Before his unfortunate period as England Head Coach, Steve McClaren had established himself as an outstanding coach and then as a creditable club manager. His role in the treble-winning season at Manchester United has been credited by Sir Alex Ferguson amongst others and he had a generally positive impact as manager of Middlesbrough, with a run to the final of the UEFA Cup the pinnacle of his time at the Riverside. Since 2008, he has coached Twente Enschede and has taken a side that had finished fourth just before he arrived to a second-placed finish and a current position of first in the standings with two games left. Tuesday’s setback against last year’s champions AZ Alkmaar will have been a bitter blow, but Twente’s fate remains in their own hands. Some casual supporters may be surprised, but those in the know have always been aware that McClaren is an excellent coach and organiser. The derision aimed at him on these shores basically disqualified him from an immediate return to the Premier League, but he appears to have found a new lease of life in the less-fancied Dutch league. A league title for Twente would complete the rehabilitation job and put McClaren in the frame for a top job back in England if it arose. It speaks volumes on how far the wheel has turned that he may not want one.
The only side that can realistically overtake Twente and steal the title at the death are Ajax, who sit one point behind the leaders. Martin Jol should not feel the need to prove himself as fans of Dutch football and RKC in particular know exactly what he can do. The tiny Waalwijk club (who sit bottom of the Eredivisie as we speak) had viewed their close-season holiday as the closest they would get to a European adventure before Jol changed everything. It was on the back of this that Tottenham hired him, originally as assistant to Jacques Santini. As Spurs compete once again for a place in the top four, it is easy to forget that Jol laid many of the foundations for this relative success. Two fifth placed finishes (including coming a ‘dodgy lasagne’ from fourth), were fantastic achievements at the time. It is unfortunate therefore that the wheels falling at the end of his tenure overshadowed what went before. Not that Ajax or their supporters will care. Qualifying Hamburg for the Europa League last season made him an ideal choice to revive their fortunes, and genuine progress appears to have been made. Twelve straight victories have catapulted them down the necks of Twente, with Luis Suarez churning out goals as often as a canvassing politician spits out a soundbite. Wednesday’s 2-0 stroll past Willem II in Tilburg was done in second gear and with plenty to spare. Their goal difference is +79 compared to Twente’s relatively meagre +36 and they have the easier run-in – Heracles at home, NEC Nijmegen away should read six points. This leaves Twente having to repeat the trick in ostensibly harder matches against Feyenoord (home) and NAC Breda (away).
This race promises to go right down to the wire, and that in itself is an advantage the Eredivisie has against some of the more illustrious European Leagues. Last year, AZ Alkmaar won the title and Twente finished second, which meant that none of the established triopoly of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord made the top two – the first time this had happened in 50 years. With AZ and Twente major players on an annual basis, the old status quo appears to have died, although Ajax and PSV in particular remain strong. It will never be the strongest league in Europe, but the Eredivisie could be becoming one of the most interesting. It has also offered McClaren a shot at redemption and Jol the chance to complete the rehabilitation that began with Hamburg. Players do not become bad overnight and neither do coaches.