our team when we don’t capitalise on that and lose at NEC.
"Everything went right against PSV, we scored at the right times, and games like that can happen. But it also proved the strength of our team and what we are capable of doing when we get it right. What we need to do is be consistent and get it right more days than not.”