Thrown to the wolves – Steve McClaren’s 9 months in the Bundesliga

England managers often fall foul of missed penalty kicks, but in the case of Steve McClaren’s it wasn’t an England player that sealed his fate, but a Brazilian.

In the 80th minute of McClaren’s struggling Wolfsburg side’s away match at Hannover 96 and with his team trailing 1-0, the Englishman saw a chance to get back into the game and gain a creditable away point as the referee awarded a penalty. What happened next was both a symptom of his lack of authority among the squad, and the final nail in his coffin.

Diego, who was himself the victim of the foul, immediately picked himself up and grabbed the ball. The designated penalty taker, Patrick Helmes, switched to autopilot and strode towards the Brazilian pointing to himself, only to be brushed aside. Clearly confused, Helmes looked over to the McClaren on the Wolfsburg bench and relayed the message to Diego who – without turning around to acknowledge his wildly gesticulating manager – sent Helmes away and set himself for the spot kick.

As the penalty crashed against the bar, Diego stood rooted to the spot and the camera cut straight to a furious Steve McClaren on the sideline. Red-faced, he screamed his disapproval in the Brazilian’s direction, stomping back to the bench, constantly turning back to shout what can only have been expletives towards his player. Not only had he disobeyed a direct instruction and undermined his manager in public, but he’d consigned his team to another defeat and would ultimately cost McClaren his job.

The day after the match, Wolfsburg announced McClaren’s sacking, saying they had lost faith in his ability to turn the club’s fortunes around.

McClaren joined the 2009 Bundesliga champions at what was arguably the high-point of his career to date. Having been hounded out of England following his ill-fated tenure with the national team, he went looking for pastures new and was a surprise appointment at Dutch club FC Twente in the Eredivisie. This was a brave and intriguing choice for McClaren, who before failing with England had made his name as Ferguson’s number 2 at Manchester United as the main man at Middlesbrough and later Sven’s assistant with the Three Lions. Despite his credentials and undisputed qualities as a coach, McClaren left for The Netherlands with his reputation – and most probably his pride – severely bruised having failed to lead England to Euro 2008.

If his move to the Eredivisie caught some people off guard, then the level of success he enjoyed was just shy of incredible. Having success in the Dutch league with a team that is neither Ajax, PSV nor Feyenoord is an achievement not be sniffed at. And lo and behold, in his first season with Twente, the man last seen staring onto a damp Wembley pitch with a glazed look in his eye, sheltering under a large FA-sponsored umbrella, finished as league and cup runners up. McClaren brought real glory to Twente in the following season, leading them to their first Eredivisie title in the club’s history. In doing so, incidentally, McClaren also became the first Englishman to win a top-level league abroad since Bobby Robson’s success at Porto in the mid-nineties.

McClaren was once again hot property and was tempted to Germany and the Bundesliga soon after to join Wolfsburg, making him the first ever Englishman to manage a top-flight German club. Backed by the millions of car-manufacturing giants Volkswagen, the clubs owners and sponsors, Die Wölfe had assembled a star-studded squad and were looking to once again challenge for the league title they’d relinquished so timidly the season previous.

This was an opportunity for the former England manager to place himself among the upper echelons of Europe’s managers. Things, however, started badly. To be fair, McClaren was thrown in at the deep end – with the league schedule having him start at the Allianz Arena against defending champions Bayern. Thomas Müller, the revelation of that summer’s World Cup in South Africa gave Van Gaal’s side an early lead, but Wolfsburg did not let themselves be overrun and equalized through Edin Dzeko early in the second half. Far from simply hanging on, McClaren’s team had chances to win the game before Bastian Schweinsteiger struck at the death to seal the points.

For any team, a 2-1 away defeat to Bayern is no disgrace. Nevertheless, had Wolfsburg started with a point from this game, things may have turned out differently. As it transpired, Schweinsteiger’s last-ditch winner was a prelude to an overarching drama that would characterize McClaren’s brief tenure in Germany’s top flight.

The fact that so few Englishmen, players or otherwise, try their luck beyond our shores has been widely reported and lamented. And although I have no vested interest in VfL Wolfsburg, and to be honest find them to be rather soulless and uninspiring, I wanted McClaren to do well – his bold and ambitious decision to be rewarded. He could have easily dined out on his success in Holland and strolled into a decent job in England, his reputation repaired and his ego massaged. Still, he chose to continue his development and to learn what it means to be successful in another league, another culture. In short, he backed himself, and you have to respect that.

At this time, I was still relatively new to Germany and hadn’t pledged my allegiances to any one club. And although I was certainly no Wolfsburg fan, McClaren’s German jaunt gave me something to follow.

If the injury-time defeat to Bayern on the opening day set the tone, then his first home match would have left the ex-England man with little doubt as to the kind of season he was about to have.

