Heart Of Football

Fretful McClaren may suffer against revitalised Reds

Newcastle manager Steve McClaren is showing the strain of managing a divided coaching staff as his team continue to be mired in the relegation zone.
Newcastle manager Steve McClaren is showing the strain of managing a divided coaching staff as his team continue to be mired in the relegation zone.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Behind tonight's Premier League encounter between Newcastle United and Liverpool lies the inevitable conjecture about how long Steve McClaren can keep his job.

It shouldn't be this way.

The Newcastle manager is barely six months into the post he was given because there is an awful lot of debris to clear up at what is a deep-rooted, huge club.

His direct opponent, Juergen Klopp, has had even less time to turn around Liverpool.

We can remind ourselves until we run out of breath that, once the players cross that white line, performance is up to them - not managers, coaches, hangers-on or owners.

McClaren's speech and body language have never exuded the kind of confidence that Klopp brought with him the moment he arrived at Liverpool. One word that describes the Englishman is hangdog. The word that fits the German is fun.

How simple, and how very old-fashioned that sounds.

Open any English newspaper, and I guarantee the headlines are about McClaren facing dismissal (again). And about Klopp's charisma lifting Liverpool.

The English Premier League table tells why. Newcastle lie second from bottom. And after the 5-1 defeat by Crystal Palace last week, the Geordies - who are among the most faithful fans in football - began saying out loud that their players are not trying, and that McClaren doesn't know how to make them.

Even at home, where 52,000 followers fill the stadium whatever the opposition, the fortress St James' Park isn't intimidating any longer. One win from seven home games is pitiful return.

Liverpool by contrast are the EPL's form horse, particularly away from Anfield. Since Klopp arrived, the team have drawn at Tottenham, but then taken the scalps of Chelsea, Rubin Kazan, Manchester City and Southampton.

The last two wins, 4-1 in Manchester and 6-1 at Southampton, send ominous signals to Newcastle. There were six personnel changes between those two rampant Reds victories in the space of three days, but the same menace.

So, will we have low-flying Newcastle Magpies as sitting targets for the rapid-fire Reds today?

The best advice for a Newcastle fan might be don't look up. And don't, for now, look any further ahead than this one match.

Treat it as a Cup tie, and hope that form is fickle.

That, alas, is easy to say if you are not a Geordie. Newcastle is a real football city, and the supporters are born black-and-white because there is no other team to follow.

The fans don't trust the ownership. They see Mike Ashley as a "southerner", a billionaire who has no allegiance to their club and whose method of operation is to buy low and sell high.

That works in his sports retail business. It hasn't worked so far in his stewardship of their club.

The next target of mistrust is McClaren. His 20 years in coaching might eternally be caricatured in the damning headline "The Wally with the Brolly".

That has stuck with him ever since his final game in a short stint as England manager ended with him sheltering beneath a golf umbrella as the rain cascaded down at Wembley in November 2007, the night England slipped out of Euro 2008 qualification against Croatia.

There were really first-class Croatian players on that pitch; no Englishman came even close to Luka Modric in terms of passing ability and vision.

Yet, McClaren took the blame.

He might be doing so again, very soon, if the murmurs around St James' Park ring true.

Many believe Ashley will give the manager two games - this one and an equally tough one at White Hart Lane against Spurs next week - before pulling the trigger.

Where does a manager turn? He has 10 players out through injury, which in itself is sometimes a sign of lack of fibre. The physical demands of the EPL are known throughout the world but the recovery rate can be conditioned by the heart as much as the body.

Midfielder Jack Colback probably spoke out of sheer honesty but did his team no favours when he said last week: "When we go a goal down, we look a defeated team."?

He meant the morale goes down. His words became interpreted as suggesting his colleagues lacked the stomach or the confidence to get back into the game.

McClaren's speech and body language have never exuded the kind of confidence that Klopp brought with him the moment he arrived at Liverpool.

One word that describes the Englishman is hangdog. The word that fits the German is fun.

McClaren cares but he transmits fear. Klopp gets inside players' heads (and journalists' heads too) and puts into them the freedom to enjoy playing the game, but within a framework of giving everything to the cause.

The injuries Klopp was faced with when he arrived at Anfield included the team captain Jordan Henderson, the brilliant Philippe Coutinho and the man who has become almost a ghost, so often is he under treatment, Daniel Sturridge.

So Klopp waits, and talks positively.

McClaren frets, and may not know which way to turn. His fitness coach, Alessandro Shoenmaker, and his team psychologist Steve Black seem at odds.

Shoenmaker has been with McClaren through his last five appointments - at FC Twente, Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest, Derby and now Newcastle. Black is credited by England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson as being the best motivational speaker he knows.

The mind, or the body? Word from Tyneside is that, rather than dovetailing their efforts in support of the team, the two aides are divided on what is best for Newcastle.

Poor McClaren. His strength, right from the day when he originally assisted Jim Smith at Derby County to when he was recommended to Alex Ferguson, was a deep thinker in the No. 2 role.

At Old Trafford more than a dozen years ago, his science-based approach defused some fall-out after Fergie's "hairdryer" explosions.

But whether McClaren can be the top man, who if need be puts rockets up backsides, is open to question. Genuine, hard working, and full of coaching theory he may be, but McClaren often seems to talk in a pedantic way as if still addressing Dutch or Germans.

"Nobody is happy at this football club," he said a few days ago. "Confidence is very fragile."

Taking on Liverpool in a fragile state of mind is likely to have another painful result.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Fretful McClaren may suffer against revitalised Reds'. Print Edition | Subscribe