A selection of successful managerial careers that began in chaos and defeat
History, they say, is written by the victors. Don Revie won quite a lot, almost won a whole lot more but appears in much of history as a malevolent figure, condemned for walking out on England, suspicions of match-fixing or simply not being his charismatic and quotable nemesis Brian Clough.
But before he was a winner as Leeds United manager, Revie was a loser. He lost 11 of his first 20 league games. He only won one of his first nine. His debut came at Portsmouth in March 1961. Jack Taylor, his predecessor, had resigned. Revie, whose playing career was nearing its end, had applied for the Bournemouth manager’s job. The Leeds board had quoted the Cherries £6,000, a fee they baulked at paying. Almost by default, and because it was cheaper than hiring an established manager, Leeds appointed Revie whose playing career, after just 14 appearances that season, was winding down.
He was paid a mere £20 a week, but was pleased, he said, to have “full power on selection, transfers in and out and training” and set about focusing on set-plays to bring structure. He inherited a club with an overdraft, falling gates and a mediocre squad. He was also bequeathed two fine coaches in Les Cocker and Syd Owen and two players who would become stalwarts of his side – Billy Bremner and Jackie Charlton.
Even then, there was an issue. Not with Bremner, a protégé and roommate of Revie’s, but the militant Charlton, who could seem deliberately awkward. The future World Cup winner wrote in his 1996 autobiography about an argument with Revie when they were still teammates: “Don said, ‘If I was the manager, I wouldn’t play you. You’re always messing around.’”
In fact, Revie did play Charlton on his managerial debut, just not in the position where he acquired greater fame. Revie had been a pioneering false nine as a player himself. He deployed the giant Charlton as something very different, a centre-half in attack. It was a ploy Leeds had used with great success with John Charles and Charlton scored at Fratton Park in Revie’s first game. The problem was Leeds still lost 3-1 – “a pitiful defeat,” according to Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson in The Unforgiven – and even Revie’s first win, against Lincoln, was attended by just 8,342 fans. The final home game of the season drew just 6,975, the lowest gate at Elland Road since 1934.
It got worse before it got better. Revie, in a tribute to Real Madrid, changed Leeds’s kit to all white in the summer of 1961, instituted the youth policy that was to provide him with cornerstones of a formidable team and signed Albert Johansson that year, but Charlton rejected the captaincy and had to be restored to the defence, while the player-manager first recalled and then dropped himself. They were in danger of relegation to the old Division Three that season before the catalytic signing of Bobby Collins.
But Revie had started reshaping Leeds in radical fashion. While Bremner and Charlton went on to play 773 and 772 times for United respectively, making them first and second in the all-time appearance list, the other nine men who faced Portsmouth – Alan Humphreys, Alf Jones, John Kilford, Bobby Cameron, Freddie Goodwin, Peter McConnell, Gerry Francis, Peter Fitzgerald and Colin Grainger – made less of an impact under the new regime. Only Goodwin was even still at the club in the promotion campaign of 1963-64, when he suffered a broken leg that in effect ended his playing career. None featured in the success that followed.
Sir Alf Ramsey
Many an England manager’s reign has ended with a chastening defeat. Only one has started that way. He was nevertheless destined to become the only one to experience genuine success. In Sir Alf Ramsey’s defence, it is a moot point as to precisely how much of a manager he was when his reign began.
After the FA’s attempts to recruit Jimmy Adamson failed, second-choice Alf was appointed in October 1962. He filled two posts, working with his successor at Ipswich, Jackie Milburn, for the remainder of the season. England had three fixtures in that time, starting against France at the Parc des Princes on 27 February 1963.
At which point, events took a strange turn. The International Selection Committee, which had been disbanded in 1962, was re-formed for no good reason – although ostensibly at Ramsey’s request – and chose the side. The infamous five – the president of the Football League Joe Richards, the FA chairman Graham Doggart, the FA secretary Dennis Follows, the Chelsea and future FA chairman Joe Mears and the Sunderland chairman Syd Collings – had not played a professional game of football between them. “They were enthusiasts but they had no judgment,” Ramsey later told the journalist Ken Jones.
Between them, they decided to leave out Johnny Haynes, the former England captain, who nonetheless travelled with fans to watch the game, and selected an XI of Ron Springett, Jimmy Armfield, Ron Henry, Bobby Moore, Brian Labone, Ron Flowers, John Connelly, Bobby Tambling, Bobby Smith, Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Charlton.
