Steve McClaren’s warm smile is complemented by a firm handshake and the former England manager is relaxed in his seat. McClaren looks at home. After becoming one of the few English coaches in recent memory to test himself in Europe, he is now back where his post-playing career began, at Derby County. The provincial side in England’s second tier have been rejuvenated since he took over in September last year, climbing the table to establish themselves as contenders to return to the top flight for the first time since 2008.
“Coming back felt natural, walking through the front door and back home,” McClaren said. “The place hasn’t changed even though the people have. The club has been successful and it’s got everything it needs to be successful again.”
Home is seemingly where the heart is for the English. Despite there being several thousand English coaches with UEFA B, A and Pro badges, there are currently no English managers in Europe’s top leagues, outside of the English Premier League. Malta and Australia have two English coaches in their top flight, while Colin Todd and Brian Deane are the country’s sole representatives in Denmark and Norway’s top divisions respectively.
“I think the [English] Premier League is the top league, has the most money available and is the place to be. Players and coaches strive to be part of the Premier League so why leave it when you’re in it and move abroad when you’re getting all the experiences in this country?”
However, it seems that opportunities for English managers are hard to come by even in their own country. Just 20 per cent of managers in the English Premier League are English. For comparison, 70 per cent of Spanish La Liga coaches are Spanish, 75 per cent of Italian Serie A managers are Italian and 89 per cent of the managers coaching in the Dutch Eredivisie are Dutch. If the opportunities are not there in their own top flight, should more English coaches be going abroad for work?
“I always wanted to try new things,” McClaren continued. “Especially in Holland where the coaching philosophy is 100 per cent. The education is very good in Holland – they pride themselves on being good coaches. Going there was a great education and it certainly improved me as a coach, my understanding of the game.
“Maybe it’s a fault of our coaches that they’re not prepared to do the work, when you have to start U-9s, U-10s. I was very fortunate, I had to drive the van and clean the kit so it was a great education, quite humbling and you learn a lot. It gave me a great grounding. There’s a lot of talk about fast-tracking. Like everything in life if you want to be the best, you can’t fast-track.”
The late Sir Bobby Robson’s success on foreign shores was anything but fast-tracked. He led PSV Eindhoven to the Eredivisie title as he approached his 60th birthday and later Porto to the Portuguese Primeira Liga crown, the last of those wins coming in 1996. Since then, no English manager won a top flight in Europe until McClaren’s Eredivisie title win with FC Twente in 2010.
“Before I went I used to speak to [Robson] regularly, because we lived in the same area. I told him I had the opportunity to go to Holland and he said straight away ‘take it’. He said: ‘Go on your own, don’t take anybody else. Work with the coaches there, it’ll be one hell of an education for you and you’ll learn a lot and be successful.’ He was exactly right, and I’m glad I took that advice from him.”
With two German sides in the 2013 UEFA Champions League final and Germany looking one of the teams to beat at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, envious glances are being thrown from English shores at the coaching and youth development structure in Germany. McClaren’s experience of German football came in a short-lived spell at Wolfsburg.
“It was difficult to adapt, that’s the key thing when you move abroad. I had to adapt to the German culture and philosophy. My first three away games were Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg. I was just thinking: ‘welcome to German football!’ Full houses, fantastic atmosphere and I thought this league is going to grow and grow – and it has.”
When pressed on what England can learn from different philosophies, if more Englishmen were to either play or coach abroad, McClaren returned to a theme that remained common throughout the discussion.
“I think it’s just education, not necessarily moving abroad. The Dutch [style] is different to the German, the German is different to the English. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. It’s just a case of marrying the best of each. I went to Holland, adapted to them and they also adapted to my philosophy.”
An Englishman who coached abroad, but whose career mirrors that of McClaren is Roy Hodgson, who spent most of his coaching career away from his homeland before returning and taking the England job in 2012. Does McClaren wish he had done it that way around?
“Maybe, but you can’t get in the way of timing,” McClaren said. “The England job came up and is it a poisoned chalice? No not really. I think you have to take the job and I did. I wasn’t successful, I didn’t achieve what I wanted to and I had to take a step back. But certainly being England manager has given me a lot of opportunities which I wouldn’t have got if I hadn’t taken that job.”
The footballing world will have to wait and see if McClaren achieves his aim of adding to the number of English managers in the Premier League himself, by guiding Derby to the top flight. He may have been around Europe managing, and around the world with England as assistant, but McClaren is now home and trying to learn from his past experiences.
“I’ve been taking a step back, looking at everything and approaching things a little bit differently, trying to be a little bit more philosophical, not so madly driven as I have been and just use the experiences. Try to manage in a better way.”