Luck Of The Bore? McClaren, Boro And Karma

YOU JAMMY nowt! That was the collective laugh of recognition on Teesside as Israel got a last gasp winner and Brian Barwick slammed the draw with Steve McClaren’s P45 in it. A Russian shot that could have dumped England out of Euro 2008 and ended his unpopular reign hit the post at one end – then Israel went straight up the other end to score and give Mac a helping hand to climb off the hook. For now.
The pundits, especially those frustrated that they had wasted so much time writing their unused vitriolic obituaries on England’s Dead Man Walking, immediately pronounced McClaren The Luckiest Manager Ever in tones that were a poisonous mixture of begrudged delight at keeping their holiday plans open for next Summer and thinly veiled contempt that it should come down to second hand fortune, a conclusion and a cocktail that many supporters will echo
Especially on Teesside where the heated debate on just exactly how spawny Steve McClaren has been in recent years is an old bone of contention.


In fact, for a while at the height of the Great Anti-McClaren Insurgency, the crucial role of “luckâ€? in football became a key focus of the ideological battle with eager partisans deploying pseudo-scientific formulas, statistics or subjective evidence of incredible fortune in a bid to prove once for all that he was either a jammy tactician and Boro’s best ever boss who happened to have poor PR or just a spawny bloke with shiny gnashers and a nice line in Houdini moments.
There were even quotes from Napoleon about ‘lucky generals being better than good ones’ being bandied about as well as chaos theory, particularly useful in explaining how some key selection dilemmas were resolved.
The notion that McClaren was just “lucky” was advanced by non-plussed Macophobes as a way of explaining what was a spectacular period of unprecedented success happening while their bete noir was in the hot-seat. They insisted he was a poor tactician, a weak motivator, a terrible man-manager, an awful judge of a player and the anti-Christ of customer relations yet somehow had to square the circle with the undeniable concrete glory of silverware and Europe: hence the entire project was ascribed to just a freak string of fortuitous random outcomes. Even professional pundits like Chris Kamara have repeated that line and extended it to England.
But that is woefully light on insight and analysis and reduces the mechanics of the managerial circus – team selection, purchasing, mental and physical preparation, tactics, organisation and motivation – to mere chance, which is just crazy. And even if people did think he was just lucky surely the bandwagon then should have been to get him to stay.
We know some aspects of the game are “a lottery” – the toss, penalty shoot-outs and how the balls come out of the bag during cup draws for instance – but the onus on bringing success must rest on the players and the bloke who has to get the best out of them or there is no point in investing in personnel and training facilities.
In fact, dipping into the big bag of football cliches again, we know that “you make your own luck in this game.” The perception of luck is directly related to league position and results. In a widely reported survey earlier this season gloomy and fatalistic Boro fans believed that the club was not just unlucky but ‘cursed’. They also felt that Manchester United was the luckiest club. So there you go Fergie, you haven’t got the best players and a trophy mountain because of 15 years of sustained spending and determined shrewd stewardship… you’ve just fluked it.
That so many Boro fans believe the club is unlucky is strange, especially as similarly large numbers also argue the former boss’s main quality was his good fortune. It is as if the entire envelope of McClarenism was sustained by a period of karmic tension between these contradictory forces of good and evil.
There is no doubt that there were flashes of great fortune, that is some random events with various possible outcomes beyond control that on a string of occasions fell kindly for us – a rebound here, a deflection there, the odd refereeing decision – during McClaren’s Boro tenure, including at pivotal points in some of the most emotionally charged moments in the club’s history.
In Boro’s glorious Carling Cup win at Cardiff in 2004 for instance, success came via a twice touched penalty that was possibly technically illegal but went unseen by anyone bar eagle eyed Fat Sam, and there was also a clear handball by Ugo Ehiogu late on that seven or eight times out of ten would be given as a spot-kick. Even getting to the Millenium Stadium involved good fortune as Boro won penalty shoot-outs against Spurs and Everton and then faced a weak Arsenal side in the semi with the big guns being rested.
There were moments too when Mac came up smelling of roses after injuries forced his tactical hand: play-maker Mendieta got injured leaving the boss to move awkward winger Bolo Zenden inside and fledgling flanker Stewart Downing onto the left leading to a run that took Boro to a highest ever Premiership finish and a European qualification.
And en route to Eindhoven there were some outrageous rubs of the green too: a Hasselbaink dive for a penalty against Roma, the best player on the pitch and one man defensive wall being sent off for Basel helped while the gung-ho playground piling forward in both that game and the Steaua semi were desperate last throws of the dice.
