When Steve McClaren’s name was first linked with the Dundee United manager’s job, it appeared to be as random and implausible a potential footballing marriage as you could imagine.
Here was a former England manager, a year off his 60th birthday, never having worked in Scotland in a long coaching career being interviewed to lead the Tangerines into a season that could define the club’s direction of travel for a generation.
United have often, probably too often, been fond of appointing a man with Tannadice connections but McClaren seemed to be far removed from that profile.
Go back through his playing, coaching and managing career, however, and you can find a tangerine and black thread to it.
Eric Nicolson looks at five former United men whose paths have crossed with the favourite to succeed Robbie Neilson.
1. Ralph Milne
Everybody knows about the story of Milne’s improbable and underwhelming stint at Manchester United. The scorer of the most famous and celebrated Dundee United goal of all time was plucked out of the English Third Division by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1988, when his performances for Bristol City suggested that the flame the former Aberdeen manager remembered burning so brightly in the many New Firm clashes of the early 80s still had enough heat in it to take a chance with a modest transfer fee of £170,000.
The McClaren connection? The two men were team-mates and said to be best friends at Ashton Gate. The Yorkshireman, a cultured midfielder, albeit nowhere near the quality of Milne, didn’t know it at the time but his career was also coming to an end at that point – cut short by injury in 1992, the same year Milne hung up his boots.
2. Christian Dailly
Maybe it was because of the stories Milne told him in the Bristol changing room or maybe because he knew through his early coaching work that Jim McLean was one of the great British football innovators of his time, but when Christian Dailly was sold to Derby County in 1996, Jim Smith’s assistant manager wanted to tap into the future Scotland international’s inside knowledge of the great man.
Dailly recalled: “I didn’t know who Steve McClaren was when I joined Derby. Jim Smith said: ‘I’ve got this fantastic coach who’s going to be the next big thing’. He was very impressive, with imaginative, high-tempo training sessions, and he was into the Prozone type of computer analysis, way before most people. Steve dealt maturely with players and was always looking to expand his knowledge. He used to ask me about Jim McLean’s methods at Dundee United.”
If Dailly played a small part in furthering McClaren’s coaching excellence with his McLean titbits, McClaren played an even bigger part in taking Dailly’s career to the next level. He would go on to be a regular in the Premier League with a number of clubs and a Scotland hall-of-famer.
3. John Rankin
Loved by Dundee United fans, John Rankin started out as a young professional with Manchester United.
As he progressed through the world famous academy that produced the Class of 92, the midfielder trained with the first-team squad, which included the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
McClaren – arguably Ferguson’s most successful assistant ever – was highly rated by the Red Devils superstars, with Roy Keane raving about the coach’s sessions in his autobiography The Second Half.
A senior appearance at Old Trafford didn’t happen for the recently-retired Rankin but it gave him a grounding for a successful and long career back in Scotland.
4. Johnny Russell
Reared and revered at Tannadice, Russell was also adored in the East Midlands. Like Dailly before him, the forward advanced his career after making the move south to Derby. Signed by Nigel Clough in the close-season of 2013 for £750,000, Russell got off to a slow start at Pride Park and it wasn’t until McClaren gave him regular game time the following season that he became, in the manager’s words, “the catalyst” for the Rams’ increasingly effective attacking play.
Russell went on to play over 180 times and score 30 goals before moving to the MLS in America but unfortunately in the pair’s time together at Derby, they agonisingly fell just short of securing promotion to the top flight on more than one occasion.
If McClaren does get the United job, Russell would be at the top of many fans’ lists of who they would love him to sign for next season.
5. Ian Cathro
McClaren built his reputation as an out-of-the-box and ahead-of-his-time coach and football thinker. A similar label was put on Ian Cathro as head of youth at United in his early 20s. Cathro went on to link-up with Nuno Espirito Santo in Portugal and Spain before McClaren appointed him to his backroom team at Newcastle United for his one season (actually, just less than one) in Tyneside. Nobody could describe that campaign as a success – McClaren was sacked and Rafa Benitez, who kept Cathro on the staff, wasn’t able to prevent relegation.
It hasn’t hindered Cathro, mind you.
Following a disappointing time in charge at Hearts (though, it doesn’t look nearly as bad now that we’ve seen what went wrong under Craig Levein and Daniel Stendel at Tynecastle last season) the Dundonian is back working and thriving with Nuno at high-flying, and possibly Champions League-bound, Wolves.