They proved woefully inadequate. Ramsey’s side were a goal down after three minutes and had conceded by three by half-time. France were an out-of-form team entering the preliminary round of the Euro 1964 qualifiers, but they had already drawn the first leg 1-1 at Hillsborough. They won the return fixture 5-2.
England were hampered by a harsh winter in which conditions were so bad that only four Division One games were played in January. “We hadn’t played for about eight weeks,” the Tottenham full-back Ron Henry, who won his only cap, told Leo McKinstry in his biography of Ramsey. “Ron Springett was in goal and he might as well not have been there because he was frozen and didn’t move.”
Springett had been England’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 1962 World Cup. He was not to retain his status. When allowed to select for himself, Ramsey preferred Gordon Banks. Jimmy Armfield, the captain in Paris, did not impress the new manager with his defensive work, either in Paris or the subsequent defeat to Scotland, and lost his place to George Cohen and his armband to Bobby Moore. Seven of the team in Paris went on to be members of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad, Springett and Armfield among them, but only Moore and Bobby Charlton started the final. England’s two goals in Paris came from two less famous Bobbies, forwards Smith and Tambling, but neither was to form part of Ramsey’s greatest group either.
With the Selection Committee operating in their byzantine ways, England duly lost their second game under Ramsey – 2-1 to Scotland – and, although Blackburn’s Bryan Douglas scored in both matches, did not win the third either, even if a 1-1 draw with World Cup-winners Brazil represented a better result. Ramsey’s first win came in his fourth game, against Czechoslovakia. By remarkable coincidence, it was the first time he chose the team. It was also the first of Moore’s 90 games as captain as he stood in for the injured Armfield. It was the onset of modernity for England, the first sign that, after a false start, glory beckoned.
It was a club record defeat and it could have been a career-ending setback. Instead, it ended up as material for a popular anecdote. Such is the way things go for Harry Redknapp. His years as a manager eventually ended (it seems, anyway) in 2016 after two games in charge of Jordan. They could have been curtailed in December 1982 after one in charge of Bournemouth as a caretaker that ended 9-0. No one, surely, has made a worse start.
When David Webb was sacked, Redknapp, who was earning £90 a week as Webb’s assistant, took over the Division Three club on a temporary basis. Finances were tight – his wife Sandra had gone back to hairdressing, charging £1.50 for a basic cut – and not just for the Redknapp family. Bournemouth’s players only had one type of studs, long rubbers.
They travelled to Sincil Bank, deep in a winter freeze, expecting the game to be called off. According to Redknapp, his Lincoln counterpart Colin Murphy had lit eight fires on the pitch, somehow persuading the referee the pitch was playable. “They came running out in AstroTurf boots and we couldn’t stand up,” Bournemouth’s Phil Brignull told the Guardian in 2007. His teammate Chris Sulley concurred: “The game should never have been played, we were slipping and sliding all over the place - it was a farce.” Typically, though, the most colourful descriptions came from Redknapp, in his book Just Managing: “Our centre-half took two steps out on to the pitch and went arse over tit. The next two followed him. We walked out like Bambi on ice.”
The defenders’ problems were not restricted to their footwear. One goal came courtesy of Bournemouth’s Brignull, who said, “We played fantastically in the first half. We were 1-0 down but I scored an own goal just before half-time – I didn’t hear the keeper shout and I clipped the ball over him.”
Brignull also recalled Redknapp, asked if he had any complaints, joking that the seventh goal was offside. Characteristically, the rookie manager reacted to the situation with humour. Redknapp remembered his lone member of staff, John Kirk, suddenly jumping to his feet when Bournemouth, trailing by eight goals at that stage, won a corner, urging their players to get forward. “‘Get up, get up,’ I echoed. ‘What are we going to do, win nine-fucking-eight? Get back, get back.’”
As with many a Redknapp tale, it makes for a hugely entertaining story even if some of the details don’t stand up to scrutiny. “Lincoln were a very strong team in our league,” Redknapp wrote in Just Managing. “They had John Fashanu and Neil Shipperley up front.” Which, given their lengthy careers in the old Division One and the Premier League, would have made for quite an imposing strike force. Except that Fashanu did not join Lincoln until 1983 and Shipperley was only eight years old in 1982 and did not make his debut in professional football for another decade. Rather than an example of record-breaking precocity, Redknapp may have been thinking of George Shipley, even if Bournemouth’s principal tormentors were Gordon Hobson and Derek Bell, who both scored hat-tricks, and Glenn Cockerill, who struck twice.