And yet… and yet, if McClaren WAS just “luckyâ€? why did it so often go wrong for Boro at crucial moments? Is it lucky to lose key players – Juninho, Mendieta, Downing, Viduka, Schwarzer – at watershed moments? If he was just lucky how did Boro lose that FA Cup semi-final to a poor West Ham team and get their keeper crocked just before the UEFA Cup final to boot? That was a game tailor-made for a spawny get to win with a stoppage time own goal against the balance of play and cement his position as best boss ever and book a third successive year in Europe.
If he was really lucky wouldn’t we have been given that stonewall penalty in that UEFA Cup final against Sevilla in Eindhoven, and wouldn’t Viduka’s effort gone flying in rather than hitting the keeper meaning Boro didn’t have to chase the game and then be cruelly exposed? If he truly lived up to his ‘lucky’ billing Sevilla would have stuttered, had injuries, missed their chances and we would have won. Boro would be a world power now.
Plus, if you accept that Boro’s ‘golden age’ rests on the personal karma of McClaren then it follows that the current malaise is more down to Gareth Southgate having an aura of ill-fortune rather than the squad being smaller, weaker and less balanced or because the football philosophy is being changed on the hoof without all the neccessary personnel being in place.
That said, the black cat that crossed Mac’s path must have splashed him with the distilled essence of rabbit’s foot and four leaf clover the day the FA opted to give him the job. Big Phil withdrew and Big Sam was left under a cloud by the Panorama ‘bung’ probe leaving Mac – still reeling from dodging the Red Book throwing incident and deep in a relegation battle – as the only real candidate for the job. Now that really was a jammy break.
There is actually quite a body of academic work building up over the nature of ‘luck’ and quite a bit on the role of fortune in football management. The lucky few are said to be skilled at noticing opportunities, make decisions based on intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and have a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
That to me seems the opposite of the received opinion of McClaren, a boss whose critics say failed to notice obvious opportunities, stifled intuition in favour of caution and frequently talked down high hopes and expectations.
Comprehensive research at into the role of luck in sports management (US gridiron as well as top level international football) has defined the recipe for success thus:
L – Long term strategy
U – Understanding players
C – Communication skills
K – Knowledge of the game
I – Innovative
E – Experience
R – Recognising talent
Yet that wish list of managerial skills seems to be the very opposite of luck too. In fact, it seems the recipe for a conscious, solid, broad-based multi-disciplined approach that seeks to leave as little to chance as possible. There is no suggestion there of teams picked on the basis of pin-sticking or just relying on the bounce of the ball.
And besides, most of those who insist that McClaren was ‘just lucky’ would probably equally vehemently argue he does not even possess basic ingredients L,U,C,I or R anyway.
For me, ascribing results or trends in football to chance is a cop out and informed more by a subjective assessment of the boss than by any analysis. In fact, it is a deliberate refusal of analysis in favour of prejudice and super-natural mumbo-jumbo.
Football results are determined primarily by the skill of individuals and the organisation, preparation and motivation of teams, not intangible forces acting to shape the outcome of random events to suit a particular individual’s pre-disposition to get a favourable bounce.
Yes, there are times when those moments of chance happen – but good teams overcome them with their ability to shape their own destiny. If you are a successful team luck doesn’t even get a mention, it is only when you fail and people are looking for excuses that it rears its head.
Was Mac lucky that Israel won? Only if you believe the result is in some way related to his fate rather to the fact that Israeli have lost only twice in 25 home games and that Russia are poor travellers with a long history of bottling the big games that dwarves England. And if you think it IS because Mac is fated then get your money on now for England to win the European Championships. You might just be lucky too.

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26 thoughts on “Luck Of The Bore? McClaren, Boro And Karma

  1. That was some article AV – I had to read it twice just to understand it.
    I think the problem with football is that it’s not an exact science and the margin for error in any given circumstance will give different outcomes each time they occur.
    So when you hit the post that is deemed unlucky for the attacker and lucky for the goalkeeper – so the easier the chance the luckier the defending team was.
    McClaren only appears lucky because many people are hoping he fails – but statistically Israel had only a 1 in 12 chance of losing the game.
    Also McClaren tempts fate by making bold statements such as “It’ll go down to the Croatia gameâ€? – Since the doom mongers in the national press disagreed it also made him appear luckier when it happened.
    All I can say is that Boro were lucky that England saw him as the man to succeed Sven.

