The heat is on Steve McClaren to improve Newcastle – and fast

Steve McClaren
Steve McClaren

On the way back to Tyneside, I passed through Texas.

Waking out of arrivals at Dallas Fort Worth airport is like walking into an oven.

Georginio Wijnaldum

Georginio Wijnaldum

Newcastle United felt the heat in the USA too.

It was stifling at times.

Things are a lot cooler now the team is back in England, but there’s a different kind of heat on head coach Steve McClaren.

The work done by McClaren and his new backroom team is yet to translate on to the pitch.

Certainly, the starting XI he named against Portland Timbers this week will bear no relation to that which takes on Southampton at St James’s Park on August 9.

However, with the new season a little over two weeks away, Newcastle’s players must start to take what they have learnt on the training pitch and show it in the club’s remaining three pre-season friendlies.

And new signings Georginio Wijnaldum, Alexsandar Mitrovic and soon-to-be-confirmed Chancel Mbema must quickly assimilate themselves into the group.

Certainly, midfielder Wijnaldum looks to be halfway there.

Having joined the squad in middle leg of the club’s USA tour California, Wijnaldum already looks to be comfortable off the pitch.

And we got a glimpse of what he can do on the field at Providence Park, where he scored his first goal.

McClaren wants United to play from the back and move the ball forward quickly.

Yet the team has struggled to do that in the absence of captain Fabricio Coloccini, while Steven Taylor, his likely defensive partner, has been limited to just 45 minutes so far. Certainly, McClaren’s starting XI at Bramall Lane on Sunday will tell us a little more about his plans.

The work assistant coach Ian Cathro, previously at Valencia, has been doing on the training pitch has been aimed at getting the ball forward quickly.

United have only done that in fits and starts up to now, though McClaren hasn’t had all his personnel available.

It takes time, though time is running out.

McClaren – who has been doing a lot of work with the back four – admitted there’s never enough time in pre-season during the tour.

Speaking behind a lectern in the bowels of Providence Park in the early hours of Wednesday morning, he said: “You’re never close enough and you never have enough preparation time.”

The situation is more acute given that it is McClaren’s first pre-season at the club.

Also, he has only had the chance to work with one new arrival – Wijnaldum – so far.

The players McClaren inherited seem to be buying into his ideas.

They’ve been energised and enthusiastic in the heat of an American heatwave.

McClaren was also using the USA tour to assess his squad, and in particular the fringe players.

Decisions will now have to be made.

Some will go on loan, some will be sold. There will need to be outgoings.

The tour was a chance for the likes of Adam Armstrong, Gabriel Obertan, Gael Bigirimana and Shane Ferguson to impress.

And it was as much about what they did behind the scenes on the training field.

The other strand to the USA tour was what it meant for the club itself.

Was it a case of simply following the money?

Or was Newcastle’s decision to cross the Atlantic part of a longer-term attempt to establish itself – its brand – in a rapidly-growing football market?

The club wasn’t involved in the kind of promotional activities that club’s like Manchester United and Chelsea routinely engage in on tour.

But it did engage with its USA fanbase in Milwaukee and Sacramento.

However, how it is portrayed abroad is influence by many factors, the most obvious being what happens on the pitch every week.

But that’s not the only one.

In Portland, I was reminded of the club’s decision to withdraw food from the Press room at St James’s Park.

It was a petty, if not entirely unexpected, move for a club which has had strained relations with the media for some time.

At Providence Park, food and drinks were laid on for journalists.

A Portland Timbers official said it was a “small thing” the club could do to help maintain good relations with those who report on it. Basic PR, really.

Premier League regulations say clubs must provide “refreshments” to journalists, so United got away with providing tea and coffee.

Of course, there wasn’t much sympathy from fans, who have to pay for their food.

But it didn’t do much for the club’s PR.

I missed one home game for a wedding in Miami last season. Fortunately, it was shown live in the USA.

The commentators ridiculed the club for taking the Press room food away.

If the club is serious about building its brand in the USA, is that how it wants to be portrayed to millions across the Atlantic?