Alec Cordolcini

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson sat in his office with assistant Steve McClaren in the winter of 2001. On the agenda was the club’s transfer policy for the rapidly approaching January window and the summer ahead. Under consideration was a Dutch striker who had been making waves in the Eredivisie. His name: Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Ferguson was unsure about concluding the deal for the Dutchman, worried about his injury record and general fitness. McClaren though pushed van Nistelrooy’s case and warned the Scottish boss that if he didn’t buy the PSV Eindhoven striker it would be a decision he would soon regret. The rest is history.

Eight years on and Steve McClaren is still drawing an advantage from his deep knowledge and understanding of players. Now in Holland, McClaren is moulding FC Twente into one of the best teams in the Eredivisie. In Twente, a town with just 155,000 people, McClaren is flying the English flag.

McClaren’s Twente currently lead the Eredivisie, Holland’s top flight, with a two point advantage over PSV Eindhoven at the time of writing. So far just one match has been lost, and that in the Europa League. On the domestic front Twente have met Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, PSV and Feyenoord, and emerged with not a single defeat. Perhaps the biggest blow McClaren’s men have so far suffered this season came with elimination from the Champions League, before the group stage could be reached, losing on away goals to Sporting Lisbon in the third qualifying round. Yet even being in contention for the Champions League ahead of the tradtional Dutch powerhouses stands to McClaren’s credit.

Upon McClaren’s arrival in Holland, in the summer of 2008, Dutch pundits and fans alike were filled with dread. Why had chairman Joop Munsterman appointed McClaren? The Englishman was a stranger to continental football, his only experience with football in Holland coming through leading a Middlesbrough side to oblivion in the UEFA Cup final held in Eindhoven, where McClaren’s men were thumped 4-0 by Sevilla.

In Holland, and to the Dutch, McClaren desperately looked like a coach trying to rebuild a failing career. Indeed, it reminded many of the words of former PSV defender Barry van Aerle, who when asked what he had learned from another former England boss that pitched up in the Netherlands, Bobby Robson, said “English”.

At Twente McClaren was soon aware of the size of his task. Romano Denneboom was no Wayne Rooney and the club had just lost their best player, Orlando Engelaar, to Schalke. Two other key men in Karim El Ahmadi and Luke Willkshire had also left, for Feyenoord and Dynamo Moscow respectively. Despite this however, McClaren rallied, and led the Turkkers to second place in the Eredivisie, their best performance since 1974, and also reached the cup final, losing out to Heerenveen only on penalties.

The former England boss did not bask in the glow of achievement however stating, “The next step is to fight for the title and break the hegemony of the traditional powers.” Perhaps it slipped the Englishman’s mind that AZ Alkmaar had already done just that, even so, for Twente a league title would be significant.

McClaren also recognises the size of the challenge in front of him. Competing with giants like Ajax and PSV is difficult when a coach loses their best players year in year out. Twente have lost them in droves; Austrian starlet Marko Arnautovic departed for Internazionale, Eljero Elia swapped Twente for Hamburg, whilst full-back Edson Braafheid joined Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich.

In their place the Dutch club brought in nine players, chief amongst them Miroslav Stoch (on loan from Chelsea), Wellington, a Brazilian striker (on loan from Hoffenheim), Bernard Parker, a South African striker, Nashat Akram, a symbol of the Iraq national team, and Bryan Ruiz, a Costa Rican forward. Ruiz is perhaps the signing in whom the most was staked, Twente shelling out a cool €5M to sign him to a four-year deal.

Ruiz has become key to McClaren’s 4-3-3, being played on either flank or through the middle. He is the forward who can slot in anywhere. The 24-year-old made his debut in a 2-0 win away to Sparta Rotterdam, having an instant impact by notching the second goal of the game. Since then Ruiz has continued to impress, finding the net 14 times and leading the club’s scoring charts.

At Twente McClaren has sought to mix Dutch style attacking football with a desire for clean sheets. “Both [Guus] Hiddink’s PSV and [Louis] van Gaal’s AZ won the Eredivisie by having the best defensive record in the league” said McClaren. And at the time of writing the Englishman’s side have just that, conceding the least goals in the league as they peer down the table from their lofty perch.

McClaren’s Twente are a charming blend of veterans, like 39-year-old keeper Sander Boschker, 35-year-old Danish midfielder Kenneth Perez and 34-year-old all-time top scorer Blaise N’Kufo, and youngster yearning for a spell in the spotlight.

As Twente gear up to play at the Grolsch Veste Stadium their supporters can be heard belting out a Bruce Springsteen tune, Working on a Dream. For McClaren, that is exactly what his time at Twente has become. And should he achieve it then a remarkable rebirth will have taken place.

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