  2. I listened to Mac on the news yesterday talking about England playing high tempo attacking football against Croatia.
    Then today I read about England playing with a lone striker and a 5 man midfield.
    This sounds more like Mac’s tactics and is made worse by probably including Beckham.
    England will go through but have no chance of winning the Euro’s with Mac in charge.
    On to more important matters and yet another no mark striker is linked with the Boro
    North-east neighbours Middlesbrough and Sunderland are battling over £2m-rated Macedonia striker Ilco Naumoski who plays his club football in Austria for SV Mattesburg.
    I hope most of these players been linked with Boro are just stories made up by the press.
    It would be nice to see Boro linked to players like Riqeulme instead of second raters, however Lambs words of the team we deserve may finally becoming to fruition.
    Next seasons derbies are likely to be against Hull and Leeds.

  3. Vic,
    I don’t believe in luck in any way, shape or form, but I must admit you make it sound like Stevey boy he is blessed with something.
    Personally I think any occurrance can be traced back to a sequence of events, no matter whether it is in sport or everyday life. We can all look back at instances in our own lives and attach facts and figures to make it look surreal or spooky.
    No, I think in McClaren’s case it could be that he has actually learned from his experiences at ManU and Boro, and that maybe he IS starting to realise his potential, a potential that has been heralded by Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Gibson alike.
    He MAY turn out to be the best England coach since Sir Alf if he is allowed to continue his tenure amid the clamour from some areas of the press and public to have him hung, drawn and quartered.
    Maybe he would have been our best ever coach/manager and took us onto great things, we’ll never know??
    But one thing is sure, Steve McClaren will take all that is thrown at him and come back for more, because if nothing else he is supremely confident in his own abilities, whether we the fans or the media agree or not. He doesn’t care if he isn’t liked or if he’s seen as arrogant.
    If England do go onto win the European Championship it will be down to his tactics, formations and team selections and whatever the the players produce on the park, and nothing else.
    The same as it was for Sven, Venables and everyone else before them.

  4. I think that you tend to get the luck you deserve. It doesnt mean that luck has no part to play, if you have a little bit more luck than the teams around you in the league you may sneak a Uefa Cup spot or escape relegation.
    ManU get more penalties because they are in the opponents box more than anyone else. Not many penalties are given at against ManU, Lpool, Chelsea, Arsenal at home because the opposition team dont spend enough time in the box.
    Are we unluckier with injuries? My gripe has been how come we seem to misdiagnose or treat injuries.
    And is Mac a good manager? Dont think so but I do believe he appears to be technically a good coach who may well grow into being a manager.
    He is a number two who needs someone to direct his activities, to control his tinkering, to make tactical changes, to stop him being a control freak, to stop playing by numbers.
    And I wont go into the realms of dealing with the press and man management. That is why he did well under Jim Smith and Fergie.

  5. “the more I practice the luckier I get”
    It’s the norm to put down others’ successes down to luck but put your own down to skill and judgement. That’s what we have here.
    A lot of people simply hate McClaren and all his works and so are just not capable of admitting that sometimes he got/gets it right so when something comes off they immediately look for an explanation that is based on anything other than the possibility it was him.
    We had it all the time he was here. If Boro won, it was down to the players going against tactical instructions. When Boro lost he was single-handedly to blame for tactical ineptitude.
    Same with signings. The bad ones showed he was a poor judge of a player and couldn’t get the best out of them. The good ones, well they were down to Gibbo.
    I can’t see how anyone can think of McClaren as lucky. Everyone hates him. Boro fans had a downer on him from day one and in the England job the poison pens have been ready to stab him in the back since before day one.
    Vilified and ridiculed in the national press for trying to make the best out of under-motivated prima donnas, constantly one game away from the sack… how lucky is that?

  6. I always thought we had a better chance than russia of qualifying. Russia never travel well and benefitted from the plastic pitch against england. They didnt look that great at Wembley.
    Then i knew that going to the last game croatia would already be through and probably that will help england.
    Wish i put that bet on now.

