With a cadence of candour rare among ex-pros speaking publicly, former England international Danny Mills, with a severity reflective of his playing days, declared freely the cause of Nottingham Forest’s woe this season.
Having played under him for Manchester City almost ten years ago, Mills targeted Stuart Pearce, Forest’s latest managerial appointment, as the issue that needed resolving. According to Mills, Pearce is “not a great coach, not a great tactician and not a great motivator.”
If anyone was left questioning Pearce’s subsequent ability to improve, Mills spared no time instigating further doubt in Pearce’s actual “depth of football ability” to make any progress seem unlikely. In anticipation of this weekend’s east-midlands clash between Forest and Derby County, the careening fates of two English managers, Forest’s Pearce and Derby’s Renaissance man Steve McClaren, were to be extrapolated further under the banner of one English manager who defined both clubs. Needless to say, in keeping with Pearce’s pre-match assumption that form means little in a rivalry such as this, mid-table Forest beat league leaders Derby County 2-1 for their first away win in this tie for four years.
By many accounts the best English manager England never had, it may have struck Brian Clough even more incredulously than his own snub that of the two managers leading out Derby and Forest today, Clough’s ‘Psycho’ is not the former England boss. The intangible silliness which pervaded Steve McClaren’s struggle with his native tongue when not living on his native land perhaps overshadowed what he would achieve when he took flight.
Embarrassed and vilified by a domestic media wrangle baying for a managerial sacrifice, McClaren’s prior campaign with England in 2006/07 was an unfortunate example of inept decision-making and poor performance. Realistically, McClaren was not ready, and the public awareness that he was second choice after ‘Big Phil’ Scolari helped not one jot. Shame on the English F.A.
In an attempt to ease the hearts and minds of the English public, McClaren hired Terry Venables as his assistant and Max Clifford as his P.R.O., signalling an alignment with sleaze that was disastrous in the long run. Shame on you Steve. After losing to Croatia in Wembley and ending all hope of an appearance at Euro 2008, McClaren embarked on a journey which took in the Dutch city of Enschede and the Lower Saxony region of Germany as pit stops. With FC Twente, McClaren led the team to their first Dutch Eredivisie in 2010. Although the highlight moment of his time abroad, in the wake of an England nightmare, McClaren has forged an impressive career which garners even greater respect when one considers his prior work with Middlesbrough.
Pearce in contrast is a primordial Darwinist. Football management for him has become a case of pure survival. Victory over Derby was significant on account of how few times Forest have leveraged three points from any fixture this season.
Mills’ raw assessment of Pearce’s managerial capabilities perhaps indicate a player who felt wronged at some junction of their relationship together. However, regarding the consistent fizzling out after a promising “honeymoon period”, Mills’ remarks appear rooted in fact. Pearce’s current conundrum with Nottingham Forest is looking to become another link in the chain. Yet, in a similar vain to which Sam Allardyce, after guiding West Ham to a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane, hinted that his ‘Englishness’ tends to hamper the critical acclaim his tactical nous may carry, Pearce also purports an old-fashioned style of fervour that may somewhat discredit his credentials. Unlike Allardyce however, Pearce has little to his managerial career that one would outright describe as a success. While the eager Forest travelling band situated in the corner of the iPro Stadium assured all listening that the former Forest defender Pearce is still one of their own, if today’s result is to signal nothing but a minor blip in their declining curve, one wonders for how long that assurance will stand.
For Derby County, the harsh reality of last season’s disappointing play-off defeat to Queens Park Rangers will leave little desire for a repeat ending to another promising season. Although the fluctuations that come to define the closing months of a Championship season are sure to throw up some surprise promotion candidates, the strength of Derby’s squad and the resilient innovation of their well-travelled manager should see them acquire an automatic promotion place. Saturday afternoon’s defeat to Forest signalled perhaps the emotional remove that a title-chasing Derby have instilled in contrast to their neighbours in desperate need of some good news.
For Pearce, McClaren and Clough, the intertwined relationship shared between all three has culminated in thoughts of England. For McClaren and Clough, the England job represented a set-back and an elusive accolade respectively. Of a more similar fate, Pearce, like Clough before him, once seemed an ideal national candidate in the making. Alas, both men – albeit for different reasons – never attained their designed fate.
For Pearce and McClaren, both managers represent a very shaky breed. That McClaren was the first Englishman to manage a foreign side to a domestic title since Bobby Robson in 1996 is perhaps made more worrying still that on taking his position in Wolfsburg, McClaren became the first Englishman to manage a top-flight German club. Of Premier League managers now – absolving Newcastle United who are yet to appoint a permanent manager – only seven are English, with four further Britons and eight others coming from abroad. In Spain and Italy however, the comparative make up of domestic managers is leveraged far higher for the native (13 of 19 in Spain, with the Granada position being vacant, and 17 of 20 in Italy).
While we will not know the full impact of today’s result until hindsight allows us, should either side begin next season in the Premier League, it is arguably in McClaren’s favour that having travelled and embraced foreign footballing cultures, he, as opposed to the more antiquated Pearce, is destined to survive in the tightening evolutionary pattern of the football manager in England.