That Lincoln team that also included Phil Neale, who captained Worcestershire to victory in cricket’s County Championship in both 1988 and 1989. Perhaps it was still more improbable that the defeated team’s manager would go on to enjoy such a lengthy career, even if it was no surprise that Redknapp, whose third game as caretaker manager was a 5-0 defeat to Leyton Orient, was initially overlooked.
Instead, he would be appointed manager in October 1983 after Don Megson was sacked; it was to prove the start of a successful nine-year spell that, until Eddie Howe’s recent exploits, represented the finest time in Bournemouth’s history. Three months into his tenure, Redknapp’s side knocked the holders Manchester United out of the FA Cup and in 1987 he engineered their maiden promotion to the Second Division. That same year, Lincoln were relegated from the Football League, a few months before Shipperley’s 13th birthday.
Sir Alex Ferguson
Many a path to greatness has gone via Oxford. Rather fewer of them have entailed a 2-0 defeat to a team managed by Maurice Evans. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired as the most successful manager in the history of English domestic football, Oxford United had spent four years in non-league. In November 1986, however, they were Manchester United’s peers – and, arguably, their superiors.
Oxford were the League Cup holders and a 2-0 win over Ferguson’s new charges on 8 November 1986 left them in 10th place and the rather more famous United in 20th, dropping into the relegation zone. It completed an ignominious week on the pitch for a club that had begun the previous season with 10 consecutive league wins. On the Tuesday, United had lost 4-1 at Southampton. On Thursday, Ron Atkinson was sacked and Ferguson was appointed. On Saturday, his side were beaten at the Manor Ground. Ferguson being Ferguson, he went on to outlast the stadium where he suffered his first setback in English football.
His appointment was no surprise, or not to the man he replaced, anyway. Ferguson had been tapped up. Scarred by the sacking of Dave Sexton in 1981, when three potential replacements in Lawrie McMenemy, Bobby Robson and Ron Saunders, then turned them down, United did not make the same mistake. Atkinson believed Ferguson had been approached by Bobby Charlton during the 1986 World Cup, when the Scot was in charge of his country’s team.
Whether or not that was true, he was not fully prepared. By his own admission, he was nervous when first speaking to the players. He addressed the striker Peter Davenport as “Nigel”, confusing him with the Howards’ Way actor. Davenport was nonetheless in Ferguson’s first side; the injured Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside and Jesper Olsen were not.
The first of 1500 United team sheets Ferguson produced subsequently sold for £19,000. It contained the names of Chris Turner, Mike Duxbury, Arthur Albiston, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Graeme Hogg, Clayton Blackmore, Frank Stapleton, Remi Moses, Davenport and Peter Barnes.
They did not make a fine first impression. Nor, perhaps, did Ferguson on them. “I think the manager was surprised that, in English football at the time, your Oxfords, Lutons and Wimbledons could give the likes of United a shock. In fact, I think it shocked him,” Albiston told Patrick Barclay in his book Football – Bloody Hell!
Ferguson began in the directors’ box and ended up sitting next to the bus driver in the cramped dugout at the Manor Ground. A closer view of proceedings confirmed unflattering views.
“I had been depressed by the poor standard of fitness United revealed at Oxford,” Ferguson wrote in Managing My Life. Oxford were the more accomplished side. John Aldridge, then heavily linked with a move to Liverpool, won a penalty when he was tripped by Kevin Moran and converted it himself. Neil Slatter added a second from Kevin Brock’s low cross. United’s came closest when Stapleton hit the bar.
He wasn’t the only one to do that. Ferguson was already aware there was a drinking culture at Old Trafford. Evidence was soon supplied, courtesy of his predecessor. “Less than 48 hours before they were due to play an away match at Oxford, certain members of the squad were doing some serious drinking,” he wrote. “Apparently Ron Atkinson, as outgoing manager, had thrown a farewell party.”
It highlighted the need for a different mentality, one that required different players. United was no quick fix. Of those who featured at Oxford, only Blackmore, a substitute in both games against Crystal Palace, figured in the team that won the FA Cup three and a half years later. It was Ferguson’s first trophy, the first of 38. The man who made his debut at Oxford had cost just £60,000 in compensation. It was to prove the best £60,000 United ever spent.
Few can testify with greater experience about ignominious starts to a managerial reign than Allardyce, the only full-time England coach to leave his post after one game. Yet he also knows that terrible beginnings can lead to something bigger and better.