  7. Mac was always the luckiest get in Europe, that was his big strength.
    He was lucky to get the gig at Man U just before the treble so he could claim a bit of the glory.
    He was lucky to come to Boro where he had the best chairman in football, lucky to take over after Robbo where expectations were so low and he had time, lucky that injuries forced the changes we all knew needed to be made, lucky that Gibbo stood by Stewy and made Mac keep a player he was trying to sell, lucky to get the easiest ever Carling Cup semi, lucky that Swarzter went the right way to save the penalty and get us in Europe despite his best efforts to throw it away, lucky in Europe when he played crazy, crazy sunday league attacking football that came off twice.
    Even when he left he was lucky. Boro in relegation trouble, turned over by West Ham and then battered by Sevilla when he was tactically exposed… and he still gets he England job. Proper spawny.

  8. If you think about it, managing the england international team is the ultimate exercise in futility.
    The team rarely trains or plays together, and unlike teams in the premier league, the model of success through foreign superstars is not an option.
    Also one bad result or performance doesn’t last a week but can haunt you for several months until your next game.
    Only if you win the World Cup or European Championships will you be regarded as anything but useless.
    So do you feel lucky Mr McClaren?

  9. It was me ,dressed in a gown of owl feathers who sent the extra sensory messages to ste mac about Heskey and Barry.
    Now I am transmitting the message 4,2,1,3… very attacking with 2 holding midfielders Barry and Hargreaves, Lampard advaced pulling the strings in the position he plays at Chelsea and 3 front men who are all young and fearless and in top form for their clubs!
    Wes Brown at man U does things simply and well and is underestimated so he should play before Lescot who is good at scoring for the toffee’s but not at Defendimg at international level.
    Carson
    Richards,Brown,SOL, Bridge
    Hargreaves Barry
    Lampard
    Walcott Agbonalahor Ashley young
    We would have a strong bench too who could replace these player in these positions or revert to a more usual formation if this one is not working.
    Crouch or Bent for Agbonalahor, Wright Philips or Lennon for Walcot, Joe cole or even Stewie D for A.Young,
    Beckham or Gerrard for Lampard, Gerrard for Hargreaves or Barry[ I wouldn’t take Barry off unless he is injured]
    Shorey for Bridge, P.Neville interchangable with the rest of the defence if we get an injury.
    My real point for Wednesday is although we only need a draw an attacking mentality should be adopted from the off as it can be difficult to conjure up after a scrappy midfield bun fight where Croatia break through with a goal [ remind you of anyone]
    Alright the Croat coach wrestles topless with bears while drinking a barrel full of raw eggs but this is Wembley my freinds, Lets have it!

  10. hey you cant kill off the idea of luck or we boro fans have got nothing to cling to. how else can we explain a 130 years of mediocrity if it is not because lambie’s great granddad gave the bums rush to the Ayresome Park gypsies to earn us a curse?
    i agree that maclaren cant have been that lucky or we’d of won the eufa cup final.

  11. I hope Mac is lucky on Wednesday though I have two fears.
    The first is the one Ignorant highlighted of going out cautiously and going 1-0 down. As he so rightly says we have enough experience of that one.
    The other is going 1-0 up then bringing on Neville for an attacking player with 30 mins to go and everything going belly up. 2-1 down with 15 mins to go then a brave but unsuccessful cavalry charge.

  12. We can only hope England fluke a draw against Croatia and keep MacLaren in a job as I can think of only 1 chairman daft enough to give him a job after the inevitable sacking if England lose.

  13. I don’t remember anyone saying that Robbo was just unlucky on the way home from Wembley so I dont understand this myth about McNegative being lucky either. There are plenty of good real reasons to slate him without resorting to superstitious twaddle.
    As for luck, I don’t care if a manager has his lucky shreddies on or not, I just care about results and if it helps him think he can get them, fair enough.

