Talking Transfers x Inside Recruitment: Joe McClaren

Despite being just 35 years of age, Joe McClaren already has an extensive, impressing-looking CV within football.

The son of former England manager and current Manchester United assistant, Steve, has worked for clubs at home and abroad, notably taking on the role of Derby County’s head of recruitment, and is now working alongside them as head of football operations at New Era – a global player management agency.

McClaren never really had a burning desire to play or coach, but quickly realised that he could follow in his dad’s footsteps by exploring other behind the scenes roles – ones that were becoming increasingly replied upon in football with the development of modern technology.

“I was a late developer really, so I was never into playing, I could have stuck to it but it wasn’t right for me, and I knew that. I want to university and got into sport science and analysis, and I knew quite quickly that was something that I was really interested in,” McClaren explains in an exclusive interview with 90min.

“I think I had skills to be a coach, but it wasn’t something I was overly comfortable with but I did consider it. My family always pushed me to make sure I had looked at every aspect of something and I did, so I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. The analysis and scouting was the area I was really keen on and as it happens, it was maybe a bit of luck really that video analysis was really starting to become a major part of the game.

“I was looking into the teaching avenue, but I was doing internships within football throughout this period. At this point my dad was at Nottingham Forest and I did an internship with the video analysis team and I really enjoyed that. He then moved to Holland with FC Twente and it was just right place at right time. I went over to have a look and the analysis department were trying hard but it was fairly old fashioned and they were just looking at videos and recording them to watch players.

“I was able to come in, look at things like WyScout – which was just starting to be used within the game – and I was able to update that department. Even after my dad left, the club wanted me to stay and I did for another year, but at that point it was time for me to come back England.

“I knew the path I wanted to go down in terms of live and video scouting on the emerging talent front and I did that with a couple of clubs like Derby and Southampton and then moved into leadership roles, and again it was just timing – the structures were coming into place in football that suited me.”

In 2016, McClaren was appointed head of recruitment at Derby County, a club he has already worked for as a scout before joining Southampton.

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Mel Morris was owner of Derby County during McClaren’s spell / Tony Marshall/GettyImages

McClaren arrived at Derby during the Mel Morris era – one of English football’s most infamous club owners in recent years – and was there for significant ups and downs, ranging from missing out on promotion from the play-offs on three separate occasions and the turmoil of administration.

“Derby was a tough time,” McClaren admits. “I was gutted really as we got so close on a number of occasions, but constant changes and inconsistencies was a huge issue, we averaged about one manager-a-year and that is so hard on any club, although we did land some big name managers like Philip Cocu, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard.

“You spend time with a manager learning what he wants and getting used to them and then a new manager comes in and subconsciously, and not surprisingly, he does not want the old targets and you start again. Then you push your own targets and if he doesn’t like them, you can damage your own relationship so it was a bit like a tight rope. It got to the point where we were surviving these windows rather than planning and it is also things like every manager having their own styles, so the type of targets would change too.

“Then we went into administration and we actually probably did oue best windows when we were in trouble, and in some ways it helped as we could only target so many players. I would go to the manager with five centre-half options, so suddenly it meant club decisions were getting better and easier. But we worked very hard and we did some very good work.”

After spending his whole career working for clubs, McClaren decided in 2022 to switch codes and cross the divide into the agency world, taking on the role of head of football operations at New Era – a company Rio Ferdinand works alongside as an ambassador and mentor.

It was a completely different role to what McClaren had been used to but he was prepared to be ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ after receiving assurances about a potential return to clubs in the future.

“It got to that point where I was thinking about my future and the agency thing came up – I always loved the idea of following a player’s journey throughout his career. At a club you sign a player and hand them over, and its then in the lap of the God’s really and I liked the idea of following it through. I was dealing with agents on a daily basis and could see things changing and I thought with my club knowledge I could make an impact and offer something.

“So I put together a job spec and I targeted a few different companies and just over a year in, I am so happy with how things have gone. There are 100 players at the company now and you get to work with different ones, but at a club it is so intense and there are so many variables so I think I just wanted a refresh.

“One day you feel like a loan manager, then you are doing analysis on a player, then helping a 16-year-old on how to impress and then you are talking to a 30-year-old about what his last move could be. So it is such a range of things that I can bring my club perspective on and it is working well.

“My future is something I think about and I checked with people in the game before going into agency would it impact on me going back into clubs in the future. I spoke to a few people and I got assurances from many people that it would not impact at all – it has actually opened things up for me, it is a new thing for me. Even speaking to the media in this way is different to me and it has been a great experience for me so far.”

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Thomas Frank’s Brentford have been widely praised for their recruitment methods / Tom Dulat/GettyImages

In terms of recruitment and football, McClaren is clear in his belief that planning is crucial to any success and that a firm strategy must be deployed in order to get things right in the market.

“If you are going to do something, do it properly – the only way to use data is doing it properly and really get involved in it, Brighton and Brentford live and die by the numbers but they have the human aspect too, in terms of watching a player, which is also essential.

“It is about getting the right strategy in place that builds consistency. You can get this wrong and sign the wrong player, of course you can, there is not a perfect algorithm out there. But I believe that no matter what club you are at you have to have two big rules – you need to know what the club or manager want in each in position and plan accordingly, and the other one is to budget – you need to give these departments a proper budget for the markets they are working in. If you do these two things, I believe that is the path to success in recruitment.”


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