Go back two decades and Allardyce was a manager making the right sort of name for himself. He had excelled in Ireland with Limerick and almost taken Blackpool to promotion, only to be sacked when he had been expecting to sign a new contract and the owner Owen Oyston was jailed for rape.
Allardyce spent a few months working for his friend Peter Reid at Sunderland. Meanwhile, Notts County sacked their management team of Colin Murphy and Steve Thompson on 23 December 1996. Mark Smith was put in caretaker charge of the third-tier club and, while there were reports that Ray Wilkins, who had been dismissed by QPR, turned down the job, Allardyce was appointed manager in January 1997.
His inheritance was not all bad – he took over a club with a future Champions League winner in the 21-year-old Steve Finnan and an even younger Shaun Derry. His first game came against Gillingham; it could have been his first win. Gary Martindale missed a spot kick, but scored another to put County ahead. That was cancelled out by the Gillingham substitute David Puttnam, who had only been on the pitch for a minute when he scored. It finished 1-1.
County were 22nd, but only four points from safety. Their position was not irretrievable. It soon became so. Within two weeks, Allardyce had been knocked out of both the FA Cup and the Football League Trophy. Gates dipped below 3,000 for February’s home defeat to Bournemouth. They even failed to beat the bottom club Rotherham in March and soon replaced the Millers at the foot of the table.
“I was in for a shock as everything that worked for me at Blackpool didn’t at Notts County,” Allardyce wrote in his autobiography. “The players wouldn’t respond. Whatever I tried, we just couldn’t get a result. Had I got the bullet after that run of results, I might never have got another job.”
The chairman Derek Pavis took it all well, ringing Allardyce at all hours, complaining when he didn’t answer the phone and about the electricity bill if he left a light on. Crucially, however, he did not sack his fifth manager in three years.
A club record run of 20 matches without a win, 15 under Allardyce, was ended when Craig Dudley and Matt Redmile scored in a 2-1 victory over York. It delayed Allardyce’s only relegation as a manager for a further seven days. County eventually went down, 17 points from safety. Yet a year later they won Division Three by the same margin, becoming the first team since World War II to clinch promotion in March. Allardyce had changed formation to play with a back three, which proved a spectacular success and provided Allardyce with a springboard to the Bolton job.
Officially, Arsène Wenger made a winning start as Arsenal manager. According to the record books, his first game in charge was a 2-0 win at Blackburn, secured by Ian Wright, who scored twice. Yet Wenger’s first intervention was less positive. There is a saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression; Wenger’s on his new charges was negative, compounded by the widespread bewilderment he had been appointed at all.
He was, in Lee Dixon’s words, “a tall, slightly built man who gave absolutely no impression of being a football manager.” Nick Hornby, with his capacity to voice the feelings of the supporters, wrote, “When Bruce Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names. It was [Terry] Venables, [Johan] Cruyff and, at the end, Arsène Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan, ‘I bet it’s fucking Arsène Wenger… Trust Arsenal to appoint the one you haven’t heard of.’”
So who was Arsène Wenger? A few minutes in a German dressing-room hardly provided the right sort of answers. Wenger contrived to irritate his already irritable captain, to contribute to Arsenal’s European exit and to suggest he would meddle where he was not wanted. Arriving to a climate of scepticism, it was not a helpful start.
Arsenal had lost 3-2 to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the first leg of their Uefa Cup tie. The second was being played in Cologne. Arsenal, under the auspices of caretaker Pat Rice, went a further goal down before a predatory strike from Wright just before the interval.
Enter Wenger. “I was not in charge but to my guilt I intervened at half-time,” he admitted in 2011. While Arsenal’s back four acquired fame under George Graham, the reality was that Rioch preferred to field three centre-backs – indeed, with Martin Keown deputising for the absent Dixon, there were actually four in the side against Gladbach. But Wenger favoured a back four. Arsenal changed shape straight away. They briefly profited – Paul Merson drawing them level on aggregate, though still behind on away goals, with a long-range shot – before it unravelled. The classy Stefan Effenberg restored Borussia’s advantage. Arsenal were finished off by the Pole Andrzej Juskowiak on the counter-attack.
