STEVE McCLAREN’S five-year reign as Middlesbrough manager started and ended with a four-goal defeat. It included incredible highs and very few lows in between.
Yet for some reason, despite only leaving to answer his country’s call, many of the club’s fans were glad to see the back of him.
“He was the most booed manager of Middlesbrough I can remember,” said Rob Nichols, the editor of the Middlesbrough fanzine Fly Me To The Moon.
After all McClaren remains the only manager in the club’s 138-year history to have led Middlesbrough to a major trophy. He is the only Boro boss to have brought top level European football to Teesside and the only manager to have led the club to a UEFA Cup final.
If that was not enough for the doubters, he also guided Middlesbrough to their highest finish in the top division since 1975 and that’s not forgetting how he actually managed to keep the club in the Premier League in his very first season in frontline management.
That in itself was a difficult enough task, given how an ageing squad had been going through tough times in the latter stages of Bryan Robson’s seven years in charge, which ultimately ended in Terry Venables being asked to perform a rescue act.
Yet McClaren, whose early masterstroke was to convince England defender Gareth Southgate to move to the North-East from Aston Villa, never really struck up a real bond with supporters.
From day one he never hid his ambition, so that was held against him, but has there ever been an English manager who has not dreamed of managing England?
“Fans were split while he was here. I still don’t really know why that was the case, I just don’t think people warmed to him, he was probably misunderstood,” said Nichols. “You have got to remember that he came in after Bryan Robson and Robson was loved for what he brought to the club. Some people didn’t really appreciate that Middlesbrough were going out and beating some of the best teams in the world under McClaren.”
Attendances were already on the decline at the Riverside during McClaren’s final season in charge, regularly dipping below 30,000, but there was still more than 27,000 seated to watch his final home game in charge: a 1-0 defeat to Everton on April 29, 2006.
In the build up to that there was an FA Cup semi-final defeat to West Ham at Villa Park and the dramatic UEFA Cup semi-final second leg comeback over Steaua Bucharest, which created memories that will live forever among a generation of Middlesbrough supporters.
When McClaren heads along the A66 with the Derby County squad today and steps down off the team coach at the Riverside at around 1.15pm, he will walk in to familiar surroundings but be at a club with a different outlook.
Middlesbrough, under the same chairman who appointed him, Steve Gibson, may have huge ambitions to return the North-East club to a former glory, but a likely crowd of less than 15,000 will point to the fact that these are harder times by the River Tees these days.
Nichols said: “Every Middlesbrough supporter should appreciate just what he did for the club. They should appreciate the golden times and, I think, given what has happened in the years and the decade since, people have seen just what was achieved during those years.
“Watching the Europa League in recent years, everyone has seen how hard it is to actually progress in that competition and stay in the Premier League.
“Even the year before we reached the final in 2006, to get Middlesbrough through the group stages of the UEFA Cup, finish seventh in the Premier League and qualify for the UEFA Cup again was an incredible achievement.
“I did not miss a game during the McClaren era. I was coming back from European games on a Thursday or a Friday and going straight to league matches on the Sunday. Some fans that did not go to Europe did not appreciate just what was being achieved. They didn’t realise what the players actually had to go through with the travel, the matches, experiences of Europe.”
Along with the incredible highs during McClaren’s time in charge, he suffered a number of lows, like the occasion in the UEFA Cup final season when supporter Mark Davison ran to the dug-out and threw his season ticket at him during a 4-0 defeat to Aston Villa.
The Yorkshireman’s critics would also suggest he was given fantastic backing from Gibson, who sanctioned the purchases of players like Massimo Maccarone for a record £8.125m from Serie B side Empoli or the acquisitions of more experience, household international names such as Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink, Gaizka Mendieta and Bolo Zenden.
Many also often disagreed with the team’s style of play under him and his reliance on sports psychologist Bill Beswick for guidance. The reality, however, was that Middlesbrough may never again reach the heights he delivered in the final two years of his reign.
“I remember that Aston Villa game when the fan walked up to him with the season ticket,” said Nichols. “It was a terrible atmosphere, the worst of his time in charge. That was also the game Lee Cattermole, who was only a young kid at the time, cried.
“I remember talking to Lee Cattermole about it at a later date, he couldn’t believe the atmosphere himself and that was what got to him more than anything, he was a local lad, whose dad supported the Boro.
“There was a feeling afterwards that that moment when the season ticket was thrown actually galvanised the club and the squad for the rest of the season. That the moment spurred the squad on in that fantastic UEFA Cup run. It is unreal in some ways to think what happened after that.”
Eight years on, the Riverside awaits the first return of the most successful manager in Middlesbrough’s history.