I’M DRIV TO REWA PRIDE AN PASSION OUR FAN
Exclusive interview with Steve
STEVE McClaren is enjoying the comforts of home. After all, where better than as manager of Derby County – the club where he has spent more years of his life in football than anywhere else – could he maintain the resurgence of a career that slumped to a debilitating nadir just seven years ago on a stormy night at Wembley?
Who better to share the good times with than fans who have never forgotten the success he helped to bring them during his last association with the Rams just before the turn of the century?
Jim Smith, his one-time mentor and boss at Pride Park, believes McClaren was fulfilling his destiny when his former assistant took charge 14 months ago.
“I always thought he would succeed me – and he would have done if Sir Alex Ferguson hadn’t recognised the qualities I had seen in him,” he remembered.
“When he told me he was going back I was pleased for him because I think he and Derby are made for one another. Now I really believe he can achieve what he helped to do when he was my assistant, and that is get them back into the Premier League.”
That looked almost a formality last May until the Rams had promotion hi-jacked from under their feet by Queen’s Park Rangers in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. And, if it was a kick in the teeth at the time, looking back McClaren regards it as a blessing in disguise.
“I honestly thought with 20 minutes to go, against ten men, even looking at extra-time, this team can do it,” says McClaren. “It was more of a huge shock than anything that they’d actually got near our goal and scored.
“I said at the time obviously we weren’t ready to go up otherwise we would have done. I felt sorry for the supporters and for the players. But we dusted ourselves down, we talked about it the next day.We had a few weeks off and came back in pre-season with a kind of more mature mentality.
“I hoped that experience would toughen them up so that, next time we do get an opportunity, they would be able to take it.”
That was then; this is now. McClaren will not countenance similar disappointment next time around with such grace. Promotion and Premier League consolidation are the ultimate end products of a carefully conceived three-year blueprint, drawn up on the day he took charge.
“Our strategy was…first let’s build a Championship team; within that can we build a team that doesn’t need much change, and then have we got the resources to add to stay there? That’s the challenge,” he explained.
“The first stage we nearly accomplished last season. We’ve had to start again.With more toughness and maturity we want to be up there again and also build for the future.
“The club is really growing; academy wise; facilities wise. The people behind the club have got really big plans for Derby County. And the support is there, the fans are absolutely unbelievable.” McClaren is quick and eager to spurn total responsibility for the rise of the Rams during his stewardship. Credit is liberally dispensed with sacked predecessor Nigel Clough a notable recipient.
“I was so lucky going in, lucky that Nigel had done a great job building the squad and putting the club on a sound financial footing,” he declared. “I knew the players were good, I knew the team was good, I knew it had potential. Everything was there and it didn’t need a lot of tin- kering. I didn’t have to build a lot – it was there.We added a couple of players.
“The club has a tremendous CEO in Sam Rush who had the courage to make the change when he did. He had a vision for what he wanted .
“We wanted to produce good football. Our main goal was about performance. Could we play exciting attacking football in the Championship? Could we become consistent week in, week out? I felt if we did, results would follow. That was our short-term aim and, credit to the players, they started doing that from day one. They have been fantastic.”
But his special praise for back-room pair Paul Simpson and Eric Steele, was also a vindication of his decision to recruit the two former Derby players as his right-hand men.
“That’s been the message that we’ve wanted to get over to the fans – that it’s Derby people taking over their club. I couldn’t have done it without Paul and Eric. No way.”
Battling their way to the Championship’s top spot has not been without its major hiccups – like the recent defeat at Leeds following on from losses against Brentford and Wigan.
Such results, McClaren cites, typify the all-round strength of league rivals rather than his own team’s weaknesses. “I’ve got to say the Championship is tougher this year than last and it’s not sur- prising only fo never p League to obta sistenc other their te one has quality improv
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