Derby call in Olympic star for play-off bid

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

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.”

PIC­TURE: Andy Clarke

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

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