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McClaren needs Cup to prove point

For a seemingly inoffensive man, Steve McClaren has a remarkable ability to polarise opinions.

Apparently nobody's first choice - with the possible exception of a couple of players intent on preserving their places - he will nonetheless succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson in one of the most prestigious and lucrative positions in football management.

Already the first English manager since Terry Venables to reach a European final, he could join a select band - of Rafael Benitez, Gerard Houllier, Alex Ferguson and George Graham - to win silverware since our teams were readmitted to continental competitions in 1990.

Yet his record is open to interpretation. Middlesbrough's stirring, four-goal fightbacks against Basle and Steaua Bucharest have deflected attention from the poverty of their position beforehand against teams who do not play their domestic football in one of Europe's top 15 clubs and could pay much of their squad with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's weekly wage.

Indeed the UEFA Cup, once the toughest European competition to win, is no longer even regarded as a consolation prize by many; no post-mortems or inquests greet the exits of supposed favourites with greater priorities; a tortuously long campaign and the overriding importance of the Champions League has damaged its credibility.

The final pits officially England's 14th best team against Spain's fifth finest; is it any wonder it lags far behind the Champions League in terms of revenue and kudos?

Not that Middlesbrough or fellow finalists Sevilla will mind. The Boro supporters' self-deprecating tag of a 'small town in Europe' serves as a reminder of how far they have come under their greatest fan. Since Middlesbrough diced with bankruptcy two decades ago, chairman Steve Gibson has financed and inspired their revival.

Often described as the best chairman in the Premiership - and it is hard to quibble with that assertion - Gibson's influence extends far beyond that of many of his counterparts at other clubs. Nor, even beyond his consistent financial generosity, is his involvement unhelpful. He deserves most credit for the club's outstanding Academy, which has provided McClaren, despite signing many in their footballing dotage, with a reputation as progressive manager who is a champion of young players.

Gibson's involvement in first-team affairs has been beneficial, too. Two years ago, when McClaren was willing to sell the player now the most visible success of Middlesbrough's youth policy, Gibson ensured Stewart Downing stayed; would that all chairman showed such fine judgment of players. If Downing is to leave under McClaren's successor, it is because there is a theory on Teesside that Adam Johnson is a left winger with still greater potential.

Indeed, but for Gibson, despite five seasons at the Riverside, it is easy to envisage McClaren ending his reign with a very different team. He was in favour of allowing Hasselbaink, Mark Schwarzer and Ugo Ehiogu to leave in January to finance new arrivals and reduce the average age. At that time, whispers emerged from the club that the error-prone Brad Jones was considered a better goalkeeper than his fellow Australian.

And Hasselbaink, seemingly spurred on by McClaren's willingness to discard him, has been the catalyst for Middlesbrough's cup runs, though the return to fitness of Downing and George Boateng and the awakening of Mark Viduka's latent talent are also significant factors.

Gareth Southgate also believes the vocal Dutchman has been an influential figure in the dressing room; since the humiliating 4-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, Middlesbrough's captain has mentioned the senior players as a cause of their resurgence.

And not, the implication was, McClaren. Yet recent weeks have given him the unlikely tag of a footballing cavalier, fielding more forwards than Kevin Keegan and still winning. McClaren can point to those four-goal salvos in the Uefa Cup but a reputation for defensiveness precedes him.

Perhaps, however, caution was thrown to the wind because there was no alternative whereas, at home against Liverpool with the score 0-0, Boro opted to take the ball to the corner flag rather than risk defeat; that, for many, was the abiding image of an inherent negativity... until Massimo Maccarone's extraordinary winners extended their European run.

Different interpretations, again. Conclusive proof remains elusive.

Is, for example, he a motivator? Four-goal comebacks suggest so, yet there is the question of McClaren's personality. Unquestioned though his coaching abilities are - and they have earned him the respect of England's big-name players - he has the charisma of a cabbage.

Remember the famous quote attributed to an England squad member in the 2002 World Cup? 'We were expecting Winston Churchill and instead got Iain Duncan Smith.' (this observer has always suspected the eloquent Southgate was comparing Conservatives); have England replaced him the uninspirational Eriksson with a clone? McClaren was certainly present at the underwhelming exits in 2002 and Euro 2004.

Indeed, perhaps the only constant in his record is ambition. It is a reason why he has rarely been particularly popular among Middlesbrough's support.

Former Boro defender Tony Mowbray - now manager of Hibernian - is held in higher regard by many supporters, a potential successor with a greater affinity with the club.

Was, for example, McClaren's expensive media training designed purely to benefit Boro? In any case, his subsequent determination to put a positive spin on everything has led to some debatable remarks. 'My record speaks for itself' is a continual refrain; once again, it is open to interpretation. He has won the only trophy in the club's history, yet his comment betrays a hint of arrogance.

Bankrolled by Gibson, it is safe to assume that Boro's wage bill is in the top seven in the Premiership (and McClaren spent £12 million last summer), yet they finished 14th.

Close analysis of his post-match utterings - along with those of several of his peers - hardly benefits McClaren; a 7-0 defeat at Highbury was implausibly described as 'great experience' for Middlesbrough's younger players. The phrase 'we controlled the game' crops up rather too often, and impartial observers often have had grounds to disagree.

At least Sir Alex Ferguson - who both epitomised and satirised Eriksson's explanation for most games as 'first half good, second half not so good' - is unlikely to be as cutting about his former assistant.

For much of this campaign, when Boro's season appeared to be going nowhere, McClaren termed it a transitional year - a catch-all phrase to explain underachievement and all the more unforgivable after his outlay last summer.

Now, it is clear it is the end of an era. The blend of youth and experience may not be preserved; the out-of-contract Boateng may opt to shore up another midfield, the marginalised Parlour and Doriva may no longer be required, the trio headed for the exits in January may now take a more dignified leave.

That depends upon McClaren's successor. Southgate, touted as one candidate, never got the move to a title contender his quiet consistency merited; Wednesday in Eindhoven could provide the highlight of a distinguished club career.

For others, it is just the start. Downing's association with McClaren should be extended when the latter succeeds Eriksson. Lee Cattermole, rapidly emerging as the heart and soul of Boro's junior generation - and their youngest captain on Sunday - is another who may not have seen the last of his departing manager.

And among ambivalence about his candidacy, questions about his record and debates about his preferred style of play, it is perhaps apt that a manager who is an advocate of technology bows out in a town constructed by an electronics company. Rejecting notions of being automatically attacking or defensive, Steve McClaren has described himself as a 'find-a-way-to-win' manager.

He will reassure many of those doubting his appointment as England manager if he can find a way to win the Uefa Cup.

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