Buoyed by the performance against the champions, Wolfsburg went into the first home match of the season against Mainz 05 full of optimism. The hardest fixture of the season – on paper, at least – was done and dusted and it was now time to kick on. And kick on they did. A Doppelpack from Dzeko and a goal from the manager’s soon-to-be-least-favourite Brazilian, Diego had put Die Wölfe 3-0 up after only 30 minutes. With the August sun shining over the packed Volkswagen Arena, McClaren was enjoying a dream home debut and could have been forgiven for thinking that this Bundesliga business was going to be a doddle.

However, as any regular viewer of German footballer will know, the Bundesliga is as unforgiven and unpredictable as any league in Europe. It is a league that had crowned three different champions in the four seasons prior to McClaren’s arrival. It was also, and still is, a competition that regularly throws up surprise results, comebacks and multiple-goal thrillers at a rate at least comparable to the Premier League. Still, he would have felt confident that his first drei Punkte were safely tucked under his belt.

After an hour however, it was 3-3. Determined not to let the game slip away McClaren flung on Grafite, scorer of 39 goals in 49 league games over the previous two campaigns. But despite the increased firepower, it was Thomas Tuchel – successor to Jürgen Klopp’s throne at Mainz – whose team came out on top, thanks to an 85th minute winner. Willkommen in Deutschland Mr McClaren! The images in that evening’s Sportschau program of the former England coach slumped in his dugout, head in hands were something I would see often that season, with increasing levels of sympathy.

Another defeat on match day three, this time at the hands of eventual champions Borussia Dortmund, saw the team firmly ensconced at the wrong end of the table. The pressure was already on.

Backed by the bottomless coffers of Volkswagen, Wolfsburg had assembled an impressive squad. Although they lost Zvjezdan Misimović, who laid on an impressive 20 assists when they won the league, the majority of the title-winning squad was intact and there were notable additions in Diego, Mario Mandžukić and Arne Friedrich, a regular in Germany’s 2010 World Cup XI. McClaren also beat off interest from elite clubs in Serie A and the Premier League to sign Danish defender Simon Kjaer from Palermo.

When he joined the club, McClaren’s remit was to challenge for the league, not scrap to stay in it. Thankfully for him, the team’s quality started to show and they were unbeaten in their next four league games, winning three in the process and hoisting themselves up the table to the European places.

Despite the welcome upturn in fortunes and the wealth of attacking options, Wolfsburg were wobbly at the back – and the aforementioned Kjaer was arguably the main culprit. The blond defender, and Danish Talent of the Year 2009, always looked good for a mistake and often seemed panicky on the ball. In their next home game following the unbeaten run, Wolfsburg once again managed to turn three points into zero, allowing a 2-0 lead on 72 minutes to end in a 3-2 defeat at the hands Bayer Leverkusen. McClaren, understandably, was furious – and unfortunately things were not about to get much better.

After being tamed by Leverkusen the Wolves won only two of the next 13 league games, including a run of 7 draws on the bounce. Week after week I’d watch McClaren switch between being furious and frustrated on the touchline and downbeat and disheveled in the post-match interview. He was beginning to look helpless and the team looked in danger of being in real trouble.

Speculation surrounding his position was rife, but in the winter break the club publicly backed their man – only to send him packing six weeks later following Diego’s petulant penalty shenanigans in Hannover. Despite his efforts, he had left the 2009 champions sliding towards the 2. Bundesliga, leaving them only one point above the dreaded relegation play-off position. To make matters worse, star striker Edin Dzeko was packing his bags to join Man City.

After leaving England for Holland McClaren’s stock rose considerably. There was recognition for his success with Twente and admiration for his moxy in going to Germany, so much so that he was even talked about as a genuine contender to succeed the outgoing Fabio Capello in the England job – an amazing turnaround in fortunes and public perception. After being sacked by Wolfsburg, however, he was knocked down a peg – and league – re-entering the game at Nottingham Forest in the Championship.

Of course, since then McClaren has worked his way back up the managerial food chain and was knocking on the door of the Premier League with Derby County. Still, there is more than a tinge of regret and thoughts of what might have been for the Bundesliga’s first English manager. Apparently, Steve McClaren had been coming on well with his German lessons (and soon abandoned simply speaking English as if he was German) and, although being situated in one of the less attractive parts of the country, had embraced the challenge and seemed to be in it for the long-haul. For that reason, it is regrettable that things didn’t work out as he – and to a certain extent, I – had hoped. Nevertheless, his decision to try his hand in Germany should be applauded and he will hopefully not be the first and last to do so.

After leaving the Bundesliga I’m sure he didn’t keep up with the German lessons, but he probably still has a good grasp on some basic phrases and vocabulary. However, the ones he may have used on that day in Hannover are almost certainly unfit for publication.

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