SPRINT KING JOHNSON HAS RAMS ALL SET
Derby call in Olympic star for play-off bid
STEVE McClaren is talking about the time he presented flowers to legendary Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. “My first season in Holland, he was managing AZ Alkmaar,” explains the former England boss. “It was the final game of the season and they’d already won the league.We had to win to finish second.
“So we thought we’d shower them with love in the hope they’d lay down and die and give us the result.We had a procession for the players and I gave van Gaal a bunch of flowers. We won 3-0 and finished second, so it obviously worked!”
The anecdote is dispensed in response to a question about the Dutchman’s imminent arrival at Manchester United, along with a lengthy rumination on Jose Mourinho’s bus-parking preferences.
But away from the Sky TV fluff, it is also a perfect example of what McClaren believes is the screwdriver of any managerial toolkit – an understanding of exactly what goes on between a player’s ears.
“It’s nothing new,” says the 52-yearold, who holds court in Derby’s state-of-the-art Moor Farm training complex.“Sports psychology has been used for years and years and years now.
“You can use outside help, you can do it yourself. But every football manager who ever lived has used psychology. As a manager, that’s one of the fundamental skill you must have.
“I think about it every minute of every day I’m with the team. I think about it when I’m planning with my staff. The mental side of the game is what gives every coach or player his edge. It’s huge now.”
And, like Brendan Rodgers whose recruitment of renowned psychologist Steve ‘Chimp Paradox’ Peters has been credited with strengthening Liverpool’s Premier League title push, McClaren isn’t waging his war on neurons by himself.
Already this season, the Rams players have been treated to sessions with Bill Beswick, a long-term associate of McClaren, and Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of Team GB’s all-conquering Olympic cycling team. And this week, with a play-off clash looming, came a motivational talk from none other than Michael Johnson, the American sprint king who dominated his sport for a decade.
“We got links with Michael Johnson’s project in St Georges and he actually asked to come down and speak to the players,” says McClaren.
“Who are we to turn that down? So we changed all our plans, he came in and we had a fantastic hour with him.
“I introduced him as ‘One of the greatest athletes of all time’. Michael said ‘No – the greatest athlete of all time’. It was a great line to get the lads laughing and he continued for an hour that enthralled them all.
“He certainly had their respect – I’ve never seen so many people scramble for their phones as when Michael finished talking!
“There was no message as such. More an explanation of why he was No.1 in the world, why he was so successful. About knowing himself what was required to achieve great things.
“He was more or less saying that everything he strived for he regarded as an opportunity rather than something to be feared. That’s what the players hopefully took away from it.”
This particular opportunity is one that looked a mile off when McClaren took charge in early October with the Rams fourteenth in the Championship.
Yet by December they had climbed into the top six never, it transpired, to be shifted. Now they are third and, depending on yesterday’s result, proud owners of Derby’s best-ever points tally. So what was the magic ingredient?
“Many, many, things.” he says. “First off, we were lucky. I’ve always applauded the job that Nigel Clough and his staff did before. They left a good foundation, a good squad.
“We’ve added to that with some players who’ve fitted in and performed
well – Andre Wisdom, Patrick Bamford, George Thorne.
“Just because something you do works well doesn’t mean the previous way was wrong. It’s just a different way. What’s happened is that the players have adapted very well.
“This is why I credit the players entirely. They could have very easily taken a few weeks, even months to adjust. They may not have accepted the change at all. But from day one they bought into it.
“They said ‘OK, this is football. We’re sorry to see Nigel go but let’s give these new people a chance’. I can’t praise them enough.”
Last season, Derby’s points tally would have been enough for automatic promotion. This season it is not, but McClaren says there is much to be proud of.
“When people look back and say ‘Who was the last team that got 86 points? Who played in that?’ you want your name to be there,” he says.
“When I was here before, with Arthur Cox, you still know the players. When Jim Smith was here, you’re still talking about those players now. Even Cloughie’s era, 40-odd years ago, everyone still knows those players. That’s what these lads are playing for. To be part of the fabric of this club for years to come.”
As is McClaren, who knows that should Derby reach the Premier League, he would join the likes of Smith and Clough in the pantheon of greats.
“I know how big this club is,” he says. “Derby is a Premier League club, it’s league titles, it’s Brian Clough and European nights. Everything is here to make Derby great again. Now we just need to do the job.”
WHAT A LINE-UP: Michael Johnson with Steve McClaren and his Derby coaching staff, from left, Lee Glover, Paul Simpson and Eric Steele. Inset: Johnson winning 200m gold in world record time at 1996 Atlanta Olympics