  14. Anthony,
    McClaren is lucky in that he doesn’t have the talent or judgement to manage at the level he has done (Boro or England).
    His ‘success’ if you can call it that, is down to his personality traits which suit a corporate environment. He bases his decisons on the support he will get from the larger audience hence his infatuation with Steven Gerrard.
    He has no ideas or views of his own that he’s willing to be judged on, he speaks in cliches and he’s a chameleon. He has one eye on the tabloids, and thinks he can talk his way out of sticky situations.
    He’s as charismatic as a jellyfish. In personality type he’s the exact opposite of the ‘Jose the Great’.
    McClaren has his scapegoats already tethered e.g. Downing, Beckham,Campbell and James (incidentally everyone of those should be in the lineup tomorrow)
    The termination of James’s, Beckham’s and Campbells careers was a good example of his posturing and playing to the crowd. He lacks belief and courage and will be satisfied with simply being able to say he “had a crack at the toughest job in football”.
    He’s a fine example of what happens when you compromise and settle for someone who won’t make any waves, someone who suits the corporate environment.
    He believes he can distract attention and gain approval by employing the latest fad’s (psychologist, prozone, fitness guru’s, PR managers)
    A good manager is a great judge of skill and balance, a psychologist, morally sound (i.e.honest with his players), ethical, trustworthy.
    In short someone with gravitas, standing, charisma, humour and judgement like Arsene and Jose.
    How the hell did that lucky swine ever get into management ? It’s a sign of the times.

  15. luck has nothing to do with it…… However I am keeping my fingers crossed for wedensday night, and the rabbits foot is in my pocket, next to my four leaf clover and the horseshoe is on the door the right way up…….

  16. I am gonna borrow Ignorant’s Mystic Owl Gown and convince Gibbo that I am the new manager before getting him to cough up the rest of that TV money for Agbonlahor-Villa and Matt Derbishire-Blackburn.
    Aliadierre can go right wing, Tuncay can play attacking midfeild or in the hole and DONG GOOK can try and remember the man he was before he came to Boro in the reserves!
    Then we would maybe have got close to what we had with VID and YAK and a more rounded squad.
    If everyone thinks the two words ‘OWL GOWN ‘ together then Gibbo’s and Gate’s minds ,like a Geller spoon will bend.
    Its either that or buy Ameobi [ameba] and play the theme from steptoe and son if he scores.
    Goodnight Vienna

  17. I think McLaren is lucky, but as you rightly point out, what is luck anyway?
    A great post though, Vic. Made for very good reading. Keep up the good work.

  18. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable”, words which are systematic of all the nay-sayers when they’re forced to explain, why on earth did that happen?
    People will always highlight certain moments in an often dull day as ridculous lucky. I harp back to the Champions League final where Liverpool came back from the dead to beat AC Milan on penalties, or Boro’s crazy wins over Basle and Steau.
    I rarely believe it’s down to the manager– he/she just picks the team and then gets a free seat– then the football gremlins takeover.

  19. I have to disagree about Ehiogu’s supposed handball at Cardiff. One of the clearest cases of ball to hand I’ve ever seen. Ugo does move to block the shot, but with his foot. At no point did his arm move towards the ball.
    If Mac is lucky as some say, what about the semi final against Arsenal in 2002? Boro bossed the game only to lose via a freak own goal. What about the semi against West Ham in 2006? Schwarzer clattered by Ashton. Harewood elbowed Southgate but stayed on to get the winner, then Riggott misses a sitter in the last minute.
    I never hear anyone say Benitez is a lucky manager. Liverpool won the European Cup semi v Chelsea thanks to a goal that wasn’t over the line. In the final, they looked dead and buried at 3-0 down and Shevchenko missed a sitter. The same striker took an abysmal sudden death penalty in the shoot-out.
    I’ve always believed that lucky evens itself out in due course.
    **AV writes: With Ugo the point is not whether it was handball or not, the point is that it wasn’t given when it could so quite easily have been. You’ve seen them given hundreds of times (Boateng against Man U last season?)
    And yes, I’d forgotten about Festa’s Shin… so was Mac lucky then? No. Luck is in the mind of the beholder.

  20. I suppose it is good luck that the season ticket that was hurled at him missed but luckily, somehow, created a watershed moment that season in terms performances – or was that when lucklily for MFC that Gareth became manager by proxy that day?

  21. This time tomorrow we will know whether to stock up the fridge with tins for next summer.
    We should get a point at least from the match and that will leave us free to worry about the league. Whether we need luck or not is a different matter.

  22. Normally I would be anxious in the run up to an Aston Villa game but this time I am a lot more optimistic.
    Celtic being my ‘second’ team I was very keen on Martin O’Neil and disappointed when Martin chose Villa rather than the Boro. However looking at his purchases – Harewood, Carew, and worst of all Zat Knight I’m not so sure about his judgment. He can motivate for sure but I think his team is less daunting than normal.
    I’m thinking of doubling up on Gary O’Neil this week £40 at 20/1 !
    **AV writes: £40 on first scorer? Are you mad? Is it to test the true nature of luck?

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