Steve McClaren's nightmare return to Arsenal
Defeated, lampooned and finally forced to find employment overseas, Steve McClaren probably felt that his luck could not get any worse but that was before the new FC Twente manager found himself drawn against Arsenal in the Champions League qualifiers.
Arsène Wenger said yesterday that the former England manager would rediscover his confidence in the Netherlands, although McClaren might have to wait until after the two games against Arsenal before that process starts.
The week after next, Arsenal will travel to the modest Grolsch Veste stadium in Enschede to face FC Twente and, nine months after England's apocalyptic Euro 2008 qualifying defeat to Croatia, McClaren will be back in the national consciousness. It will be August so there will be no call for a brolly and for now he can take solace from Wenger's words of comfort that every manager who has been through a crisis faces a long road back to redemption.
A defender of the embattled former England manager during his darkest days in the job, Wenger said that there was still much for McClaren to look forward to. "He is not at the end of his career, he is in the middle of his career and I believe it is a good opportunity for him to show his quality," Wenger said. "I remember when I started, now I look at the people who were around me then and there are not many who have survived, because you go through difficult periods. But the strong ones survive, so he is at the period where he will show that he can bounce back and show his quality.
"Yes, you become a different person out of your country. It makes you a different person and it makes you stronger as well."
When he takes a few moments to reflect on the cruelty of a Champions League draw that has paired him with one of the best teams in Europe, McClaren may not see it as quite so unlucky. For the first time in a long time he has nothing to lose. Defeat for FC Twente is expected – the pressure would have been much greater had he lost to one of the qualifying round's unknowns after the club finished in fourth place in the Eredivisie last season and won a play-off to get into the Champions League qualifiers.
"It's unfair criticism but unfair criticism stops quickly if you get good results," Wenger said. "I think that kind of opinion changes quickly. It [the Euro 2008 qualifying debacle] was a big disappointment in the country. Then he got a lot of hard criticism in England and some managers have problems recovering from that. I have seen many national team managers who struggled after because mentally it is quite hard to take," the Arsenal manager added.
McClaren, 47, has been restricted in the transfer market this summer by the limitations of his club's budget – the club were virtually insolvent in the 2002-03 season – and he has not even brought in any of the backroom staff who followed him during his career at Middlesbrough and England. Instead McClaren has been happy to work with the resources left to him, even if they have been threadbare thus far. His best player, Orlando Engelaar, who played for the Netherlands at Euro 2008, was sold this summer to Schalke in the Bundesliga.
Among those players left he has the Swiss striker Blaise Kufo who, at 33, has been the club's top goalscorer for the last five seasons. The club have also managed to negotiate a year's loan for Chelsea's Serbian Under-21 defender Slobodan Rajkovic; they already have Liverpool's 20-year-old Bulgarian goalkeeper Nikolai Mihaylov for another season and have the former Middlesbrough midfielder Luke Wilkshire.
"It will be important for us to be at the top of our concentration to go through," Wenger said. "We are playing the first game away from home. We know we are a 'wanted target' and we want to go to the first game with a top-level concentration."
He added: "Of course when you go to Holland you get a game, it's a football country, the clubs are always well organised."
There will be a few wondering how well organised FC Twente will be against Arsenal. Although McClaren beat Wenger's side in his last season at Middlesbrough when Arsenal came to the Riverside, the return match at Highbury in January was markedly different. Middlesbrough lost 7-0.
Gunned down? McClaren's record against Arsenal
Middlesbrough 0 Arsenal 4 (League, 18/08/2001)
Arsenal 2 Boro 1 (League, 29/12/01)
Boro 0 Arsenal 1 (FA Cup, 14/04/02)
Arsenal 2 Boro 0 (League, 21/12/02)
Boro 0 Arsenal 2 (League, 19/04/03)
Boro 0 Arsenal 4 (League, 24/08/03)
Arsenal 4 Boro 1 (League, 10/01/04)
Arsenal 0 Boro 1 (League Cup, 20/01/04)
Arsenal 4 Boro 1 (FA Cup, 24/01/04)
Boro 2 Arsenal 1 (L Cup, 03/02/04)
Arsenal 5 Boro 3 (League, 22/08/04)
Boro 0 Arsenal 1 (League, 09/04/05)
Boro 2 Arsenal 1 (League, 10/09/05)
Arsenal 7 Boro 0 (League, 14/01/06)