Tony Adams was upset. “The decision he took at half-time surprised me and the way he did it annoyed me as well,” he said, quoted in Xavier Rivoire’s biography of Wenger. “When I saw him go into the changing rooms and take control of the team, I couldn’t believe it. I suppose the board of directors wanted him to get stuck in as soon as possible. I wanted to win this Uefa Cup tie the way we had planned in the build-up and suddenly this guy who hadn’t been at the club two minutes arrives, this French guy, and switches to 4-4-2? I said to myself: ‘What the hell is all this? We’re more than capable of playing with three at the back?’ He changed the system and we ended up losing.”
And, as Adams put it in his autobiography, “I was not best pleased at being pulled off in the second half.” He was presumably no happier that his replacement was Glenn Helder. Having announced to his teammates only weeks earlier that he was an alcoholic – earning a round of applause from all bar Patrick Vieira and Rémi Garde, who did not understand what he said – Adams’s emotions were understandably volatile. He was not used to Wenger. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher,” he thought. “He’s not going to be as good as George.”
To his immense credit, Adams proved more open-minded than that. At the time, however, he yelled at the caretaker manager Rice after the game, while recognising that it was not his fault. Wenger scarcely helped his cause by saying nothing.
The post-match duties fell Rice’s way. Left to explain another’s decisions, he admitted that Wenger had come into the dressing-room at half-time to suggest “one or two” changes. “One of them was to go to a back four and add extra width to the attack, and of course I took his advice,” he said.
In those respects, it proved a sign of things to come. A preference for a back four has been a constant throughout Wenger’s two decades at Arsenal. He has tended to eschew conventional wingers while wanting width in forward positions. Yet a manager who has been criticised in recent years for being too passive and too reluctant to effect significant changes executed them with a side who were a group of strangers.
Perhaps it provided a lesson that there was a danger in changing too much, too soon. While Wenger implemented his broccoli revolution off the field, he opted for evolution on it. A forthright Adams told him he had made a mistake in altering Arsenal’s defensive structure when he did and he stuck with Rioch’s back three for the remainder of the 1996-97 season. And then Wenger got his way, switched to 4-4-2 and won the double.
It was a debut that, in some respects, was not a debut. Gérard Houllier’s first game as Liverpool manager was a 2-1 win over Southampton in August 1998. Michael Owen continued his scintillating form from the World Cup with a fine winner, Liverpool took 10 points from their first four games and topped the table.
The new era had begun brilliantly. Except it was a false dawn and the idea that Houllier and Roy Evans would be co-managers quickly unravelled. Traditionalist insider and modernising outsider, Brit and Frenchman, easy-going players’ friend and strict disciplinarian, they proved opposites did not always attract.
The uneasy compromise ended when Evans resigned in November, following a 3-1 League Cup defeat to Tottenham. Houllier took sole charge at Anfield four days later. Leeds were the opponents. The scoreline was the same.
Robbie Fowler put Liverpool ahead from the penalty spot after Nigel Martyn flattened Karl-Heinz Riedle with a challenge that seemed inspired by Harald Schumacher’s 1982 assault on Patrick Battiston. The Leeds midfielder David Hopkin nonetheless had the gall to complain about the award of a spot kick.
The referee Dermot Gallagher succeeded in pleasing no one and Houllier felt there were fouls in the build-up to Leeds’ first two goals. The equaliser came from the debutant substitute Alan Smith before Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink struck twice.
Liverpool’s third consecutive defeat underlined their malaise. In a damningly perceptive report in the Independent, Guy Hodgson said Liverpool “gave the impression of a team so fragile they shatter at the slightest knock… everyone in the Premiership knows a high ball into the area will have Liverpool flapping and while they persist in playing full-backs who are defensively suspect, they are unlikely to stop that danger at source even if they unearth a commanding centre-back. Their central midfield, Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp, simply ran out of fuel… Ince, ‘the Guvnor’, is declining at an alarming rate… he barely won a 50-50 challenge.”
Long before a namesake acquired unpopularity at Anfield, this particular Hodgson proved particularly prescient. Ince was exiled the following summer, stripped of the captaincy and sold to Middlesbrough. Houllier had already invited an 18-year-old Steven Gerrard to start training with the senior team and gave him his debut later that month. Without the cockney nickname, Gerrard was to become Liverpool’s true Guvnor. Houllier’s reign began and ended with central midfielders wearing the captain’s armband.
Gerrard actually took it from the commanding centre-back Houllier did unearth, Sami Hyypiä. Meanwhile, Jamie Carragher, who had been in the middle of the defence Leeds penetrated three times, was reinvented as the most solid of defensively minded full-backs. The Norwegian pair of Stig Inge Bjørnebye and Vegard Heggem were not Houllier’s sort of players.
