• An older and wiser McClaren has transformed the club
• Former England manager has learnt to be more patient
Steve McClaren smiled when it was suggested that he probably needed Derby County as much as Derby County needed him. "I think that's a good way of putting it," the former England manager said. "I felt that walking through the door the first day. I know this club, I know this town. You come back and in the first couple of hours I knew it was a good fit."
McClaren, whose high-flying Derby side host Chelsea in the FA Cup third round on Sunday, looks totally at home at his former club. He spent three years with Derby as a player, between 1985-1988, and returned to the club in 1995 as Jim Smith's assistant, when he was carving out a reputation as one of the brightest young coaches in English football.
It has been a wild ride ever since, taking in everything from that chastening defeat by Croatia at Wembley, when England failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championship, to the success he enjoyed with Twente in the Netherlands three years later, when he led the club to their first Dutch title. Throw in his time as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, the five years he spent as Middlesbrough manager, a brief stint with Wolfsburg, 112 days in charge of Nottingham Forest, a second spell with Twente and, more recently, his appointment as the Queens Park Rangers first-team coach, and McClaren has one of the more colourful CVs on the circuit.
In the end, though, everything always seems to come back to his time with England, the night of the umbrella and the job that he describes as "the best in the world" but accepts he was not equipped to handle at that stage of his career. "It was too early but I couldn't turn it down," McClaren said. "I'm a better manager now, not just for that experience but for the experiences I've had with Manchester United, Middlesbrough and then moving abroad.
"There have been crazy years, mad years, great years, very disappointing years, real lows, and I've probably reached a stage now where I should be using the experience I've gained. I did talk about that after leaving Holland last year and said that with the next challenge I wanted the fit to be right and the ownership to be right. I couldn't believe my luck when this job came up and I got the call."
Derby are also counting their blessings. The turnaround since McClaren replaced Nigel Clough at the end of September has been remarkable. Derby were 14th in the table, with 11 points from nine fixtures, when Clough was sacked. They have won 10, drawn three and lost two of their next 15 matches, taking 25 points out of a possible 27 before a 1-0 defeat by Wigan on New Year's Day.
"When you go from 14th to fourth, the players are doing something right," McClaren said. "What we are trying to set out to do here is something a little bit like the Swansea, Norwich and Southampton model – clubs that have come up playing football the right way. I thought the players were already here, and my philosophy fits like a glove with them."
Not that he is getting carried away. "I've got to probably be a little bit more patient now than I have been in the past. I think that's difficult for me, difficult for anybody in football, but patience is certainly something we've talked about at Derby County," McClaren said. "We want to build an infrastructure, so that when we get into the Premier League we can sustain it. Sometimes you are a little bit over ambitious and you are impatient, and in the past that has been my downfall in a couple of places and I don't want that to happen here."
Older and wiser, McClaren has also learned not to waste any energy worrying about how he is perceived by the wider public. "It's probably something that a few years ago would bother me, but I don't think it does now," said the 52-year-old, when asked whether he feels he is getting recognition for the job he has done at Derby. "The main concern for me now is being respected for what I do within the football world, and that's all I'm trying to do really.
"I made a lot of mistakes at Forest, I went away again – it's a little bit like José coming back to Chelsea, it's interesting watching the parallel in that respect. I remember going back to Holland and obviously it was 19 months to two years on and the team had changed but they still talked about the championship-winning team for a year.
"You were forever batting that away. It was a new team and everyone was wondering why this team wasn't doing as well as the old team. I watch Chelsea now and I see the same questions and the same kind of things are happening to José [Mourinho] at Chelsea. That's why you need that patience."
It is, however, a rare commodity in football management, as McClaren knows all too well. "When you are in it you think you are mad, when you are out of it you want to get back into that mad world," he said. "But, for me, it's all about coming back here and putting my experience into Derby County to get them back into the Premier League, which is where I think a club of this stature should be."