McClaren targets Wembley joy
Steve McClaren stands on the brink of a complete career turnaround today as he returns to the scene of his lowest ebb.
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The Sky Bet Championship play-off final will see McClaren on the Wembley touchline for the first time since the 3-2 defeat to Croatia in November 2007 which cost him his job as the England manager.
Upon his appointment as Derby head coach at the start of October, when the Rams were 14th in the league table, McClaren conceded there remained a "stigma" that has tarnished his career in this country, after his difficult spells in charge of the national team and Nottingham Forest, where he was in charge briefly in 2011.
But the 53-year-old has had a successful career as a coach and a manager. He was Jim Smith's assistant in the mid-1990s when Derby won promotion to the Premier League, excelled as Sir Alex Ferguson's number two at Manchester United, took Middlesbrough to a UEFA Cup final, became the first English coach to win a major league title abroad since the late Sir Bobby Robson and has revitalised the Rams.
Yet he has often been a target for criticism and, for many, will always be associated with an umbrella.
McClaren was lampooned after that disastrous defeat to Croatia as, on a rain-soaked night at Wembley, England failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Cup.
It is an experience that still rankles with him and after brushing aside Brighton in the semi-finals, McClaren knew what was coming. His return to Wembley was always going to dominate the build-up and, even now almost seven years on, the memories remain raw.
"The biggest thing that hurt me that night, and ever since, was the failure to qualify," said McClaren.
"It felt like I'd let the nation down and that's what I've had to live with. Nothing else peripheral, like the 'Wally with the Brolly'. If it's raining, there will probably be another one on Saturday.
"Not qualifying was the biggest disappointment. That will not go away and that still hurts, but you have to get on with life and football. It was a long time ago and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
"I'm totally focused on the game and our opponents QPR. If I'm thinking about that [the Croatia game] I shouldn't be there."
By a twist of fate, McClaren's renaissance has been down to the man in the opposite dugout.
QPR boss Harry Redknapp gave him a route back into English football last summer with a coaching role at Loftus Road.
Asked if he owed Redknapp a debt of gratitude, McClaren replied: "Absolutely. He gave me that responsibility at QPR and allowed me to coach, which is my strength.
"What was the alternative? Doing the gardening and going to Tesco and playing golf, or working.
"It was a bit of a surprise. I knew Harry, but as a rival really, we weren't close friends. The call came about through Jamie [Redknapp, Harry's son], who I met at a dinner at the beginning of the summer.
"I was good for him and he was good for me. We'll have a cup of tea at Wembley before the game and a big hug at the end no matter what happens."
While Derby have surpassed all expectations this season, QPR's campaign is widely regarded as a failure given the resources at the Londoner's disposal and the calibre of their squad.
Redknapp is under huge pressure to deliver promotion at the first time of asking following relegation from the Barclays Premier League and, whatever the outcome of today's final, the season will be viewed as something of a disappointment.
However, McClaren believes Redknapp has performed one of the most underrated jobs of the past 12 months - and he should know.
"I said to Harry after two weeks, 'You've got a tough job turning it round'," McClaren said.
"We'd had a couple of pre-season games and it was worrying. There was a lot of players who didn't want to be there - players who didn't want to even train, nevermind play for the club.
"People have said QPR have had a disappointing season but I'm telling you, they could have gone very quickly down the leagues, as other clubs have done, if it hadn't been for Harry.
"Only he could have done that job because there was a lot of work required. The key thing was he had zero tolerance for the players who didn't want to play, he weeded them out, and the club supported him.
"Harry did what Harry does best and he's done a terrific job there."