Few of those who failed against Leeds were. Not even the scorer of the first goal of Houllier’s reign and the man known to the Anfield crowd as “God”. Of the men Houllier fielded on 14 November 1998, only Jamie Carragher went on to start the 2001 FA and Uefa Cup finals, although two others, Patrik Berger and Fowler, came off the bench in both. The striker felt the clear-out was no coincidence; most of the senior players were labelled Evans loyalists during the unhappy alliance.
“There was a lot of suspicion of him amongst the players then, a distrust that never abated,” Fowler wrote in his autobiography. “Houllier cleaned out the squad he inherited from Roy Evans so comprehensively you have to wonder if he did it because he knew he’d lost the players when Evans was undermined in the few months they worked together.”
The alternative explanation is that the Leeds defeat proved ultimately beneficial, that it illustrated flaws that Houllier identified and addressed. From the victory in joint charge that suggested a harmonious brilliance to the loss that indicated he would struggle alone, his first impressions were doubly deceptive.
Steve McClaren’s reign at Middlesbrough began as it ended, with a 4-0 defeat. It is a matter for debate, given the size of his transfer budget and the wage bill, to what extent he really succeeded in between, although it was enough to get him the England job, secure the only major trophy in Boro’s 140-year history, the 2004 League Cup, and take them to their only European final, in the 2006 Uefa Cup.
And if there were distinct similarities between McClaren’s debut against Arsenal and his farewell against Sevilla which both contained three late goals, at least the latter came with concrete achievements to his name and another job already secured. The former came when McClaren had rejected offers from West Ham and Southampton to head to the north-east, heeding Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice to pick the club with the best chairman. “The most important relationship in a football club is between the manager and the chairman; that I could have that relationship with Steve Gibson was the icing on the cake,” said McClaren. There was a theory at the time that he merited much of the credit for Manchester United’s 1999 treble. There was genuine anticipation about how he would fare.
Hed was young, full of ideas and different. He appointed a sports psychologist, Bill Beswick, as his assistant. He called the players into a room which he had put one word on the wall in big black capitals: SACRIFICE. “We were all muttering and looking at each other,” wrote Dean Windass in his autobiography. “What the fuck’s that all about?”
Perhaps Middlesbrough was not the ideal laboratory for McClaren’s experiment. They contained a typical blend of solid professionals, in the mould of Robbie Mustoe, declining big names, like Paul Ince, and glamorous imports lured by the money, such as Alen Bokšić. “The best-paid guy at the club happened to be the least committed,” noted Gareth Southgate, an early McClaren signing, in Woody & Nord. Perhaps it did not help, either, that McClaren made the familiar mistake of assuming those not good enough to make United’s team would star in someone else’s and duly bought Jonathan Greening and Mark Wilson.
It amounted to a mish-mash of a team, with a new manager making idealistic attempts to change too much, too soon. Terry Venables had kept Boro up the previous season, aided by clean sheets and a propensity to grind out results. McClaren wanted a more expansive game-plan. He faced Arsenal, arguably entering their – and Thierry Henry’s – peak.
He had a shot cleared off the line in the first minute and went on to break the deadlock. “The biggest surprise of the afternoon was that it had taken Arsenal 42 minutes to break through a porous Boro,” wrote John Richardson in the Sunday Express. Windass went further in his criticism, writing in his autobiography: “It was a total nightmare. We got absolutely battered 4-0 and they could have scored 10.”
This was all the more damning as they faced 10 men after Ray Parlour was sent off six minutes into the second half. Instead, Robert Pirès added a penalty, sandwiched by a brace from the substitute Dennis Bergkamp while Ugo Ehiogu evened the numbers when he was shown a red card.
The centre-back’s day got worse. ITV had acquired the highlights for the Premiership, as it was then known, and their great innovation comprised of a vehicle that acquired infamy: Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck. Ehiogu had been beaten 4-0 and sent off, but as a former Aston Villa teammate of Townsend, the defender was roped in for a couple of minutes of excruciating attempts at analysis.
Elsewhere and undaunted, McClaren promptly targeted six points from their next two games, against Bolton and Everton. Boro got none. They belatedly scored their first goal of the season in their fourth game, a Tees-Tyne derby, but conceded four to prop up the table. Boro’s subsequent renaissance owed something to the adoption of a more pragmatic game-plan. The 33-year-old target man Brian Deane helped secure McClaren’s his first win.