Steve McClaren still drinking from the poisoned chalice

“It’s Newcastle, is it possible to make any sense?” said McClaren, apparently as surprised as everyone else that his first league win as Newcastle manager was a 6-2 thumping of Norwich. One win in their last nineteen in the league, stretching back to John Carvers time as manager, and just four wins in the calendar year have meant months of glum faces on the north side of the Tyne.

McClaren has admitted the job has turned out to be harder than he expected, but maintains the club aren’t in crisis – just close to it.

It’s not clear exactly what will trigger a formal crisis in McClaren’s eyes, but with Newcastle sitting eighteenth in the table, a loss against rock-bottom rivals Sunderland this weekend might be it. The win against Norwich came on the back of a 6-1 drubbing by Manchester City, which itself followed the side a two-goal lead slip away against Chelsea.

Inconsistency, that most frustrating of all sporting traits, appears to be in the water at St James’ Park and every time the green shoots of improvement appear, they seem to wither just as fast.

Forget it, Steve, it’s Chinatown – or Chinatoon perhaps.

In Jack Nicholson’s classic neo-noir, a grizzled private investigator takes what he thinks will be a simple job and it soon spirals out of control and he finds himself deep in a conspiracy involving local government and the police. McClaren might not find exactly the same on Tyneside, but a succession of managers will tell you that pulling on the loose threads at Newcastle does run the risk of the whole affair unraveling.

McClaren is a man for whom a Chinatoonian unraveling is a relatively familiar situation – but he is also a manager capable of achieving great things. He himself has drunk inconsistent water from his fair share of poisoned chalices.

After a five year spell at Middlesborough, where he took an unfancied team to the final of the UEFA Cup, he then managed the England side that failed to qualify for Euro 2008…with all the memories of lonely umbrellas that conjures up. The England job was certainly a poisoned chalice, one which has been the death of many a promising managerial career. Another Newcastle manager, the great Sir Bobby Robson was probably the last to build a successful career after managing the national side – Taylor, Venables, Hoddle, Eriksson, Capello were all either at the end of a career or shuffled off into a quiet life of punditry or behind the scenes work.

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Folding his umbrella as he walked down the Wembley tunnel, McClaren kept walking until he arrived in Holland with FC Twente six months later. He had started as England manager under intense scrutiny – not only was he part of the previous, failed regime of Sven Goran Eriksson, but he was not even the first choice as his replacement. The FA had offered the job to Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, then manager of Portugal, who had decided the white-hot focus of the media would make it not worth his while. With the press suitably riled, McClaren took the heat Scolari avoided, which never really faded throughout his time in the national job.

By managing abroad, McClaren allowed himself to rebuild his career in a less pressured environment – in the parlance, he could focus on his football. His return to the English league has been stuttering, via Forest and Derby, and with respect to those sides, they are not the crucible environment of St James’ Park.

Between Forest and Derby, he appeared to burn bridges at his safe space of FC Twente – returning to manage the club for a second spell, that ended with supporter discontent and McClaren agreeing that no man should be bigger than the club.

Of his former clubs, only with the Dutch side and Middlesborough has he had what could be called extended periods of success. With no Twente to go back to, he might find another resurrection after Newcastle difficult to achieve. The Tyneside faithful don’t suffer fools gladly, but they are tremendously loyal to their team and to their own. McClaren, on the other hand, seems to be a manager who is ambitious if not completely ruthless with it, and for whom opportunity and career progression come first.

He desperately needs to bed himself in at Newcastle, he has drunk from too many poisoned chalices in his time and too often been moved on quickly. It’s not a pattern that can continue. He can’t keep getting jobs without reproving his talents – it’s hard to believe he’s only 54, with how many times he’s been around the block since his time at Boro.

Things need to change quickly, or else it’ll be curtains in Chinatoon.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Dom Fellowes.

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