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Aug 12, 2009

McClaren on the right track

After a goalless draw and a missed penalty in Lisbon last week, Sporting Clube de Portugal seemed resigned to their fate of a season in the new Europa League with five minutes to go in their Champions League qualifier as they trailed 1-0 against FC Twente.

But, after a spectacularly uneventful game with a few shots from outside the box and a couple of weak headers from both sides, a corner fell into their lap in the dying seconds when the home defenders were focused too much on the clock.

Failing to notice goalkeeper Rui Patricio run the length of the pitch just in time to get his head on a curler from Jose Moutinho, Peter Wisgerhof misdirected the ball behind his keeper for a dramatic equalizer, giving the Portuguese club passage to the next phase. But it was déjà-vu from four years ago for Dutch teams, as AZ were caught in the final minute against the same opponents in the same situation, keeping the current Eredivisie champions from a place in the UEFA Cup final.

The Arke Stadium in Enschede silenced abruptly after the late goal, but the supporters knew that reaching this year's Champions League proper would have been a long shot anyway. As the runners-up of the Eredivisie they would meet two of Europe's top sides in the qualifying stages both of them from the top of the Primera Division, Serie A, the Bundesliga or the English Premier League. FC Twente now faces an adventurous, but do-able, encounter with the Azerbaijani surprise package FC Qarabagh to qualify for the Europa League group phase.

In fact, drawing twice with Sporting was a miracle in itself. A week earlier FC Twente sold their quicksilver winger Eljero Elia to Hamburger SV for close to ten million euros, while striker Marko Arnautovic is destined to take Zlatan's place at Internazionale. Dutch international Edson Braafheid had joined Bayern Munich already, leaving coach Steve McClaren with the grand task to rebuild his team, again.

In the summer of 2007, Schalke 04 had signed the successful Twente-coach Fred Rutten, who managed to steer his team into the third qualifying round of the Champions League after beating Ajax in the play-off final. Rutten took midfield ace Orlando Engelaar with him, while schemer Karim El Ahmadi thought he'd be better off at Feyenoord. With the heart and the brains of the team gone, but with an extra ring on top of the stadium, FC Twente seemed at a crossroads as an extra ten thousand seats had to be filled.

The club needed to keep the momentum going or face financial trouble, when a drop to mid-table would create a lot of empty seats and a big hole on the balance sheet. The new manager had to be astute, have good contacts in the players' market and be able to create a winning team fast. Chairman Joop Munsterman struggled for weeks to find an unemployed coach with these qualifications, as men like Martin Jol and Hans Westerhof signed elsewhere.

Eventually he surprised everyone when former England manager Steve McClaren came out of the hat. A British coach in the Eredivisie? If any in the past, most of them had taken their coaching exams in Holland after a long career as a player in the Eredivisie, while players at PSV used to complain about the boring training sessions of the late Sir Bobby Robson. And even if he had been a former national coach, the experts wondered whether a foreigner could near the revered tactical nous of departed Fred Rutten.

The British press concluded it was an escape to the continent, with no Premier League club interested in him after his fateful spell at the national team. McClaren's claim that he had always wanted to work abroad was laughed away. However, in an interview with NRC Handelsblad he remembered how impressed he was with the clear opinions and the open-mindedness of the Dutch players at Manchester United and Middlesbrough. And with all those coaches abroad, like Hiddink, Beenhakker and Advocaat, maybe there was something he could learn by working in the Eredivisie. Bobby Robson told him he should go. He'd love it.

Often a new coach, especially if he is British, starts with sweeping away every memory of his predecessor, bringing in his own players and staff. In his first weeks in Enschede, with a decisive Champions League qualifier against Arsenal coming up, McClaren did the opposite. "The club has been successful because of the people that work here for such a long time in the board and the technical staff. I was surprised how well everything was organized. That is why I did not bring any one 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 these early weeks."

He observed the first ten matches with the ProZone video analyzing system as well as from the bench and gradually found the ideal line-up. By then, AZ had taken a clear lead and could not be overtaken, but no one else could challenge FC Twente in second place.

In the UEFA Cup they reached the third round and were only knocked out on penalties by Olympique Marseille. Add to that the lost Cup final, also from spot kicks, and it is clear that McClaren has been even more successful than Fred Rutten already - while their playing style has only marginally changed. And this is not only counted in results. Young players like Elia, Edson Braafheid and Arnautovic earned multi-million euro transfers to European top clubs this summer, which suggests that they have improved a lot over the season, bringing in well-received cash for the club.

Without them FC Twente expect a tough year, but they might just be a bit cautious. The board has started buying players while refusing to sell their best men to competitors in the Eredivisie. "Those days are over," says the confident chairman, who will only let his players go abroad. Steve McClaren was caught smiling on the touchline during the game against PSV, even after a stressful midweek, which suggests that he is enjoying his stay in the low countries and that a return to England is far from his mind.

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