Football: I've got sympathy for McClaren the man... but not for Mac the manager.
I HAVE some sympathy for Steve McClaren. Only a man with ice, or lager, in his veins could not.
I have some sympathy for him because I was in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona last Wednesday night so I know some of what he suffered.
I have some sympathy for him because he is a good man who cares deeply about his job and is doing the best he can.
I have some sympathy for him because he inherited a side that was on a downward trajectory when he took over.
It angers me when I see him criticised for trying to win over journalists by talking to them or, horror of horrors, texting them.
Sometimes, those of us in the press are our own worst enemies. We kill someone when they try to communicate with us and we kill them when they keep us at arm's length.
Some of my colleagues, I know, have never forgiven McClaren for dropping in to have a cup of tea with a few of us at a bar in Baden Baden during the World Cup. I understand their instincts but it wasn't as if McClaren gave away any secrets. I can't even remember 90 per cent of what he said.
He was just being social. Woe betide him for being spontaneous. Some people reacted as if he had told us the location of the Holy Grail that day and ordered us to keep it from them.
What I'm trying to say is that I have sympathy for McClaren the man. I'm afraid, though, I have very little for McClaren the manager.
Some seem to be confusing their disgust at his treatment in Barcelona with the idea that the guy suddenly became a good England manager when he got jeered by a few thugs in the Olympic Stadium.
Are we supposed to suspend our judgment and change our mind about McClaren's ability to take England forward because a fat man with a bald head and a swastika on his forearm stood up and shouted at him?
The last refuge of those who seem determined to support him no matter how badly England play is the notion that to criticise him equals an alliance with the Neanderthals in the stands in Barcelona.
What makes me laugh most of all is the idea that somehow McClaren turned a corner last Wednesday because England beat Andorra 3-0. Everything's going to be OK now, folks, because the manager inspired his men to a mighty secondhalf rally against a ski resort. Panic's over boys because the manager just walked out of a press conference after 115 seconds and ducked all the tough questions. Shows you he's got real balls after all.
Oh, please. Okay, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and several others showed guts in difficult circumstances but let's not get carried away.
If there's one last surviving truth in the newly uncertain world of international football, it's that you don't turn any corners against Andorra.
You turn a corner when you beat Russia in Moscow or Croatia at the new Wembley. Not when you play one of the world's worst teams.
Andorra is a straight line country. You play them. You win. You go home. You forget about them. You certainly don't hold up three points against them as some sort of moral victory. Not unless you're desperate.
But McClaren is desperate. Because the hard truth is that no corners were turned in Barcelona. The hard truth is that England are still in disarray on and off the pitch.
After the draw in Israel, at least two England players texted their club managers and asked if there was any chance they could concoct an excuse to get them home because the atmosphere in the squad was so bad.
No corners turned there. None, either, when McClaren went through all manner of contortions to pretend he hadn't dropped Frank Lampard when the rest of the squad knew he had. Nice one, that. Real mark of a strong manager who's turning things around.
All that achieved was losing the respect of Lampard, who was angry McClaren tried to drop him on the pretence of not wanting to risk his arm injury, and making the rest of the squad wonder what the hell was going on.
I'm sorry but there have been too many gaffes like that. Too many signs of weak leadership, stultifying caution and indecision.
Many of those who are bending over backwards to cut McClaren some slack now, attempted to destroy Sven Goran Eriksson for lesser weaknesses. I'm not being a bully when I say that. I'm not jumping on a bandwagon. I'm not sharpening my knife.
I don't like some of what is happening to the England manager but, sadly, I don't like most of what is happening to his team either.
That's the point McClaren missed so completely when he said he wouldn't be driven out of the job by the hate mob. The thing is, unless he improves the way England are playing, the hate mob won't come into it.
England's qualifying performances these past few months are not down to the thugs who were spitting their poison at McClaren last Wednesday.
They are down to him.
'After the draw in Israel, at least two England players texted their club bosses to try and get them home'