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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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McClaren's unfamiliar challenge

Steve McClaren returns for a second spell at FC Twente and is already talking about another title for the club, but times have changed in Enschede. The championship is no longer something the fans hope for; they now expect it, along with entertaining football.

Often a new coach, especially if he is British, starts by sweeping away every memory of his predecessor, then brings in his preferred players and hires his own staff. In his first weeks at FC Twente in 2008, McClaren bucked that trend. "The club has been successful because of the people that work here for such a long time in the board and the technical staff," he said. "I was surprised how well everything was organised. That is why I did not bring anyone of my own in. They already had the best playing team in the Eredivisie, and they were ambitious. The only thing for me to do was not stand in the way in the early weeks."

He observed the first ten matches on the ProZone video analysis system and gradually found his ideal line-up. By then, AZ had taken a clear lead and could not be overtaken, but no one else could challenge FC Twente for second place. The next year they won their first Dutch title, despite selling Edson Braafheid and Eljero Elia to the Bundesliga.

McClaren and FC Twente seemed a perfect match but, when VfL Wolfsburg waved a €1.6 million contract under his nose, his departure was announced only a few days after the championship celebrations. Wolfsburg saw Gerard Houllier walk out of an initial agreement, and swiftly moved to appoint McClaren. His task was to introduce modern football in Lower Saxony, but he lacked the personnel on the pitch to execute this revolution: striker Edin Dzeko was more effective on the break, while midfield wizard Diego's solo efforts were counter-productive to the team dynamics.

McClaren survived Christmas in 14th position and seemed to have turned the tide in January, when his team beat third-placed Mainz 05 away. Their next trip was the derby at high-flying Hannover 96, and VfL Wolfsburg were trailing by a solitary goal when Diego was fouled in the box with ten minutes to go. Striker Patrick Helmes stepped up, but Diego defied all orders, took the ball, and promptly missed. The score remained 1-0. Wolfsburg general manager Dieter Hoeness was incensed by "the playground behaviour of his players", who had then won only one game in 11. They ended the day one point above the relegation zone.

McClaren was fired, while Wolfsburg only escaped the relegation play-off in the last half hour of the Bundesliga season. VfL captain Marcel Schafer, looking back, suggested that Steve McClaren's weakness was that he had perhaps been too much of a human being.

Last summer McClaren could have returned for FC Twente, but decided to head back to the UK. His next tenure at Nottingham Forest was, at 112 days in charge, even shorter than in Germany. While he brought in tried and trusted players like George Boateng and Jonathan Greening, he was unable to make all the signings he felt he needed - even on loan - and the team was left hovering at the wrong end of the table. As he did not expect any progress in the near future, McClaren resigned in October.

Meanwhile in Enschede, the post-McClaren period left mixed feelings. His successor, Michel Preud'homme, reached the quarter finals of the Europa League and won the KNVB Beker, but lost the title on the final matchday in a direct confrontation with Ajax. They came so close that it felt like failure - especially for Preud'homme, a man obsessed by success. He won the Rinus Michels Award, voted the best coach of the season in the Eredivisie by his colleagues, but with two years on his contract to go, the former Belgium international suddenly decided to cash in and signed for Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia. Then it turned out that FC Twente chairman Joop Munsterman was satisfied with the results but not with the style of play and management that Preud'homme had introduced.

Munsterman is quite a difficult man to please. He started his working life as a cleaner at a local newspaper and worked his way up to become CEO of the newspaper conglomerate Wegener. When he asset-stripped the firm for British owners Mecon, several Wegener board members jumped ship because of a ruthless cost-cutting and axing of personnel.

Munsterman did lift FC Twente from the verge of bankruptcy in 2004 to the title six years later, but his employees haven't always appreciated his work. Current PSV coach Fred Rutten left FC Twente in 2008, and he personified the chairman as a narcissist who tried to belittle him. Co Adriaanse, the successor of the hastily departed Preud'homme, was hailed as the next conquering hero over the summer, but was ditched in the New Year.

FC Twente were not doing too badly, sitting in third place and finishing group winners in the Europa League, but Munsterman complained about a lack of entertainment on the pitch. That specific remark coincided with a visit to Enschede by Steve McClaren at the end of November. Looking back through December, you can spot a media trail in which Adriaanse became isolated. His quirky habits suddenly turned into major faults in the eyes of the Twente followers, while defeats against Feyenoord in the league and PSV in the cup worked against him.

McClaren may be better equipped to contend with the whims of Munsterman as they claim to be close friends. This summer, McClaren wanted to return to Britain to seek redemption, but with this feeling probably out of the way, he may hope to settle down in Enschede for at least the two and a half years on his contract.

FC Twente, however, is no longer the club he arrived at in 2008, where hopes extended to a European spot and the occasional cup run. The chairman has since tasted the addictive drug of success. This time, the pressure on McClaren won't come from the media, but from inside the club.

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